ANILA HOXHA

The inflows of Russian citizens in Albania for tourism are reported to have doubled compared to 2015, which is considered a positive thing by local entrepreneurs.  But, intelligence and counter-terrorism services have long been on alert regarding the suspicious activities of some Russian nationals, whose entry does not appear to be accidental or for tourism purposes. Meanwhile, with the launch of the aggression in Ukraine, Albania, while joining the states that took austerity measures against Russia, reports sanctions against 52 entities and 654 individuals. There are currently 130 Russian citizens with residence permits in Albania, while there is an increased investment interest in the real estate field, especially those located on the coastline.

When Albania became the largest field of military training in the Western Balkans region, baptised as “Defender Europe 2021”, law enforcement agencies were being alerted to espionage activities. Under the lens of surveillance on any suspicious activity, the Counter-terrorism directorate referred to suspicious entry into Albania, in a secret material dated 21 May 2021, which is already available to Faktoje.

“It regards some foreign nationals with some suspicious activities during the NATO military training ‘Defender-21’, in which our army also participates.”

American soldiers, part of the “Defender Europe 2021” training, source Ministry of Defence

What is assuredly described by the authorities being on alert refers to an official letter where the agencies continuously exchange information about the suspected criminal activity of foreign nationals, with temporary residence and those of entering as tourists.

It was summer and moreover Covid times, however there was no lack of promotional invitations from institutions, which even during the pandemic did not restrain the seduction with the Albanian shores. According to official data, 36,475 Russian citizens entered Albania in 2021. Golem was also one of favourite places during this summer, as were Saranda and Vlora.

Artur Pasha who manages a bar in Golem, swears that he has learned a little Russian from Russian holidaymakers visiting his bar. However, the 53-year-old man says to Faktoje that he has not ascertained apartment purchases by Russians in this area.

“Maybe these purchases might have been done through third parties, but I cannot assuredly say so, as during the last seven years I have noticed an increased influx, except for 2020 when the whole world was restricted by Covid and tourism decreased significantly,” says Pasha.

Golem was marked in the fall of 2021 as the place where numerous investigative agencies landed after the mysterious death of four tourists from Moscow having family relations to each other, Sergey Burenkov, Natalia Burenkov, Ekaterina and Nikita Belousov. With all the constant suspicions, the circumstances have not yet been fully clarified by Kavaja Prosecutor’s Office  which is still investigating the murder charges in other qualifying circumstances, while investigative experiments have been conducted after suspicions of being asphyxiated by chlorine.

Agents and Tourists

While Russian tourists are among the most favourite ones for the businesses, there are also some people who are skeptical about it and, as a result, the intelligence services have an increased interest in observing them.

Two of them are also Russian citizens, Georgi Budanov and Vladimir Cherkasov. The official letters made available to Faktoje argue the reasons why the red alarm went on during the military training.

“According to the information available to the Counter-Terrorism Directorate, it turned out that a diplomat from the Russian Embassy in Albania, who visited Durrësi port, introduced himself as a ‘commercial attaché’ at the Ukrainian Embassy in Tirana, inquiring about trade exchanges between Ukraine and Albania, specifically for hydrocarbons. He is suspected of hiding the fact of being a Russian Embassy functionary, in order not to arouse suspicion in the persons he met and to make it easier to provide information on the troops and military vehicles that would land in the Durrësi port as part of the military training”- it is stated in the secret official letter of the Albanian Counter-Terrorism.

These documents illustrate that the first suspected Russian crossed the Albanian border in Qafë Thanë on 11 March 2021. His name is Georgi Budanov and entered Albania with a vehicle. Budanov raised suspicions not because of citizenship, but due to movements near military zones.

The secret document states:

“This citizen was noticed in the area of Orikum in Vlora pretending that he was looking for a suitable place to invest in the construction of a resort with alpine houses. “Budanov was seen walking from Orikum to Karaburun mountain up to the behind areas of Pashaliman military base”.

Explanatory photo of military training by the sea, Source – Ministry of Defence

Reports from counter-terrorism agents persuade Vlora Regional Directorate of Border and Immigration to summon the person in question for an interview. It is officially stated for Faktoje that the Russian citizen confrontation with the regional authorities took place on 1 May 2021.

He has expressed his plans for investments in Albania. After the interview, the regional office communicated to Budanov the administrative order of expulsion number 617 dated 1 May 2021 with the motivation that he does not meet the conditions to stay, referred to Article 109/a of the Law on Foreigners and must leave the Albanian territory within 7 days, from Muriqan or Qafë Thanë border crossing points. The Tims system shows that Budanov left Albania nine days after this decision, on 10 May 2021.

Article 109

  1. The interim measures are taken by the local authority responsible for the border and migration to prepare or ensure the implementation of an order on the expulsion of the foreigner from the territory or to supervise his departure.

The other Russian citizen, named Vladimir Cherkasov, crossed the Muriqan border to enter Albania, two days after Budanov’s expulsion. He entered Albania in a camper van with Czech license plates.

The secret document that Faktoje has shown that in the first communication with the checkpoint controller in Muriqan, he stated that he has come to Albania for tourism purposes in the city of Durrës. The next front-line check showed that this citizen had a drone in his van and he stated he had bought it with regular documentation and he will use it for tourism purposes in the coastline – was stated by the border police officers state in the minutes. The border police warned him that he could not enter Albanian territory with the drone and he handed over the drone to the Montenegrin police.

The same citizen, visited Albania on 17 May 2021 and left within the day, as referred by the counter-terrorism agents requesting investigations.

Actually, during May 2021, state structures were on alert due to military training and during the surveillance, since the beginning, they had discovered the suspicious journey of five Czech citizens, who after renting a van in the capital, were tracked by GPS while for seven minutes they stopped on the national road Berat – Ura Vajgurore, exactly where the military base was located. “Afterwards, their movement continued towards Kuçova’s direction on whose side is the border of the military base and further continued their journey to Lushnja, Fier, Tepelena, Përmet and Bënjë” – report the investigation officers. Cherkasov’s movements in Vlora coastal city, being accidentally the area where the “Defender” soldiers had landed, were also seen as weird. However, none of such movements came out for the real reasons of what was going on behind the scenes, as the violation of the pandemic rules was previously declared as an argument for the diplomatic expulsion of a Russian official.

The Foreign Ministry announced the deportation and the 72-hour deadline for Alexey Krivosheev. In the official announcement, dated 21 January 2021 of the Ministry herein, it was said that certain individuals with diplomatic status violated the Anti-Covid measures.

Since April 2020, but even at the beginning of this year, the Albanian Government has had constant complaints and reports regarding the clear violations of the taken measures from a diplomat of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Tirana.

Senior representatives of the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs have contacted the Ambassador of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Tirana, Mikhail Afanasiev, expressing concern about the continuing violations of anti-COVID-19 measures by the diplomat. The MEFA welcomed and deeply appreciated the ambassador’s fully cooperative role on this issue, with the promise that these acts would not be repeated.

Unfortunately, contrary to the made promises, the diplomat continued to violate the measures, despite the expression of goodwill of both parties not to repeat such violations.

The repeated challenging of rules and protection measures against the pandemic, and the disregard of the Albanian state institutions related concerns cannot be justified and cannot be further tolerated.

The Albanian Government has ruefully taken the decision to declare the diplomat Alexey Krivosheev “Persona NON grata” (an unwelcomed person), with the obligation to leave within 72 hours from the moment of announcing the official notification.

We hope that this decision imposed by non-compliance with laws and rules of the Albanian state, in such a challenging time for the whole globe, will be fully understood by the Russian party, as a necessary measure for the protection of health and safety of all citizens within the territory of the Republic of Albania, whether these Albanians or not.

We assure the Russian party for our friendly feelings and for our readiness, following the good work started on the continuous improvement of the relations between our two countries.” – stated The Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs”.

Not long after that, this was seen as a provocation of international relations, not only in the Russian media reports, but also by the officials of the Russian Federation.

This turned out to happen several months before the development of the joint training “Defender Europe 2021” in Albania.

However, Albania was a favourite tourist destination for the other Russians and for the Ukrainians as well being a trend as long as only in 2021, there were registered 110 205 Ukrainian citizens entering Albania.

Officially in 2015, it is stated that 16,192 Russians entered Albania, in 2016 – 15,367 Russian citizens; in 2017- 17,160 Russian citizens; 2018- 24,915 Russian citizens; 2019 – 34,146 Russian citizens; 2020- 4,590 Russian citizens and 2021 – 36,475 Russian citizens.

However, Zak Topuzi, head of the Tourism Association, predicts a frozen situation for summer 2022 because it has been affected by the war in Ukraine.

“Albania has a Russian-speaking market of 100-120 thousand tourists that comprise about 2.5% of the total number of tourists. They have an importance because of the colour they give to the country as complementing the tourism. They are unpretentious tourists. This contingent will be missing to the country’s tourism for 2022. The Agreements signed for 2022 have been about 30% higher in number awaiting a gradual consolidation of the industry, but the conflict in Ukraine has somewhat shaken the situation. “International partners have continued selling Albanian packages even now and so far, there has been no withdrawal of any group, except of those being at the heart of the conflict, i.e., the Ukrainians, including polish people.”

The Chamber of Commerce reports that according to the National Business Centre, by November 2020, there are 41 Russian businesses registered in Albania.

“They are mainly located in Tirana and Durres and operate in the field of trade, construction and exploration, production, extraction of oil refining; in the tourism and services sector; in import and export and in equipment machineries. “Some of these businesses have joint capital while its capital value is very low,” – said Nikolin Jaka, Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Albania also joined the European Union package of restrictive measures against Russia after the attack in Ukraine including finance, economy and transport sanctions, specifically against 52 entities and 654 individuals. The announcement was publicly made by the Minister, Mrs. Olta Xhaçka warning that Albania shall continue to join any initiative and measure taken by its allies and partners, describing this as an obligation that every democratic country has today towards Ukraine and not just Ukraine.

Olena Mykhaylenko Zoto, a Ukrainian citizen, serves in the Department of Slavic-Balkan Languages as a Russian Professor at the Faculty of Foreign Languages in Tirana.  The well-known professor says that she felt welcomed in Albania where she started a family and does not feel any prejudice at all. ‘’ I’m married and I have two children. My life has been very quiet. It undoubtedly became even more beautiful once I became a university lecturer. The colleagues did welcome me in a friendly way and students even better. As far as difficulties are concerned, I can tell that learning Albanian language was difficult, but over time I absolutely learned it and my family supported me a lot. I actually feel very good in Albania, as I have not only my family here, but also, I have friends from Albania as from Ukraine and Russia as well. Albanians support me a lot, because they know me, they know my family and I have always been welcomed here” – said Mrs. Zoto  for “FAKTOJE”.

According to the Border Police official data, 130 Russian citizens have residence permits in Albania. Tourists are not counted.  However, the searches made by Faktoje showed that in addition to these Russian citizens, there are also others who have chosen Vlora and Saranda to invest in real estate, mainly in holiday apartments. Such data are only mentioned unofficially, as even real estate agencies did not accept to comment.

*This content is produced as part of the regional initiative Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub