Illyria / August 29, 1998
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON -- In the Hollywood movie Wag the Dog, Albania is suddenly thrust into the world spotlight when the president -- embroiled in a Washington sex scandal -- cooks up a fictitious war against the tiny Balkan nation for threatening the U.S. with nuclear weapons.
In real life, Albania has been in the news quite a lot -- and it has nothing to do with Monica Lewinsky. Last year, the Albanian economy collapsed in the wake of pyramid schemes and rioting that left 1,500 people dead. In the past six months, the impoverished nation of 3.3 million has watched as ethnic Albanian refugees from war-torn Kosovo stream across its borders in search of food and safety.
And now, Albania has been rocked by revelations that Islamic fundamentalists have infiltrated their country and are using it as a base for anti-American terrorist operations -- including a plan to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Tirana.
Nevertheless, Albania's ambassador to the United States, Petrit Bushati, doesn't appear to be too concerned.
"There are unconfirmed Albanian press reports and the usual rumors," he said in a lengthy interview Aug. 19. "I've seen statements from top officials that probably a few elements have found shelter in Albania, and have penetrated through various ways, disguised as part of religious foundations to help revive Islam. Our instability made it possible for criminals to enter the country, and I don't exclude the fact that some of these criminals were expelled.
"But there's no threat for two reasons: first, the Albanian population has no basis for fundamentalism, and even Albanian Muslims are not fanatics. Secondly, strong measures have been taken, such as checking up on all foreigners in Albania, while of course respecting their human rights."
Bushati, who turns 50 in October, wasn't always a diplomat. Born in Tirana and educated at the University of Tirana, where he studied history and philology, Bushati became a journalist -- and later head of the foreign news department -- at the Albanian Telegraphic Agency. At that time, the ATA was strictly a mouthpiece for 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.
"Even when Albania was still isolated, I had the possibility of getting information from all over the world," said Bushati, a heavy smoker who speaks fluent English, German and French. "ATA was the only place you could read foreign newspapers, including the New York Times. That gave me a solid basis for my future career, not through what was presented to the Albanian public, but directly from the sources. We had access to all kinds of news, even those which were very critical to the Communist dictatorship. But of course we couldn't do anything about it."
He adds: "We developed a certain language of intellectuals to protect us from being persecuted or followed. We could discuss things happening in the world, but there was fear and danger that anyone of us might be confronted with disaster. Many of my colleagues have suffered because of this."
Yet despite his feelings, Bushati went on to join the Party of Labor -- Albania's version of the Communist Party -- and made his first trip overseas in 1979, when he traveled to Geneva to represent Albania before the International Telecommunication Union. He was eventually appointed first secretary at the Albanian Embassy in Vienna, where he headed press and public relations.
From 1988 to 1991, Bushati was Albania's ambassador to Sweden, during which time he traveled to the United States for the first time. After that, he worked closely with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, spending a month at a Copenhagen conference on human rights. But in 1994, following the collapse of Marxism and the election of Sali Berisha as Albania's first non-Communist leader in half a century, Bushati was expelled from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs -- for political reasons.
It wasn't until Berisha's defeat in June 1996 that power reverted to the Socialists. Bushati got his current job in November 1997 -- replacing his predecessor, Lublin Dilja -- and has since signed a statement renouncing membership in any political party.
"I have kept a very neutral profile," said Bushati, who's also accredited to Canada and Mexico. "I have tried to be professional in my career, and I've done my best to help open Albania to the outside world in this period of transition."
As ambassador, Bushati oversees one of the smallest embassies in Washington. Only three diplomats, plus a driver and secretary, inhabit the new Albanian Embassy on S Street -- a stately mansion which the government bought for $1.7 million early last year. Before that, the government had been renting a rather dumpy office on K Street. The new quarters are still empty, but Bushati's staff is in the process of renovating and furnishing it, thanks to an $85,000 gift from the National Albanian-American Council.
"My mission here is to develop relations between the U.S. and Albanian governments, and between the American and Albanian people," said Bushati, whose office is rather barren except for a framed color portrait of President Rexhep Mejdani over the mantle, and a plaque awarded by the Anti-Defamation League, in recognition of Albania's rescue of Jews during the Holocaust. "Albania is a tiny country and far away from the United States, but the U.S. has strongly supported the democratic process there.
"This road to democracy has had ups and downs, and it hasn't always been easy. During the 1997 crisis, all the Albanian institutions collapsed. Even the army failed to stop this turmoil. Yet the Albanian people showed wisdom and maturity. Civil war was avoided, and people went to the polls in an acceptable and normal elections."
Asked how the American media has been portraying Albania in the last few years, the former journalist had this to say: "During the 1996-97 crisis, U.S. newspapers described the events in a proper way. In my entire diplomatic career, it's the first time I am satisfied with press coverage of my country."
Now that the economic and political crisis in Albania has passed, the biggest issue facing Bushati is the ongoing ethnic strife in neighboring Kosovo.
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 who comprise 90% of Kosovo 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. But the United States opposes independence for Kosovo -- which could explain why Bushati took pains to play down the significance of that recognition.
"The official line is that Albanians in Kosovo have to be listened to," says Bushati. "But it is not up to Albania or other countries to set limits for Albanians. We see a country which went through a painful process of disintegration. [Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic is totally responsible for the situation, because he was depriving two million Albanians of health care, education and other rights, and this was unbearable. Albanian Kosovars are fighting for their rights, and for their dignity."
Asked whether an independent Kosovo should be united with Albania, Bushati responds: "Absolutely not. One has to be realistic."
Since fighting began earlier this year between Serb forces and the self-styled Kosova Liberation Army, at least 500 Albanians have been killed. Like in Bosnia, this "ethnic cleansing" campaign has created more than 100,000 refugees, many of them who have no place to go and little to eat. The hostilities have prompted heightened U.S. military involvement in the region, culminating with recent NATO exercises in the skies over northern Albania.
"The exercise which is going on now has been planned two months ago within the framework of deterrent measures. It's significant that 150 American troops are included in this exercise," says Bushati. "I see it as a very normal and natural action which comes from the policy Albania is following on security matters, in close cooperation with NATO and other Western countries."
When Bushati isn't involved in matters of international intrigue, he likes reading, swimming or taking long drives in the countryside around Washington.
Yet the ambassador clearly doesn't know how long he'll remain in his post, and when asked what he plans on doing once his term of office expires, Bushati was evasive. All he would say was: "I don't think I'll run for political office."