After February 17, 2023, Albanian citizens can travel to China without visas. This diplomatic, as well as strategic step has prompted the reaction of the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tritan Shehu, who warns of serious geopolitical consequences for Albania. Faktoje brings an analysis of the expected economic benefits, but also the inconsistency of this decision with the EU visa policy, according to experts. Meanwhile, no representative of the parliamentary majority agreed to comment on this topic and especially on the strengthening of China’s role in the Western Balkans and the impact on security issues.
Through the Decision of the Council of Ministers dated December 27, 2022, the agreement between the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Albania and the Government of the People’s Republic of China was approved in principle for the mutual waiver of visas for holders of public officials’ passports and ordinary passports. But the former Foreign Minister and currently an MP of the Democratic Party, Tritan Shehu, criticized this decision.
“Removing visas with China is an unforgivable political mistake, with serious consequences for Albania. This is a very negative signal for the EU and our path of integration”, Tritan Shehu declared on December 28, through a post on Facebook.
Screenshot, Tritan Shehu’s Facebook post, December 28, 2022
Mr. Shehu’s statement contains an inherent concern about the impact of the decision to lift visas with China, on the European integration process, and on the market situation.
Faktoje addressed a request for information to the MIA regarding this decision, asking on what basis did the Albanian government decide on the reciprocal lifting of visas with the People’s Republic of China.
Request for information sent to MIA, February 6, 2023
We received a response from the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs on February 13, which, among others, states:
“We recall that the conclusion of this agreement came as a necessity to respect the principle of reciprocity between the parties, since Chinese citizens were unilaterally allowed to enter the territory of Albania without visas, by decision no. 858, dated 29.12.2021, of the Council of Ministers, ‘On determining the criteria, procedures, and documentation for the entry, stay and treatment of foreigners in the Republic of Albania’, as amended”.
Faktoje talked to experts on integration issues, who explain from their point of view the advantages and disadvantages of free movement between the two countries.
The executive director of the European Movement in Albania, Gledis Gjipali, sees the decision positively, especially in terms of bilateral trade relations.
“I think that the decision is in line with the country’s interests, based on the economic and commercial ties, but also the historical ones we have with China. It should also be noted that this is a mutual agreement that creates facilities for the citizens of both countries. Also, the visa policy is an area intertwined between the obligations we have as a result of the integration process and the diplomatic relations that are part of the country’s sovereignty with the way each country develops its relationships with other countries”, the expert emphasizes.
In relation to this issue, Nirvana Deliu, an expert on integration issues, says that economic interest may be the main impetus that has influenced this decision.
“There is still not much information on where the decision of the Albanian government to lift visas for the citizens of both parties is based. Economic interest can be seen as the main impetus, where China is actually present not only in Albania but in the entire Western Balkans region with various investments and projects, and this leads to an increase in its geopolitical influence in this region.
Another element is tourism, due to the high number of the Chinese population, this can open the way for new opportunities to have this population as potential tourists in our country. It remains to be seen how this will be translated into figures during the following months, especially during the summer months”, argues Deliu.
However, beyond the positive impact it may have on the economy, experts acknowledge the inconsistency of this decision with the EU visa policy, with which Albania has already opened membership negotiations.
“This decision is not in accordance with the visa policy of the European Union, a policy which our country is committed to aligning and complying with until the time of membership. However, other countries also have different policies that deviate from that of the European Union, but the obligation is that until the moment of membership we must have the visa regime compatible with that of the European Union”, explains expert Gledis Gjipali.
Meanwhile, researcher Deliu emphasizes that an element that is evaluated and monitored in the EU during Albania’s integration process is the Visa Policy, which is part of Chapter 24 of the EU Acquis ( Justice, Security, Freedom ).
“The EU has a clear policy of visas and liberalization with third countries. There are two EU lists related to this issue – the 61 countries with which the EU has liberalized visas (so the citizens of these countries have the right to enter the EU/Schengen Area without the need for a visa for a period of up to 90 days) and the rest of countries are on the next list where a visa is required to enter the EU. China is also on this list. On the other hand, the EU requires countries aspiring to become part of the EU to have these two lists harmonized as well. It is not the first time that Albania liberalizes visas with a country, while the EU has not done so.
This is worrying for the EU and in the last annual report under the Visa Liberalization Suspension Mechanism  , the EU requests that Albania avoid deviating from the EU list of countries that must have visas to enter the EU, explains Deliu.
According to the expert, this should be seen as a matter of priority, as well as care should be taken for those countries that may bring danger in terms of irregular migration or security.
“There have been cases where citizens of third countries who can move without visas in Albania, but not in the EU, have used this fact to enter the EU irregularly, bringing security problems for the entire Union”, Deliu emphasizes.
But, what risks does the decision for the mutual lifting of Albania-China visas bring? The executive director of the European Movement in Albania, Gledis Gjipali, says: “The risk that comes from the deviation of the list of citizens of the countries where they enter Albania without visas with that of the EU is related to the assessment made of the country during the negotiations, especially in the field of visas, which is chapter 24 and is one of the chapters that will be opened first and will be closed last in the entire process.
Also, Albania and several other countries are under monitoring in the framework of the evaluation report of the visa liberalization process, where continuous compliance with European legislation is required in this aspect as well, Albania may receive a negative grade, we can say, but it must be said that it is not the only place”.
Faktoje also contacted the members of the European Integration Commission, Mrs. Mimi Kodheli and Mr. Tomor Alizoti, but did not receive an answer. Also, we contacted the former Foreign Minister, Ditmir Bushati, and the former Deputy Foreign Minister, Erisa Xixho, but we did not manage to get an answer from them either about the mutual lifting of visas between the two countries and the geo-political impact of this decision-making.
What does the agreement for free movement entail?
On January 17, 2023, Albania and China signed an agreement for the mutual waiver of visas for the citizens of the two countries.
According to the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs in Albania, this agreement aims to facilitate the flow of movement between citizens of both countries, for people who are holders of ordinary passports and holders of passports of public officials for the Chinese side.
“The agreement has been proposed by the Chinese side and will have a positive effect on facilitating movement and increasing contacts between the citizens of both countries, as well as serve as a further incentive for strengthening bilateral relations in all areas of common interest”, says, among others, the Ministry in its announcement. With the entry into force of the agreement, Albanians can stay visa-free in China for up to 180 days.
China, a trade partner of Albania
In June of last year, Faktoje reported that the year 2022 marked an increase in Albania’s exports to China, to the extent of 67%. Official data from INSTAT show that China is “taking” chromium and copper ores and concentrates from our country. The increase in export figures was announced in April by the Chinese ambassador to Albania, Zhou Ding, who described it as an indicator of friendship between the two countries.
Whereas, in December 2022, INSTAT reported that in the 11th month of that year, Albanian goods exports to China reached the value of 8.2 billion ALL, from 7.2 billion ALL exported in the 11th month of 2021, ranking China as the partner of the fifth merchant.
Fear of Chinese Influence in the Balkans
In a Faktoje analysis published on December 27, 2022, based on an edition of the academic journal Per Concordiam, which focuses on security and defense issues in Europe, China may use trade agreements with the Western Balkans to enable Chinese companies to bypass trade restrictions and export products directly to the EU market of 800 million inhabitants, thanks to the free trade agreements that the countries of the Western Balkans enjoy with the EU.
In fact, infrastructure investment has always been China’s target in the region, given the urgency for investment in this sector, as well as the lack of cash. A BIRN investigation shows that China has invested some €32 billion in the region between 2009 and 2021, most of it in major infrastructure projects. It has also tried to expand its influence through initiatives such as ” One Belt One Road ” (also known as the New Silk Road) or the 16+1 initiative, a wider cooperation system between China and the countries of Eastern and Central Europe. In recent years, Beijing has made inroads into the Western Balkans under its massive Belt and Road investment program, offering an attractive alternative to countries that seem tired of the EU’s long wait.
*This article was produced as part of the regional initiative the Western Balkan Center Against Disinformation
Edited by: Viola Keta & Aimona Vogli