During his recent tour last week of several European venues that included Rome, the Vatican, Prague, and the G8 summit in Germany, the president, an ardent Christian, was received at times by massive demonstrations staged mostly by youths protesting his presence -- and his policies -- in those very Christian cities and countries. Yet it was Muslim Albania -- the largest Muslim country of Europe (not counting Eurasia's Turkey of course) -- that reserved the warmest welcome for the American president.
Dogged by protests for much of his tour, Bush received a warmer welcome Sunday in Albania, a former xenophobic Stalinist country now eager to show that it remains one of the staunchest U.S. allies in Europe.
Albania transitioned from communist rule between 1990 and 1992, putting an end to 46 years of isolation and establishing a multiparty democracy. The transition to democracy was not easy. The country had to cope with political instability as successive governments tried to deal "with high unemployment, widespread corruption, a dilapidated physical infrastructure, powerful organized crime networks and combative political opponents," according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
The stars and stripes adorned the main roads of Albania's capital, Tirana. Upon arrival Bush was greeted by Albanians clad in red-white-and-blue Uncle Sam top hats. Bush is the first serving president to visit this former staunchly Stalinist reclusive country, now turned to struggle in a free market economy, but with an economy that is not doing too hot. To show their appreciation to the president of the United States the Albanians renamed one of the main avenues in his honor. Bush got to travel down the boulevard named after him.
Appreciation of Americans and of the United States is not unusual among Albanians. In neighboring Kosovo, the rebellious province that is part of Serbia, but aspires to break away and seek independence, is populated mostly by ethnic Albanians who make up more than 95 percent of the population. They too are Muslims, and they too revere the Americans. In Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, one of the main avenues in the city was remained after Bush's predecessor, President Bill Clinton. A gargantuan portrait of the former American president covers the entire side of a 10-story building on one of the main avenues which was named after the former president.
In Tirana hundreds upon hundreds of people of people lined the streets to catch a glimpse of President Bush. In other European cities the president visited this week, people waited for his motorcade to pass to throw insults at him, requiring the police to intervene with batons, water cannons and tear gas. In contrast, residents of Tirana said today had come to give their hearts to America and to thank Bush for his efforts in fighting the war on terrorism and the support the United States has shown towards Kosovo and Albanians in general.
Indeed, since the fall of the ultraconservative communist regime, Albania has affected a 180-degree turn, going from a North Korean-like reclusion to a an open border policy. In fact, Albania's borders are open so wide that several tens of thousands of its citizens have taken to flee the poverty, high unemployment and crime that is rampant in that country. Many Albanians seeking employment have jumped onto any tub that floats to make their way to Italy and other points in Western Europe. Albania, whose population is 95 percent Muslim, has become an island of staunch pro-Americanism in Europe.
Albania strongly supports U.S. anti-terrorism efforts and has cooperated with U.S. intelligence services in tracking down suspected terrorists. Albania has participated militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan. Albania's war effort was modest -- in keeping with the country's limited means. Their contribution to the war effort was to dispatch 120 troops to northern Iraq in the area around Mosul and 30 more troops to Afghanistan. Tirana has cooperated with Washington in freezing assets of people believed to be terrorists or those assisting terrorists financially.
But it's not the number of Albanian soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan that really matters. The importance is that they are there, in one of the rare Muslim countries to contribute troops to the Iraq campaign.
Albanian trust in the United States predates the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo, an intervention that helped save tens of thousands of Muslim lives from the wrath of the Serbian military and paramilitary forces. The U.S.-Albanian friendship can be traced back to the end of WWI when President Woodrow Wilson supported Albanian independence.
Both the Albanians of Albania as well as the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo realize that the United States holds the key to Kosovo's independence from Serbia, much more than Brussels or Moscow.