Tirana Times - http://tiranatimes.com/
By Albert Rakipi
TIRANA, Sep. 13 - A collective disease is affecting Albanians en masse -- gambling. All the signs are in place. An aggressive industry made up of casinos, sports betting shops and bingo parlors has invaded conquered large parts of Albania. This modern epidemic is affecting all Albanian cities and towns - regardless of size. In big urban areas or the smallest village -- gambling, the new national sport, is there. From youths to the elderly, it is affecting everyone. Even women and girls, long ignored by the industry, have joined in places like Tirana.
In this capital city of ours, gambling is present in every neighborhood, public space, and most of the ground floors of buildings on main and secondary streets.
Sadly, if there is one area in Albania where the market economy is showing its ability to proliferate - gambling would it. Clients and profit numbers just keep getting higher.
Clearly, something needs to be done against gambling. Few would argue about the social ills that come with gambling. In Albania itself, there is growing evidence that gambling is one of the factors in the latest growth of criminality and family conflict. Gambling is becoming a threat to the very foundation of Albanian society - foremost for the poor and unemployed. But they are not the only ones affected.
Albania's gambling problem stems from the fact that Albanians are drawn like to the moth to the flames to schemes that promise to make one rich overnight without a lot of work. This is true for many people and goes beyond the army of the poor and unemployed. The concept of getting rich quick without without shedding a drop of sweat has become the focus for many. As a result, many monthly salaries and the mortgage payments go to the neighborhood gambling shop instead of families.
Gambling is substituting the real concept of the market economy in Albania, and this is troubling because we have seen it before: In 1997 Albanians demolished the economy by falling for pyramid schemes - in essence a type of different gambling and get-rich quick scheme.
Like the gambling shops of today, the pyramid schemes of 1997 were legal under the laws back then. But unlike 1997, today's gambling has returned in its most classic, universally-known and attractive form - as such it is legal, pays taxes and is based on legitimate procedures, document and contracts. It's even sold as a European business model - and who doesn't want to be European?
One thing is clear - something needs to be done against gambling as it invades our city bit by bit, chocking all other services citizens deserve. Nothing appears able to compete with the gambling industry. With exception of Tirana, where traditional drinking holes offer beer and barbequed kofte meatballs and the cafes in the trendy Bllok neighborhood no other business can stand against the tide of gambling shops and sports betting parlors that are taking over across Albania.
At Sami Frashëri Street, for example, there was a shoe repair shop, appearing at first sight to be a relic of the communist era, but in fact it was quite useful to the neighborhood and there was always a line of customers waiting to be served. It is now gone. It's a sports betting shop now. Same thing with the tailoring and alterations shop nearby, run by two talented ladies. It is now a small casino - the seventeenth one to open in the Bllok area.
Then there are the dying bookstores. In the last three months, four closed down shop in Tirana alone. Linos was the first to go. It was located at the heart of Bllok and surrounded by gambling and gamblers. Students would walk by without turning their heads on their way to the casinos and sports betting shops. The bookstore next the National Library was privatized. It is gone too.
The Tirana Times Bookstore itself, perhaps the most beautiful and inviting in the city closed its doors too -- the space surrounded by gambling and gamblers.
Although only 20 square meters big, Tirana e Re Bookstore at Wilson Square was among the most competitive in the city. But recently those 20 meter squares were auctioned and sold for 270 million leks. Do we dare to ask what successful business would take up 20 square meters where each meter square costs 10,000 euros - what else but a gambling establishment.
Doing something to stem the tide of gambling in a country like Albania is not easy. These shops mostly operate legally, but they are also an ideal way for criminals to launder money. Albanians didn't invent the wheel in this, it is something that has taken place elsewhere for a long time, and weak states like Albania are easy to capture.
A lot of people and institutions can do something to stop the gambling tide - lawmakers, state institutions, tax officials, schools and religious institutions - and above all - all those who love the community they live in.
A first step has been made. Tirana Mayor Lulzim Basha, has charted a plan for the City Council to push all gambling shops to designated areas in the outskirts of Tirana. Let's hope this plan succeeds. Let's hope that the owners of the gambling shops in the city are willing to vacate the city itself. And if not, let's hope they are compelled to do so by law.
The important thing is that the sign has gone up -- this city stands against gambling.