Vlora is a coastal city in southwestern Albania. It has 120,000 inhabitants and is, after Durres the country's largest port. Vlora exports petroleum, fruit, olives, and olive oil. Important commercial sectors include fishing, olive oil refinery, rice milling, salt, tannin extraction, cement, and soap manufacture. Recently Vlora has become important internationally as the final destination of a planned oil pipeline, transporting oil from the Caucasus to Europe. Tourism plays a growing role in Vlora's economy. The town's beaches attract an increasing number of holidaymakers.
Founded in the 6th Century BC Vlora was originally known as Aulon. Renowned for its vineyards, olives and salt, Aulon became the main port of Illyria after the decline of Apollonia and Oricum. The town changed hands frequently, being controlled, at one time or other, by the Byzantines, Normans, Serbs, Venetians and Turks.
Vlora was the site of the National Assembly of Albania's declaration of Albanian independence in November 1912, and subsequently became the country's first capital. In the War of Vlora, 1920, the Albanian army surrounded the city forcing the withdrawal of the Italian forces, that had refused to relinquish the city. Vlora was once more at the centre of political change, when a committee was formed in the city in 1924, leading to a revolution against King Zog's rule and the establishment of Albania's first democratic government.
Vlora continued its long tradition of leading protest in 1997, when the collapse of the pyramid investment schemes under Sali Berisha's administration, caused many to lose their life savings and plunged the country into economic turmoil. The city was at the centre of demonstrations and riots, which spread to other cities across the country. Police and military stockpiles of weapons were plundered by crowds who proceeded to form local militias. James Pettifer and Miranda Vickers describe the situation at the height of the crisis:
"In Vlora an estimated 15,000 men were now under arms and the military initiative moved back to the rebels again, after the previous two weeks had seen a relative stabilisation in favour of the government. In a desparate bid to contain the rebel assault the government concentrated soldiers north of the Vjoses estuary to try to hold the road but were attacked and driven away by a Vlora insurgent force under the leadership of Zani Caushi, a local paramilitary leader from a well-known Vlora criminal family resident in the Cole district of the town."
(Vickers and Pettifer, The Albanian Question 2007)
An estimated 2000 people lost their lives in the anarchy and violence that threatened to escalate into civil war and eventually led to the government being voted out of power.
Beach in Vlora
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Vlora emerged as the hub of a human trafficking and smuggling network. Traffickers extorted huge sums; 1300-1500 Euros according to Albanian Police estimates, from desperate immigrants wishing to cross the strait to Italy. They would then be crammed on to speedboats and ferried across the Adriatic by night. Many drowned. A 2004 article by Neil Barnett gives an insight into Vlora's speedboat business:
"The smugglers cross in rough seas at night and when the seas are up, the boats are invisible to radar and the naked eye", Ilir Manco, [commander of the Vlora Naval District] said."Even if the boats are spotted they move at between 35 and 70 knots, which is far faster than most of our boats. Sometimes they even outpace helicopters." […]
"Until the government cracked down in 2003, the speedboats used to wait in the harbour like taxis." […]
"Lack of resources is not the only factor preventing the authorities from catching the traffickers. Corrupt officials also turn a blind eye at frontier crossing points. The rash of incongruously flashy and empty apartment buildings springing up on Vlora's run-down streets suggests some people have large sums of cash to clean, as do the new BMWs and Mercedes cruising the grimy boulevards with blacked-out windows."
(Neil Barnett, IWPR, Traffickers risk death on Albania's high seas)
Soon Vlora's speedboats began transporting drugs as well as people. Illegal migrants from outside Albania came to outnumber the refugees from Albania. An article in Al-Ahram Weekly cited "reports from the Italian police that show only 7,000 out of the 49,000 illegal immigrants caught are Albanian." The boats of the Italian police forces, the Guardia di Finanza proved unable to combat effectively the speedboat traffickers:
"I sometimes make the three-hour trip three times a day," says one speedboat driver, who has been in this business for the past six years."But we face dangers, particularly from the Italian Finance Guard who patrol the waters. Some of our boats have more than one engine, so that we are able to run away from the Italians." He claims there are between 70 to 80 speedboat drivers in Vlora."
(Zeina Takieddine, Al-Ahram Weekly)
Under pressure from Italy, the Albanian government banned speedboats in April 2006. Some local observers suggest that former traffickers have invested their profits in legitimate businesses such as hotels, restaurants or real estate.