The Washington Diplomat / October 2006
By Larry Luxner
By 2008, Albania could be in NATO and by 2016, the European Union an astonishing development for a country that was once among the harshest Stalinist regimes on Earth.
And none of it will come a moment too soon for Aleksander Sallabanda, the country's new ambassador to the United States.
"Albania was the poorest and most closed country in Europe. The dictatorship was oppressive," he told the Washington Diplomat in an interview last month. "We are now rebuilding democracy, but it's a long process. We cannot pretend that we're a true democracy yet. We must develop the country economically. This is the reason why so many Albanians left. They wanted to escape from the poverty."
For nearly four decades following World War II, Albania was ruled by dictator Enver Hoxha, a former war hero who later turned the Maryland-sized country into a Stalinist prison and in 1967 declared Albania to be the world's first atheist state.
"During communism, I was a doctor in a research institute in Tirana," said Sallabanda, 57. "Some intellectual elements were purged by the regime, and I spent 11 years of life in internal exile. I was sent to Kukës, a very remote district, for being a doctor. The whole family was punished."
When Hoxha finally died in 1985, he was succeeded by Ramiz Alia, who was unable to stem the rising tide of unrest as other countries behind the Iron Curtain gradually began opening up.
Albania's first-ever democratically elected president, Sali Berisha, took office in 1992. Despite a series of political upheavals since then, Berisha has managed to stay in the forefront of his country's pro-democracy movement and is today Albania's prime minister.
With 3.5 million people, Albania is no longer Europe's poorest country. Per-capita income stands at around $5,000 a year, says Sallabanda, and its economy has been growing at 6% a year. Mobile phones are commonplace today, and Tirana which as recently as 1991 had exactly one traffic light is today a modern European capital city.
Yet rampant corruption persists, and that extends all the way to Washington.
Last year, the country's former ambassador to the United States, Fatos Tarifa, was fired for allegedly instructing a local contractor, Indrit Bregasi, to overcharge the Albanian government for embassy repairs and pressuring him to hand over $4,500 in cash. Bregasi reportedly gave an Albanian magazine a secret audio recording in which Tarifa demanded the money.
"It is a shame," Tarifa told the Washington Post at the time. "Maybe there are other individuals in Tirana who want to see this situation evolve on the eve of elections there. I know the tape is fake. These accusations about asking for money are vulgar and banal."
Sallabanda said the allegations were true, but he clearly would prefer not to dwell on the past.
"I don't want to compare myself with someone who was not following the law," he said. "Every one of us represents the government. Fatos Tarifa represented a government that had problems with corruption and the rule of law. That's why the Socialist Party lost the election. Their policies and lack of respect for the law permitted corruption to flourish."
In the wake of the kickback scandal, all of the embassy's transactions during Tarifa's term as ambassador were audited.
"We don't know how much money is missing. There is a process going on," said Sallabanda, hinting that the true amount might be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Scandals are nothing new in Albania, where in 1997 the economy collapsed in the wake of pyramid schemes and rioting that left 1,500 people dead. More than one million Albanian immigrants are scattered throughout Italy, Greece and the rest of Western Europe, where their reputation for organized crime, prostitution and general lawlessness is legendary.
"In reality, it isn't like that. The Albanians are honest people," says Sallabanda, who was appointed to his post only five months ago. "But in the States, integration is easier than in Europe, where a few Albanians who are not well-integrated are working in the black market. They are not representative of the Albanian people, and are easily used by criminal organizations. In every situation in which an Albanian was accused of crimes in Italy, prosecutors have found Italians involved. For sure, we have problems, but not like in the way they say."
Those problems will certainly stand in the way of Albania's full integration as the country lobbies for NATO and EU membership.
"We know that it's a long way off. We have to produce some results, but we expect that Albania will be a member of the EU by 2015 or 2016," Sallabanda said, adding that he "strongly believes" Albania will be accepted into NATO by 2008.
"This is very important. This is the top priority of our government," he said. "NATO is a very important organization, and joining it will be a part of not only military reform, but also the democratic evolution process. From that moment on, Albania will leave its past behind forever."
To help ease that path, Berisha two months ago hired Tom Ridge, former secretary of homeland security, to advise the Albanian government on everything from fighting corruption to combating terrorism. Under the agreement, Ridge will make occasional visits to Albania, but will primarily work with the government from the United States, government spokesman told the Associated Press.
Ridge, whose fee wasn't disclosed, said in a press release that his main objective would be to ensure Albania's entry into NATO as soon as possible. He'll also work to attract U.S. multinationals to the country and fight money-laundering. According to Salabanda, several Fortune 500 firms have already invested in Albania include General Electric, Bechtel and Lockheed-Martin.
"I believe these goals may be achieved and I am looking forward to starting to work together with you on their realization," said the 61-year-old former Pennsylvania governor.
Meanwhile, the biggest threat to Albania is corruption and organized crime which he said go hand in hand with the fight against global terrorism.
"Corruption, drugs and human trafficking are the channels also used by terrorists," said the ambassador, though he insists that despite Albania's Muslim majority there is "absolutely no link" between al-Qaeda and Muslim terrorist groups that were operating in his country.
"We have closed some cells, but there no possibility of al-Qaeda having any presence in Albania," he said.
Another thorny issue is Albania coming to terms with its own past; many people are demanding justice for the 45 years of Marxist tyranny they endured under the Hoxha regime.
"In a dictatorship where there were no laws, all the decisions were made at the highest level of the Politburo, so the rest of the population were all victims," he said. "We do not forget the crimes of the past. The Albanian people suffered a lot during the dictatorship, and many people are waiting for a public apology and compensation."
Sallabanda added: "We have linked our democracy with the history of the United States. We are very proud of this. I love the American constitution very much, because I've suffered so much from communism."
In Washington, the Albanian Embassy currently employs 10 people, but Sallabanda said he will "significantly enlarge" the staff in coming months. The country also plans on opening a consulate in New York to be staffed by three diplomats, to serve that city's large Albanian ethnic community.
Many of these people aren't from Albania proper, but rather from Kosovo, an autonomous province of Serbia whose inhabitants are 90% Albanian Muslims.
The Serbs, who have ruled the area since 1912, consider Kosovo the cradle of their civilization a status that goes back to the Turkish defeat of Serb forces during the Battle of Kosovopolje in 1389. Yet the ethnic Albanians live there dream of independence for their self-styled republic, which measures 4,252 square miles, about twice the size of Delaware.
Albania is the only country in the world that has extended official recognition to the Republic of Kosova, as the Albanians spell it.
"The Albanian government and people strongly supports the independence of Kosovo. We want to have a democratic, independent Kosovo. We believe that all the countries of the region are interested in stabilizing the region, and the only way to do this is to give Kosovo its independence. There is no other way."
However, he rejects the idea that Albania wishes to unite with Kosovo in a "Greater Albania," as some ultra-nationalists have suggested.
"That's a big no not only in the minds of politicians but also the citizens of Albania," Sallabanda told us, adding that he hopes a decision on Kosovo independence will be taken by year's end.