Diplomatic Pouch / September 10, 2015
By Larry Luxner
Albania, once Europe’s most anti-American country, now ranks as its most pro-American — a remarkable development that in the space of 25 years has transformed the small Balkan nation from Stalinist dictatorship to maturing democracy.
Floreta Luli Faber, Albania’s new ambassador to the United States, says she’s proud of the role she’s played for 15 of those years, as executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Tirana.
“In that job, I supported the interests of the American business community and tried to increase trade between the two countries. Now I’ll continue to do that, but from a different perspective,” Faber told the Diplomatic Pouch,in her first media interview since replacing Gilbert Galanxhi as ambassador in May.
“Albania and the United States have a great partnership,” she said. “The U.S. has been very supportive throughout the whole process of transformation to a market economy and democracy, in supporting our membership in NATO, and in our efforts to join the European Union.”
Originally from the northern town of Shkoder, Faber is the first woman ever to represent her country’s three million inhabitants in Washington. She chatted with us at the recently restored Albanian Embassy on 21st and S Street, near Dupont Circle.
Albania’s long, convoluted history of relations with the United States dates back to 1920, when President Woodrow Wilson recognized its status as a sovereign nation, which eight years later became a kingdom under the rule of King Zog.
But in 1946 — in the aftermath of World War II and the rise of Enver Hoxha’s communist dictatorship — relations were broken and the U.S. Embassy in Tirana was closed, only to reopen 45 years later, in 1991. Hoxha’s nightmarish rule was considered the harshest in Europe, and second in the world only to North Korea.
Under the paranoid Hoxha, who died in 1986, Albania built an estimated 700,000 concrete bunkers, fearing an invasion by Yugoslav, Soviet or American forces.
“During the years of communism, we were not free to speak our opinions,” recalled Faber, 47, who earned an economics degree from the University of Tirana and a master’s in international marketing from the Norwegian School of Management in Oslo. “Everyone was poor and extremely isolated. We learned about planned economies and being politically correct, and we were not allowed to have private property in any way.”
Religion was also banned, and in 1967, Albania became the world’s first and only officially atheist state. Churches, monasteries and mosques were destroyed, and clerics publicly humiliated; some were even executed. Yet that’s an aberration, said Faber, given her country’s centuries-long tradition of tolerance. During World War II, Muslim families hid their Jewish neighbors from the country’s Nazi occupiers. As a result, not a single Albanian Jew died in the Holocaust.
“We are Muslim, Catholic and Christian Orthodox, but we are tolerant when it comes to religion,” Faber said. “Albania was never part of religious ethnic conflict.”
These days, once-forbidden Albania is popular with European tourists, who flock to the country’s relatively unspoiled Adriatic Sea beaches. Tourist attractions include white-water rafting, mountain hiking, and visiting 2,000-year-old churches and Roman ruins in such places as Butrint, Gjirokaster and Berat.
Another prosperous sector is energy.
In May, the Albanian government offered seven offshore and onshore blocks to companies interested in oil and gas exploration, following a significant discovery last year by a venture between Shell and Petromanas in southern Albania.
“The government is focused on trying to bring specifically big U.S. companies to Albania. These U.S. investors are looking for big markets, and energy is one of our most important industries,” she said.
Yet economists are concerned about the spillover effect of the economic crisis plaguing its neighbor, Greece. In fact, Greek banks account for 16 percent of Albania’s total banking assets, a ratio surpassed only by Bulgaria and Macedonia.
According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, the value of Albanian exports to Greece fell by 10.7 percent between their record level of 2008 and 2015. Having for many years been Albania’s second-largest export market, Greece is now in fifth place.
“Albania is not suffering directly from the Greek crisis,” said Faber, even though five of the country’s 17 banks are Greek-owned. “Albania has taken positive steps in the last couple of years, with a big focus on economic development and the rule of law. Our long-term goals include fighting corruption and the black market.”
Albania, which gained entry into NATO in 2009, would also like to someday join the EU — though the ambassador conceded that won’t happen for awhile; first, Brussels must sort out its eurozone crisis.
Faber’s counterpart in Tirana is U.S. Ambassador: Donald Lu, who knows a thing or two about serving in formerly communist countries. Before coming to Albania, he worked as a U.S. diplomat in three ex-Soviet republics — Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan — and also served in Pakistan and India.
“The Albanian people are very positive toward the United States, and our government has been extremely supportive of all U.S. government initiatives in the fight against terrorism,” said Faber. “Through our NATO membership, we’re trying to be a role model for other countries.”