Diplomatic Pouch / December 8, 2016
By Larry Luxner
Barely 25 years ago one of the world’s most fervently Marxist countries, Albania today is fiercely pro-American — even though being pro-American is not exactly fashionable in Europe these days.
To mark 104 years of independence, as well as a quarter-century since the resumption of diplomatic relations between Tirana and Washington, Floreta Luli-Faber — the country’s ambassador here — hosted a reception Dec. 1 at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel.
Faber told her 220 guests that on Nov. 28, 1443, national hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg raised the flag in Kruja — marking one of the first attempts of the Albanian nation to rise as a unified political and cultural project, beyond political ambitions and regional or religious differences.
“For almost five centuries, Albania was part of the Ottoman empire until another Nov. 28 of 1912, when one of the most modern political figures of the Albanian renaissance, Ismail Qemali, raised the flag in Vlora,” she said, noting with a smile that this also happens to be the first name of Kosovo’s ambassador in Washington, Vlora Citaku.
“This is where Albania declared itself an independent state. Albania returned to its identity and to the continent it naturally belonged, Europe. And just as 104 years ago, this is the day that unites all Albanians wherever they are. It is the day when we don’t see political or regional differences. It is the day that the flag is raised from all Albanians from Albania — Kosova, Montenegro, Macedonia, Presheva, wherever they are.”
In 1991, after the collapse of Albania’s long-entrenched communist regime, the country re-established diplomatic relations with the United States. It joined NATO — a once-unthinkable prospect — and in 2014 became a candidate to join the European Union.
Faber said the roots of Albania’s friendship with the American people go back to President Woodrow Wilson, whose administration recognized Albania in 1919. Eight years later, it 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. 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. The communist regime was finally overthrown in 1991, and relations with the United States were restored.
“Even though we were on different sides of history for 45 years, the people of Albania have always guarded a feeling of friendship and gratitude towards the U.S.,” said Faber 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.
“The United States has helped and supported us in our path towards democratization and in our efforts for building a sustainable market economy. They have backed us in every step of building our new democracy, they have been our alleys in our efforts towards Euro-Atlantic integration and have proved to be crucial in our path towards NATO membership, they have supported in every step our European integration and have been instrumental to some numerous reforms, as they are for a judicial reform we are currently going through.
Just before Faber arrived in Washington in early 2015, the two countries signed a strategic partnership document; in addition, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Tirana, and both nations work closely together in the global coalition against terrorism.
Though she didn’t praise or criticize President-elect Donald Trump, she did say “we are now looking forward to working with the new administration, fostering the strong relationship our peoples have always had. We strongly believe that U.S. foreign policy is a success story in the Western Balkans. We will continue to work together for security, cooperation and harmony in the region and beyond.”
It’s unclear what kinds of policies Trump will pursue regarding the Balkans, though his opponent in the November presidential elections, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was very much loved in both Albania and Kosovo. In fact, a large statue of her husband, Bill Clinton, stands in downtown Prishtine, the capital of Kosovo, in recognition of his administration’s military intervention in the late 1990s against Serbia and in support of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian-speaking majority, who eventually won independence from Serbia.
“Your country is a terrific NATO ally,” said Michael Carpenter, the deputy assistant secretary of defense. “You have contributed to important international peacekeeping operations overseas, in Afghanistan and against ISIS — far more than any other country in the region — and you’ve really taken the lead on a number of other important security isues such as countering violent extremism and interdicting foreign terrorist fighters.”
Carpenter added that NATO is now setting up a Center of Excellence in Albania and is also working to help reform and modernize the Albanian Army.
“In this day and age where we sometimes have a tendency to measure our allies with the bottom line, it’s important to recognize a country like Albania, whose men and women have risked their lives for peace and security operations,” said Carpenter, in a rather obvious swipe at Trump’s insistence that NATO member states should pay for their own defense.
Carpenter was followed by another top U.S. official: Matthew Palmer, director of the State Department’s Office of South Central European Affairs, who first visited Albania in 1993.
“Even then, it was clear to me as a young junior officer that this was a special place, and that the partnership between the U.S. and Albania had tremendous potential. Over the last 25 years, this relationship has grown into a mighty trunk with deep roots. It’s a relationship that pays real dividends,” said Palmer, expressing his wish that Albania would soon become a full-fledged member of the European Union.