The Cannabis Capital of the World

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Michael Ransom, Contributing EditorLast Modified: 06:45 p.m. DST, 24 June 2014

Marijuana Bud, Photo by Smokers High Life

LAZARAT, Albania -- This past week, the Albanian government waged a war against the large-scale cultivation of marijuana in the small town of Lazarat, which is 140 miles south of the Albanian capital. Lazarat has been called the 'cannabis capital' of Europe, and it comes by this title honestly. International officials estimate that the small village alone produces 900 metric tons of cannabis each year, which brings in over $6 billion annually.

The offensive began last Monday, 16 June, as Albanian special forces donned Kevlar vests and stormed the village in army vehicles designed to withstand automatic weapons and shelling attacks. Their protective gear proved important, as cartel-style gangs defended drug warehouses and weapons caches. The firefight lasted days, and on Wednesday, 18 June, police and rebels reached a ceasefire agreement.

In 1990 and 1997, the Albanian government was overhauled in order to address widespread corruption and centralized wealth. The new socialist administration has sought to join the European Union multiple times in recent years, but their intentions have not translated to EU membership for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most problematic aspect of Albanian admission is the cannabis industry.

For nearly two decades, Lazarat has made Albania the 'cannabis capital' of the European bloc, as their marijuana yield is distributed through nearby Italy and further westward. Armed with weapons seized during the 1990 and 1997 revolutions, gangs in Lazarat were omnipotent until last Wednesday. Similar problems may persist in other rural areas of Albania, but certainly not to the same extent as Lazarat.

While opposition to Albania's inclusion in the EU is centered around the production of marijuana, many Albanians see the industry as useful and profitable. Most in Albania would agree, however, that the gangs in Lazarat and other townships gain tremendous revenue through the distribution of marijuana, and these organized crime vehicles present a threat to residents of Lazarat and nearby locales.

The defensive volley of ammunition and explosives that were discharged from gang controlled safe houses is best explained by what is at stake in the standoff. The $6 billion industry in Lazarat alone totals half of the entire country's Gross Domestic Product. It is astounding that such a small village, located in a relatively small nation, could feed so much of the European marijuana market on its own.

More than marijuana, this move by officials in Tirana signals the eradication of small gang militias, which in a sense own and operate the small village of Lazarat. Those in charge in Tirana believe that the people of Lazarat will be better off without the coalition of gangs running the township, but that will remain to be seen. In the meantime, Albania is one step closer to association with the European Union.

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Albanian Women Swearing Virginity to Live as Men

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KRUJE, Albania -- In Albania, where culture is dictated by patriarchy, some women are taking vows of celibacy and living their lives as men.

These “sworn virgins”, or burrneshas in Albanian, save the honor of their families by becoming a proxy patriarch. As Albania modernizes and women’s rights improve, this dying custom is still being practiced by women in small villages.

The burrneshas, translated as “he-she”, custom is one that has existed historically in Albania, dating back to the fifteenth century. In the Balkan tribal communities, they followed a Kanun law, according to The Huffington Post. They also say, Kanun law is particularly restrictive towards women as it “prohibits women from voting, driving, earning money or wearing pants.”

This law also mandated that tribal clans had to outcast any families without a male figure. Because of internal tribal warfare, however, men in the families were often killed. Women in families then faced a dilemma, how they could maintain their family’s honor. If there was a virginal female in the family, though, they could to assume the role of patriarch and become a man to save the family.

Part of the burrneshas transition to becoming a man means taking an oath of virginity. A photographer who documented burrneshas, Jill Peters, wrote on her website about these women saying, “Becoming a sworn virgin or burrnesha elevated a woman to the status of a man and granted her all the rights and privileges of the male population.” She continued, “In order to manifest the transition, such a woman cut her hair, donned male clothing and sometimes even changed her name. [… ] Most importantly of all, she took a celibacy vow to remain chaste for life.”

Even though these women are faced with the obligation of preserving their family’s honor by living a restricted life, unable to have a family of their own, they do not see it as a burden. Peters told Slate, “None of them had regrets. They’re very proud of their families, of their nephews and nieces.” Because of the sacrifice these women make, they are actually treated as respected individuals in their community.

In many cases, living as a burrnesha is liberating for Albanian women for whom marriages are arranged and lives restricted to the household. Pashe Keqi, a burrnesha, told The New York Times how she felt freer living as a man saying, “I was totally free as a man because no one knew I was a woman.” She continued, “I could go wherever I wanted to and no one would dare swear at me because I could beat them up. I was only with men. I don’t know how to do women’s talk. I am never scared.”

With modernization spreading in Albania, women are gaining more rights and with that the burrnesha tradition is diminishing. Thus, the older generations are believed to be the most authentic burrneshas because they were forced into the lifestyle—as opposed to women today that are not under as much pressure. Qamile Stema, the last burrnesha in her village told The New York Times, “We respect sworn virgins very much and consider them as men because of their great sacrifice. But there is no longer a stigma not to have a man of the house.”

Slate reports that actually only a few dozen burrneshas still practice, mostly in remote areas. As the country continues to modernize progress for women, the burrnesha tradition will become obsolete.

Follow Allyson on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Contributing Journalist: @allysoncwright

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Portrait of a Fugitive. Deposed Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych Flees

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KIEV, Ukraine - Days following a truce announcement which ended the bloody riots which rocked the Ukrainian capital, news outlets are reporting that the ousted leader is in fact now a fugitive.

As the sign held by the protesters to the right depicts, deposed President Viktor Yanukovych's flight into hiding came just hours before a warrant was issued for his arrest. By fleeing, Yanukovych conferred upon himself a dubious honor, as he joins the ranks of fallen leaders who failed to heed the voice of the people.

Leaders who may have transitioned from power with dignity, but chose to resist compromise, a position which ultimately paved the way for their own destruction.

Courtesy of the Global Post, recent despots who retreated in ignominy are listed below:

  1. Nicolae Ceaucescu, Secretary General of the Romanian Communist Party (1965 – 1989)
  2. Saddam Hussein, deposed President of Iraq (1979 – 2003)
  3. Muammar al-Gaddafi, Libyan Dictator (1979 – 2011)
  4. Hosni Mubarak, deposed president of Egypt (1981 – 2011)
  5. Ben Ali, deposed President of Tunisia (1987 – 2011)

On Friday, 21 February 2014, after meeting with opposition leaders, President Yanukovych, announced that he had signed a peace deal. However, it appears that shortly after closing the deal, Yanukovych recognized the writing on the wall and chose to flee into hiding.

There is speculation that Moscow, a once staunch supporter of Yanukovych during the deadly three-month standoff which resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries, recognized the futility of its calculated bid to bring the ex-Soviet nation back under its control. Yanukovych must have realized that he had lost both their confidence and support, and this may have been a deciding factor in his decision.

The peaceful uprising that turned violent earlier this month was triggered when Yanukovych under pressure from Russia, opted to cease political and trade deal discussion with the EU, in lieu of a $15 billion bailout to Ukraine from Russia. Ukranian citizens viewed this as a subversive effort by Russia to undermine Ukraine’s growth toward increased democracy.

Most Ukranians believed that this financial dependency would erode decades of political autonomy, economic expansion, and democratic freedoms realized since gaining their independence in 1990. Russia's offer of financial support was, in the opinion of most, a bid to once again impose a draconian style of rule reminiscent of the Soviet Union.

During the violent unrest, Moscow publicly decried the “treasonous” activities of the opposition, yet stopped short of sending military support to keep Yanukovych in power. When Yanukovych acquiesced to the opposition’s demands, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev immediately put distance between Russia and Ukraine by declaring that his government could not have full ties with a leader who was being tramped on like a "doormat.” The unrest in Ukraine is seen as a potentially destabilizing influence that could adversely impact Russia's interests.

It would seem that Yanukovych’s inability to suppress the opposition through any means necessary, no matter how heinous or distasteful, has been interpreted by the Kremlin as “biting the hand that fed him.” A new Ukrainian leader has not been appointed, and at this point Russia views any interim government as illegitimate. It remains to be seen if Moscow will honor its promised financial support or abandon all efforts to manipulate this sovereign nation back under its control.

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Deadly Ukrainian Riots Cease as President Yanukovych Declares Truce

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Ayanna Nahmias, Editor-in-ChiefLast Modified: 00:35 a.m. EDT, 20 February 2014

Ukrainian Riots , Independence Square, Kiev, Photo Courtesy of The Global MovementKIEV, Ukraine - Protesters who had been barricaded in the city’s trade union building which they were using as an operation base, remain steadfast in their cause, despite security forces deadly attack against them. Casualties have ensued on both sides as Tuesday at least 11 demonstrators and seven police officers were killed in the ensuing confrontations.

Security forces are reported to have set fire to the building, with the intent of forcing protest leaders out into the open where snipers could have a clear shot. According to The Independent, “opposition leader Aleksandr Turchinov was among those said to have been shot as he stood on the stage, but it was unclear how seriously he was hurt.”

Despite mounting pressure and international condemnation of the suppressive measures instituted by President Viktor Yanukovych, both sides remain resolute in their positions, as fires back-light the historic city of Kiev, and the epicenter of the violence – Independence Square, also known as the Maidan.

The opposition leaders are at least open to talks, and even U.S. Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged that the protestors have “legitimate grievances” which need to be addressed. According to The Independent, Biden called Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych and urged him to meet with and seriously consider the proposals for political reform that would lead to an end of the violence.

At issue is Ukraine’s potential return to Soviet governance, if not in fact, then as a political and economic expediency. Ukraine gained its freedom as an autonomous nation on 16 July 1990, when its’ parliament adopted “the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine. The declaration established the principles of the self-determination of the Ukrainian nation, its democracy, political and economic independence, and the priority of Ukrainian law on the Ukrainian territory over Soviet law. (Source: Wikipedia)

With the global economic meltdown, Ukraine, like many other countries suffered severe financial instability which required large amounts of capital infusion to keep the government solvent. Two solutions were on the table, and to the chagrin and amazement of the citizenry, President Yanukovych spurned a historic trade and political agreement with European Union in favor of a £9bn financial bailout from Russia.

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Published: 20 February 2014 (Page 2 of 2)

His decision effectively halted Ukraine’s steady march toward modernity and democracy, in favor of a return to the autocracy of the past. In response to his decision, and despite freezing temperatures, Ukrainians took to the streets in peaceful protest, but after nearly 5-months of silence from the government, peaceful demonstrations turned violent as frustrations grew with Yanukovych’s refusal to meet with opposition leaders or even discuss alternative solutions to solve the country’s financial problems.

The clashes ensued on Monday the 17th following an announcement that Russia's Finance Minister offered to deliver additional bailout funds to Ukraine, sparking fears that the move could pave the way for a Moscow loyalist as the new prime minister. (Source: The Independent)

The two opposition leaders - Vitali Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, were finally called to the President’s office for talks, but it is clear that both parties are on extreme ends of the spectrum with regard to a solution to cease the violence. Klitschko and Yatsenyuk are calling for President Yanukovych to resign and call early elections in advance of 2015 election cycle.

President Yanukovych remains defiant and has yet to publicly outline a plan to address the Ukrainian citizenry’s concern about the erosion of their civil rights. Nor has he openly admitted the high probability of the loss of Ukrainian autonomy should his government become deeply in debt and dependent upon the financial largess of Moscow. However, as of a few hours ago, a truce has been called and rioting has ceased as each side tries to stem the tide of violence.

It remains to be seen whether this ceasefire will last, but the issue of getting into bed once again with Russia is critical, though it will probably not be resolved during this first round of negotiations. Regarding Moscow, Yanukovych would do well to remember the following adages - relationships are like glass, sometimes its better to leave them broken, because when you try to pick up the pieces you always end up getting hurt; and if you bite the hand that feeds you punishment is sure to follow.

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Volga Ferry Boat Accident Claims Lives of Children

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Ayanna Nahmias, Editor-in-ChiefLast Modified: 23:38 PM EDT, 12 July 2011

VOLGA RIVER, Russia - 83 people are presumed drowned in Russia's Volga river after a ferry-boat accident this past Sunday.

To date the divers have retrieved the bodies of 16 children, 51 women and 16 men but many bodies remain trapped in the wreckage according to divers. 79 passengers were rescued by a passing riverboat just before the ferry sank beneath the surface. This tragedy is the latest international ferry accident with passenger deaths.

On July 7th a ferry sunk in Bangladesh killing 8 passengers after colliding with an oil tanker.  The accident appeared to be the result of human error.

The cause of the sinking of the 'Bulgaria', the name of the Volga ferry, has not been determined but improper safety procedures, maintenance and certification seem to be a contributory cause. The ferry was carrying 208 passengers which is 75 percent more than the 120 the boat was designed to transport.  Of these passengers, 50 were children who had gathered in the entertainment area of the ferry just before it sank.

Divers have retrieved the bodies floating in the river but claim to have seen the bodies of children trapped in the wreckage. A salvage mission to raise the boat from the bottom is scheduled for later this week.

The operators of the Volga ferry were not licensed to provide tour services.  Corruption and graft are suspected in this company's ability to continue to operate. Oleg Moseev, spokesman for the Russian Federal Agency for Tourism, Rosturism is quoted as saying 'neither the AgroRechTur company that held the lease of the Bulgaria, nor the Intur-Volga travel agency that sold the cruise tickets were listed in the Unified Russian Federal Roster of Tour Operators and that neither company was therefore insured.'

The statement appeared to be an attempt by the government to distance itself from any culpability in the matter. Russia declared today a nationwide day of mourning and memorial services will be held in all Russian Orthodox churches.

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