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Ekonomia

Gjikuria refuses to return the IPARD funds with which he made a resort, media oligarchs and journalists are suspected to be hiding behind him, here are the accusations and details from the file that is under investigation by SPAK and OLAF

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The European Union has cut off 146 million euros of IPARD 3 grants in aid of Albanian agriculture due to suspicions of corruption. This situation has alarmed the local authorities who have started an in-depth investigation into the distribution of funds. The abuse of EU funds turns out to be suspected to be "scary", while the AZHBR found 98 subjects in violation and demanded the return of total or partial sums. Some of them have been returned, but the Coast to Coast company, owned by the Gjikuria family, which received a grant from EU funds because it did not respect the terms of the contract, has refused to return the money and now AZHBR sent the case to court. It is said that Xheni Gjikuria, the wife of Florenc Gjikuria, took 190 thousand euros from the EU funds for agriculture with one hand, building a villa in Dhërmi. The contract resulted in a farm, but in the end the resort was completed. In these corrupt affairs of the Gjikuria family, which are being investigated by SPAK and OLAF, it is suspected that journalists, senior government officials and a media oligarch are involved.

How did the international investigations begin?

On May 4, 2021, a witness from Tirana connected through the Skype application with Brussels to denounce a history of abuse of the funds of the aid program for agriculture, IPARD II and the Agency for Agricultural and Rural Development, AZHBR. On one side of the computer was Romeo Nazarko, 43 years old, geodesic engineer by profession and property expert in Tirana, while on the other side two investigators of the European Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF, the only institution mandated to investigate and stop fraud with funds European Union. Nazarko had applied in 2019 to AZHBR to provide support for the development of an area of ??23 hectares of land in his hometown in Erseka where he planned to plant chestnuts, hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds in a development chain system with the residents of the area. But his application was rejected by AZHBR. With a voluminous file on his office desk, Nazarko said two years later that he believed he was disqualified because he did not follow the 'path of corruption'. "I followed the EU guidelines for applicants and made a super complete file. But I had divided my mind; zero tips,” he said. Three years of OLAF investigations prompted the European Commission to suspend Albania's most important agricultural aid program in mid-July, due to suspicions of corruption.

Letter from OLAF

In a letter sent to the Albanian government, the General Directorate for Agriculture and Rural Development announced that OLAF has identified serious irregularities and deficiencies in the granting and implementation of IPARD II projects in Albania, while AZHBR has failed, according to them, to exercise appropriate controls. "Some projects financed as part of the IPARD II program were found with irregularities, such as the artificial creation of conditions to obtain higher grants, illegal connections between bidders, inflated prices, failure to maintain original documentation, investments built in a different country from the grant contract, false offers, etc.," the European Commission's letter to the Albanian government reads. Frida Krifca, who headed the AZHBR in the years 2017-2021, relativized the problem during a speech in the Assembly, where, unlike the European Commission's letter, she claimed that only one payment had been suspended. "Three years of administrative investigations have been carried out, but a report of the findings has not yet been produced today. We have cooperated with OLAF in the investigation and we welcome any recommendations for correction to implement to further improve the processes,” said Krifca, while rejecting suspicions of corruption. The European Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF, is not the only institution that was involved in investigations into the way the funds of the IPARD II program were managed by the Agency for Agricultural and Rural Development. In June 2020, OLAF also engaged the Albanian prosecution through an information and request for an investigation of AZHBR funds, but the case remained pending and there is still no result.

Denunciation to OLAF

The IPARD program offers tens of millions of euros in aid to agriculture in Albania and in other member countries for candidacy. IPARD II, which was implemented between 2014 and 2020, provided Albania with over 71 million euros, while the IPARD III program was expected to increase aid to 146 million euros. The program mainly provides support for investments in the physical assets of agricultural farms, investments related to the processing and marketing of agricultural and fishing products, as well as the diversification of these farms. Romeo Nazarko said he complained to the European Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF, after all attempts to address his concern at local institutions failed. He also claimed that during this ordeal, different people had addressed him to the same AZHBR official to 'solve the problem'. Nazarko added that before his application was rejected, AZHBR had first asked him to refresh the documentation for 21 points, including the request for a certificate from the Environment Agency that his tree planting project would not cause damage to the environment - a request that, although he called it absurd, he fulfilled it. In a second response, AZHBR raised claims about the land lease contract with the municipality of Erseka and requested a sub-lease contract, which according to him was not in accordance with the EU guidelines. "During this time I had suffered a loss of 20 thousand euros," said Nazarko, while adding that he had warned the leaders of AZHBR during a meeting that he would file a complaint with OLAF. But the calmness of the abusers of EU funds was about to end, since if SPAK does not close the investigations on Frida Krifca and her 7 subordinates by April 2024, EUROJUST prosecutors will take this matter into their own hands, calling the accused to Brussels. And if they refuse to appear voluntarily, mandatory international legal forms and tools will be used to investigate and judge them in isolation there. A few days ago, Altin Dumani, the head of SPAK, received a reminder letter from the European Office Against Fraud and Fraud of EU Funds, regarding the criminal complaint that this EU office made for the corruption of agricultural funds given to AZHBR in the years 2017- 2020.