LONDON (Reuters) - Albania expects another surge in tourists this year and the economy is making progress but Economy Minister Milva Ekonomi says it is reform of the justice system that is holding back European Union membership talks.
"If we are to have a future within the European Union, we are very aware that there are key priorities and one of the key priorities is justice reform," she told Reuters in an interview late on Thursday, adding that most citizens and businesses also saw it as a "must".
Albania is expected to grow a respectable 3.8 percent this year according to forecasts from the International Monetary Fund but the country is facing a political deadlock over justice system reforms ahead of parliamentary elections in June.
Several thousand members of the opposition Democratic Party (DP) and its lawmakers are camped out in an 800 square meter (955 square yards) tent in front of Prime Minister Edi Rama's office in a row over the running of the upcoming elections.
The DP are demanding a technocrat government be brought in to oversee the elections, but Rama claims it is a ploy to stall justice system reforms aimed at fighting corruption and that the EU wants them finished before accession talks start.
DP lawmakers are required to vote on the tandem measure of vetting judges for the changes to be finalised and their tent protest and absence from parliament effectively prevents that.
There had been hopes that EU negotiations could have started this year but the timetable is now far from certain. "This is a process right now it is not any more a fixed date," Ekonomi said.
"You need to verify you have done some steps in a good quality and a good manner. If we are doing well our duties on justice reform we are there. I hope it will be as soon as possible," she said.
On the economy more generally, Ekonomi agreed with the IMF that growth will pick this year but that more needed to be done. The Washington-based fund has urged Albania to clear delayed payments and collect more revenue from oil and property taxes.
Tourism, though, is upbeat.
New weekly and twice-weekly flights from countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Ukraine, and the fact Albania is holding this year's paragliding world championships should help keep tourist numbers growing 15 percent this year.
Plans should also be finalised next year to develop a new airport in the country's north and the tourist-popular south as well as new marinas.
But worries about neighboring Greece's future are once again a threat. Greece has slipped from second to fourth in terms of Albania's trade partners in recent years and 180,000 Albanian's have returned home from Greece.
It is still a major economic player in Albania, however.
"If they are going up, we are going up... If they are going down we are going down," Ekonomi said, although deals to increase inter-Balkan trade means Greece's troubles no longer have quite such a painful impact she added.
Editing by Jeremy Gaunt