In 2016, the consortium of companies made up of the Catalyst Viva Das General Contracting Llc (UAE), Salillari shpk (Albania), Bee Tech (Greece), Violiap Ateve (Greece), and Kastrati sa (Albania) won the tender for the maintenance of the Rruga e Kombit highway. It was, in fact, the Commission for Public Procurement (KPP), rather than the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure that awarded the Catalyst consortium the tender, following a long process.
Initially, the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure awarded the tender to another consortium, made up of the companies Vendeka (Turkey), Citra (Indonesia), MAU (Turkey), Savronik (Turkey), and Vendeka European (Turkey). Yet, after the winner was announced, the Catalyst consortium appealed the Ministry’s decision, claiming that their offer was actually the better one.
As often happens in Albania, the KPP, an institution under the authority of the Prime Minister, decided to disqualify the winning consortium, thus canceling the Ministry’s decision, regardless of the fact that said decision was based on recommendations from IFC and the World Bank, who confirmed that the Catalyst consortium had no prior experience in managing toll roads, a key criteria of the competition.
Word around Tirana’s political circles was that this decision was also influenced by the attempted coup in Turkey – the Vendeka company was accused of being one of the companies controlled by Fetullah Gülen, the alleged organizer of the coup, which had led, according to unconfirmed sources, to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan interfering with the Albanian government to get the company disqualified.
Nonetheless, IFC’s doubts regarding the Catalyst – a UAE company that advertises road construction projects supposedly worth millions of euros, yet hasn’t updated its website since 2012 – consortium’s lack of experience were confirmed immediately after the concessionary contract was signed, in mid-December 2016. Via two purchases, first in January 2017, and then in March 2017, the two Albanian companies, Kastrati sa and Salillari shpk, became owners of the 60% of the concessionary contract shares initially owned by the three foreign companies, making them the sole owners of the concession. It became clear, then, that the foreign companies taking part in the competing consortium, had been there only so they could fulfill the technical requirements and criteria of previous experience the tender documentation mandated.
However, art. 5.2.3 of the concessionary contract states that any change in shareholder percentages must be communicated to the contracting authority, who, in turn, must confirm his consent to this change. The authority may only consent “on the condition that the concessionary demonstrates that the concessionary’s financial, business, technical, and legal attributes will not suffer as a result of these changes.”
At this point the question becomes, what experience do the Albanian oligarchs, Kastrati and Salillari have in order to fulfill the above condition? The former is Albania’s main oil importer and distributor further owning a failed bank in Kosovo, an insurance company, a customs concession, a luxury car sales company acquired a little while ago, a large, newly purchased hotel, and, as a novice builder, a tower in the middle of Tirana and a couple more on the way. Salillari, meanwhile, is known only as a builder of a specific kind of road. None of them, however, have any experience in multi-year management of a toll road.
The two companies, nonetheless, immediately received the consent of the contracting authority, the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, to change the concessionary’s ownership, even though that would entail a weakening of the consortium’s abilities.
Still, perhaps in order to avoid public discussion and objection, they decided, at least, to nominate as consortium administrator someone with real experience in management of real toll roads in the West.
The mode of procurement, in these things, is always the same: if Albania is lacking in quantity or quality, Italy will surely and easily provide.
And who could do a better job than Italian Nicola Spadavecchia, an Apulian retiree, born in 1950, with a real degree in transport engineering from the Polytechnic University of Turin, with a 25-year career in the company Autostrade per L’Italia (a concessionary company responsible for the management of 3,000 km of highways, tunnels, and bridges throughout Italy), director of Autostrada 6 going from Salerno, southbound, and member of the administrative council of the Turin–Savona highway.
At the end of October 2017, Spadavecchia was appointed sole administrator of Albanian Highway Concession shpk. His previous work experience was concealed, so it could be thrown, later, in the face of anyone who would dare complain.
Yet, birds of a feather fly together, and especially these days, as debates rage on regarding the Rruga e Kombit concession, it is interesting to figure out what brings a true professional, with a lengthy career in large companies, first public and then privatized by the largest financial and industrial group in Italy, together with two Albanian entrepreneurs that seem to have come out of the pages of a legal thriller.
According to Exit’s research into Spadavecchia, the engineer is currently on trial from the Avellino Court of Appeals, along with 14 other persons. He stands accused of “abuse of power” and of not carrying out the necessary checks and maintenance of the Acqualonga bridge, near Monteforte Irpino along the Napels–Canosa highway, which was a instrumental factor in a fatal accident. On July 28, 2013 the breaks of a bus carrying 49 pilgrims returning from their pilgrimage stopped functioning and the vehicle plunged into a gorge, taking with it 14 traffic barriers, also known as Jersey barriers (similar to the ones used in the Tirana–Durrës highway), which, according to judicial expertise, had not been maintained and controlled properly, and, as a result, did not manage to keep the bus from falling off the bridge.
40 people died in the accident that shocked the whole country.
The Italian National Anti-Corruption Authority investigation that followed, led by anti-corruption magistrate Raffaele Cantone came to the conclusion that an important 2009 tender for the construction of roadside traffic barriers in the segment at hand, which was managed by Spadavecchia, did not include the replacement of old barriers. They weren’t even inspected, even though they had been corroded where they were attached to the asphalt road.
The main cause of the tragic accident was the defective bus, whose commissioning papers were falsified. At the moment of the tragedy, the vehicle’s transmission system had faltered, and its brakes weren’t able to halt its velocity. Yet, the fact that the traffic barriers weren’t able to stop the bus from tumbling off the bridge – they became detached and fell with the bus as they were entirely corroded, also seems to have had a crucial role in the tragedy.
The court has not yet decided on Spadavecchia’s guilt, but perhaps the decision will arrive before the engineer receives any money from the Rruga e Kombit toll, as Italian judge Luigi Buono is expected to reach a verdict at the end of April.
It is then that we will know for sure whether the maintenance of the Rruga e Kombit has ended up in the right hands or not, but the tragedy of the pilgrims’ bus brings to mind other past tragedies, all of them avoidable. This gives the feeling that the concession holder’s greed is stronger than our fears, and this “lighting-rod” appointment may be only a cover meant to convey a seemingly “professional” management.
If these are the people guaranteeing a quality maintenance for the Rruga e Kombit highway, how can we keep the same tragedy from repeating itself on the Rruga e Kombit, which is traversed daily by buses and vehicles in even worse condition than the unfortunate Italian bus? Perhaps, we can try to only allow brand-new Mercedes buses sold by Kastrati to pass.