Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Alliance's Most Eager Partner

By Artan Puto in Tirana (BCR No 23, 22-Apr-99)

How times have changed. For decades Albania was allied to the Soviet Union, China or defiantly isolationist. Throughout this period the country was committed to Marxism-Leninism and hostile to Western "imperialism" and NATO. Today it is rapidly becoming the alliance's main staging post for the war in the Balkans.

The volte-face came in 1990 with the fall of communism. With elections and the arrival in power of the avowedly non-communist Democratic Party in 1992, Albania quickly made it known that it wished to join NATO. A year later, it was among the first Eastern European countries to join Partnership for Peace, NATO's programme for aspiring members from the former communist bloc.

For Albania, as for Eastern Europe's other former communist countries, NATO membership offers political status and the prospect of further integration into European structures, in addition to the obvious military benefits.

From NATO's perspective, Albania's position changed soon after the eruption of fighting in Kosovo in February of last year. Since that time it has been a front-line state in Europe's most savage conflict.

Since the beginnings of the conflict, Albania has repeatedly sought deployment of NATO troops on its territory to guarantee its borders. However, the alliance has pursued a cautious, gradualist approach.

In June of last year NATO aircraft took part in the first military manoeuvres organised in Albanian air space. It was followed by the largest joint military manoeuvres between NATO troops and the Albanian army, in August 1998.

The launch of NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia brought the alliance still closer to Albania. Last Sunday the Albanian government officially offered NATO use of the country's airports.

NATO was quick to dispatch the first 1,000 troops to Albania and they are currently preparing the ground for a larger deployment. These troops will construct the necessary infrastructure for eventual deployment of up to 8,000 troops. They will support a humanitarian mission to aid Kosovo refugees in Albania, of whom there are already some 330,000.

Albania is important to NATO because it has given the alliance a friendlier welcome than neighbouring Macedonia. While Macedonia is reluctant to open its arms to NATO as a result of internal ethnic tensions and divisions, Albania is keen to allow the alliance use its territory for whatever action it considers necessary to halt the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo--including a potential ground invasion.

NATO's first "humanitarian mission" may yet therefore evolve into a military one, should NATO decide to intervene with ground troops in Kosovo. Albanians view the arrival in the capital Tirana of 24 tank-busting Apache helicopters as a sign in this direction.

As a result of the massive foreign military presence and the free rein NATO has been given in Albania, Albanians have begun speculating as to whether their country is becoming a NATO protectorate. Albanian politicians appear keen to see Albania forge ever closer relations with the alliance. But they do not wish to be seen compromising Albanian sovereignty.

In an interview with the Tirana daily Koha Jone, Neritan Ceka, president of the Democratic Alliance, is enthusiastic. He considers NATO protection as an honour and the on-going co-operation as a second phase of the Partnership for Peace programme.

Albania's Information Minister, Musa Ulqini shares this view. "NATO came to Albania as it can provide a whole infrastructure which we do not have," he says. Its presence "is a sign of the integration of Albania in Euro-Atlantic structures".

The vice president of the opposition Democratic Party Genc Pollo sees the foreign presence as close collaboration between NATO and Albania for the actions in Kosovo and Serbia, rather than anything akin to a protectorate. "Albania must not turn into a NATO protectorate," he says.

Sabri Godo, former president of the Republican Party, a small right-wing nationalist party, is adamant that Albania should not be a protectorate. Nevertheless, he is supportive both of the NATO deployment presence in the country and, if necessary, of the alliance using Albania to launch a ground war in Kosovo. He explains that NATO has bases in Italy and other European countries, but none of them has lost their sovereignty.

Foreign analysts do not share the same spirit in their comments. For them, the respect Albania is showing NATO comes from the fact that the state is still fragile and has not recovered from the anarchy of spring 1997 which followed the collapse of a series of pyramid investment schemes.

Harsh internal quarrels between political parties often require intervention from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to calm them down. Public order leaves much to be desired and local police are being trained by European experts.

The reconstruction of the Albanian army, which all but disintegrated in 1997, is a long-term process. That said, it already appears in better shape in the border regions where it is facing Serbian forces, including recent incursions of several hundred troops in the north.

Most Albanians agree that, on balance, the massive NATO presence in their country is likely to bring considerable benefits. The country's infrastructure will be improved as much of what is required for the foreign military deployment will remain in the country. The army will be in a position to learn from the experience and expertise of NATO troops and should also get acquainted with new technology. Many Albanians also anticipate an influx of foreign capital into the country, thus boosting the weak Albanian economy.

Many Albanians are, nevertheless, nervous about finding themselves involved directly in the conflict which will happen if and when the Apache helicopters begin sorties into Kosovo from Albanian soil. Moreover, that day may not be far off.

On his recent visit to Tirana, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Gen. Wesley Clark, announced the arrival of Apache helicopters in Albania.. He also reaffirmed that: "NATO will do its utmost to protect Albania. The country's integrity and sovereignty are for NATO matters of the highest importance."

Artan Puto is Albania project consultant for Press Now.

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