Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Lost in Albania

No, not me...

I'm safe and sound in beautiful downtown Tirana - with it's lovely brick-paved boulevards and tree-lined streets...

Alright - there are just two of those, and the rest of the place is a mess...

No, I'm fine - it's my luggage that's missing.

My flight from JFK was two hours late leaving New York, and so by the time we got to Vienna there was no time to switch the luggage to the plane bound for Tirana.

Otherwise, I'm having the time of my life...

Really I am...



Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Preliminary Assignment

Things are happening fast now - and I'm glad I got a jump on my travels...

In a very unusual development, I've received some idea of where I'll be doing my work over the next week in Albania - and it looks very interesting...

After staying at the Hotel Iliria for my briefing and training while in the capital city of Tirana, I'll be moving on to participate as an election observer in the city of Shkodra.

It has a very colorful history as one of Albania's oldest cities, an important economic and cultural center with around 81,000 inhabitants. It lies on the southern part of the plain of Mbishkodra, next to the Shkodra Lake (Liqeni i Shkodr's), between the rivers Drin and Bun', the mountain of Tarabosh, and the Rozafa Castle.

For a quick overview, visit or or google "Shkodra."

OSCE volunteers usually have no idea of where they will be staying or with whom they will be working until they arrive - so all of this could change by the time I arrive in Albania.

I'm due to arrive in Tirana at 12:40 on Wednesday afternoon - and after settling in and meeting my cohorts I'll fill you in.


Albania in the News

I've gotten regular updates on the events on Albania that relate to the upcoming election from Leslie Smith - the Director of Recruiting for PAE-REACT (the company that overseas American volunteers to the OSCE).
Here's what I got from her this morning:
"Some of you have already departed, but many of you will have a chance to see this prior to your mission. These clips are from the Southeast European Times:"

Albania's Parties Urged Not to Change Representatives in Local Election Bodies

TIRANA, Albania -- Ilirjan Celibashi, the head of the Central Election Commission, on Tuesday (21 June) urged all parties registered to participate in the 3 July parliamentary elections to avoid replacing party representatives to the regional election bodies. Celibashi noted that by law, political formations have the right to make such changes but he urged them not to, saying there is no time to train replacements. (Albanian News - 22/06/05)

US Encourages Albania to Hold Fair Elections

WASHINGTON, United States -- The 3 July elections in Albania are among the most important events there since the fall of communism, US State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Thursday (23 June). "Elections that meet international standards will be seen by the United States and the international community as evidence that Albania is making clear progress on the road to becoming a full member of the Euro-Atlantic community," he said. Ereli also praised Albanian political leaders for signing a code of conduct ahead of the vote.(Albanian news - 24/06/05; AP, Reuters - 23/06/05)

OSCE Warns of Problems in Albania's Upcoming Elections

TIRANA, Albania -- The 3 July elections could be marred by irregularities, the OSCE warned in a report released Friday (24 June). Despite an agreement between all major parties, the election campaign has become rancorous once again, with politicians accusing each other of misuse of government funds and vote buying, the organisation's monitors said. They also warned that authorities must still address issues related to voter lists and transporting ballot boxes. The elections are viewed as a crucial test of Albania's political maturity, in relation to its Euro-Atlantic bids. (Albanian News, Kathimerini - 25/06/05; AP - 24/06/05)

Polls Show Upcoming Albanian Election Too Close to Call

TIRANA, Albania -- The 3 July parliamentary election is too close to call, according to a second poll by Mjaft and Gallup that was published Sunday (26 June). Former President Sali Berisha's Democrats are projected to get 35 per cent of the vote, compared to 34 per cent for Prime Minister Fatos Nano's Socialists. The survey of 1,400 voters was taken from 13 June to 20 June. On Friday, Berisha told the German news agency DPA that he expects the Democrats to win "an absolute majority" in the 140-member parliament. (Kathimerini - 27/06/05; AP - 26/06/05; Albanian News - 25/06/05)

Monday, June 27, 2005

New York, New York

Greetings from the Big Apple!
I've begun my journey a little early, taking advantage of some flexibility in my schedule to lay over in NYC with my youngest brother Marc - who has lived here for a few years and just gotten a new apartment in Manhattan.  It's a somewhat cramped little place - but not as bad as New York apartments are rumored to be, and not nearly as cramped as a center seat would feel on tomorrow night's flight after a cross-country flight from Seattle. 
Tonight we made it out for some of the best coal-fired pizza to be found, at Lombardies on Mott & Spring streets, and then walked downtown to the WTC site.
Tomorrow evening I'll catch an overnight flight from JFK to Vienna - where I'll be changing planes for the capital of Albania - Tirana.
Once there, the 400+ volunteers from around the OSCE region will begin our briefing and training before being paired off, assigned a driver and translator, and sent off to somewhere in Albania to observe what will hopefully be a successful democratic election.
So - just for fun - I have no idea of where in Albania I'll be going, nor with whom.  Anyone want to venture a prediction?
I've been told by others who have done this before that the organizers try to keep the teams as diverse as possible - pairing volunteers of different genders from different countries, though not always.
So - will my teammate be a chap from Belgium?  How about a lady from Estonia?  An old guy from Ukraine?  A young Danish woman?  Or just another middle-aged American guy like myself?
Correct guess get a special present from Albania!

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Albania - but didn't know who to ask...


This pint-sized, sunny slice of Adriatic coast has been ground down by years of poverty, blood vendettas and too many five year plans, but Albania still manages to pack a wild punch of traditional Mediterranean charm and Soviet-style inefficiency.

It's a giddy blend of religions, styles, cultures and landscapes, from Sunni Muslim to Albanian Orthodox, from idyllic beach and rocky mountain to cultivated field. Relics from one of the longest dictatorships in Eastern Europe rub shoulders with citrus orchards, olive groves and vineyards.

Decrepit, Chinese-built factories stand next to breathtaking mosques; ornately decorated Orthodox churches face off 'Soviet Brutal' palaces of culture.

Kicked around by the Balkan big boys for millennia and turned upside down by its very own Maoist Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Albania is now tentatively embracing democracy, the outside world and a few foreign travelers. Some things won't ever change, though: the spectacular forested mountains, the warm Mediterranean sun, and the heart-rendingly blue waters of the Adriatic all endure the country's ups and downs.

Warning - The security situation in Albania is improving, although visitors should continue to exercise care and maintain a high level of personal security awareness. The northeast of the country, which borders Kosovo, is the only region travelers should avoid. Unexploded ordnance is still scattered through some parts of this region.

Full country name: Republic of Albania
Area: 28,748 sq km
Population: 3.5 million
Capital City: Tirana
People: Albanians, with Greek, Vlach, Macedonian and Roma minorities
Language: Albanian, Italian, English, Greek
Religion: Sunni Muslim (70%), Albanian Orthodox (20%), Roman Catholic (10%)
Government: Emerging democracy
Head of State: President Alfred Moisiu
Head of Government: Prime Minister Fatos Nano

GDP: US$15.69 billion
GDP per capita: US$4,400
Inflation: 6%
Major Industries: Cement, chemicals, food processing, hydropower, mining, oil, textiles and clothing, timber
Major Trading Partners: Italy, Greece, Germany, Belgium, USA, Bulgaria, Turkey, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
Member of EU: Application Pending


Want to know even more about Albania?

Check out the CIA World Factbook at - but keep in mind that these were they guys who accidentally targeted the Chinese Embassy during the Kosovo intervention, and though there were WMDs in Iraq...

Monday, June 13, 2005

Alphabet Soup - Navigating the Maze of International Organizations

Okay, so I've been contacted by PAE-REACT to serve as an STO on an EOM with the OSCE-ODIHR…

Exactly what does all that mean, and how did this happen?

First, some background…

Everyone who's ever known me has always known that I'm a C-SPAN watching geek - and anyone who's been involved in my life recently knows very well how politically aware I am.

Meanwhile, some of you with whom I haven't really kept in touch might be surprised at how my politics have evolved (hint - I just used the word "evolved…"). I'm not the conservative ROTC cadet that I was more than twenty years ago…

Although I've always kept up on politics, I didn't really get involved until fairly recently - shortly after moving to Gig Harbor, Washington a few years ago. Having become active in local politics, I was asked to participate as an observer during the manual-recount of the votes during our very close governor's election here last year. For those of you not in Washington think "Florida - 2000" but without all those "chads" in a governor's election that separated the winner by 129 votes out of nearly three million…

During that episode, I met some people who said "If you think looking over a vote counter's shoulders is fun here, you should try it in Albania…"

So, I'm going to go try it in Albania!

Not quite that simple, of course.

The United States is a member of the OSCE (Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe) - which is a group of 55 countries encompassing most of the northern hemisphere, including the U.S., Canada, Europe, and the former Soviet republics - though not the Middle East or southern or eastern Asia…

The OSCE is involved in a huge variety of projects - from arms control to border management to conflict prevention. Their website is

One of their very important programs is to assist the participating member states in building democratic institutions. This is done by their Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which is active throughout the OSCE area in the fields of election observation, democratic development, human rights, tolerance and non-discrimination, and rule of law.

The OSCE-ODIHR deploys Election Observation Missions (EOMs) to member states whenever those states request an OSCE presence to validate their elections as meeting international standards. Many Americans might be surprised that the OSCE-ODIHR deployed an Election Observation Mission to Ohio during the 2004 Presidential election.

OSCE missions are only deployed when there is a request by the host nation, and when there is a peaceful environment in which a democratic presence has been initially established. They are 100% safe.

So how did I end up on one of these "missions?"

To become a participant, I had to complete a very complicated application process with PAE-REACT….

PAE is a corporation that has a contract to provide staffing for democratization missions, and recruits qualified individuals for placement in a database that is used in hiring Americans to work in various OSCE positions.

REACT is the Rapid Expert and Assistance Cooperation Teams - which was created as a tool to enable the OSCE to deploy civilian experts more rapidly to the field to undertake activities associated with conflict prevention, crisis management and post conflict rehabilitation.

I'll be participating as a short-term-observer (STO) on a typical ten day mission to an OSCE member state to watch them set up polling places, cast their ballots, and count the votes. To get some idea of what my trip may be like, visit the "Week in the Life of an Election Observer" webpage at by clicking on "Photo Gallery" and then use the drop-down menu to choose "A Week In the Life".

On this particular mission, the United States is deploying 37 out of the 400 volunteer STOs to Albania for their Parliamentary election, while at the same time sending a similar number of STO volunteers to Kyrgyzstan for their presidential election.

Each county covers the expenses of their volunteers, including their roundtrip airfare and providing them with a stipend to cover the costs of their accommodations, meals, in-country transportation and pay for their translator. Basically, someone else is making all of the arrangements and paying for everything - all I have to do is the work.

OSCE, ODIHR, PAE, REACT, STOs, EOMs - you should know what they all stand for now.

Extra credit for anyone who knows what C-SPAN stands for - without using Google to look it up!

More Later,


Tuesday, June 07, 2005


There's no time like the present to try something new, so here it goes - dipping my toes into (or maybe diving head-first into...) the blogisphere!

Actually, I'm setting this up to see if it's a viable way for me to let my friends and family keep up with my life.

Rather than bombarding them with e-mails that they may - or may not - want to read, they can check in whenever they happen to be thinking "I wonder what Steven is up to?"

So - what am I up to besides setting up a Blog?

Well, the big news in my life right now is my impending trip to Albania.


Yes, "Albania!" he said.

"Why Albania?" the curious amongst you may ask - or "Where's Albania?" for the more geographically challenged...

Well, first, 'Albania' because I've been offered an opportunity to participate as a volunteer elections observer for the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and Albania is one of the former communist countries that has requested outside observers to help give their emerging democratic process some credibility.

Second, Albania is in Southeastern Europe between Greece, Macedonia and the former Yugoslavia.

Find a globe or map of the world - an admittedly difficult task for most people these days...

Find Italy - it gets easier, I promise...

Find the bottom of Italy - the part that looks like the heel of a boot...

Now look to the right - across the Strait of Otranto, which separates the Adriatic and Ionian Seas - and you'll find Albania!

You'll also be fully qualified to work for the U.S. State Department - and a far better nominee for U.N. Ambassador than John Bolton...

Alright - no politics for now - back to basics.

That spot you just found on the map is where I'm heading at the end of June, for about ten days of training and elections monitoring, leading up to their parliamentary elections on July 3rd.

Yes, I know - July 3rd is a Sunday. How can they have an election on a Sunday?

Easy. As messed up as they might be, they didn't have Founding Fathers who were so high on snuff that they decided elections should take place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November...

More - much more - to come...