International Spectator

The International Spectator

Volume XXXIII No. 2 (April-June 1998)


Albanian Foreign Policy between Geography and History
By Remzi Lani and Fabian Schmidt


The well-known expression that the foreign policy of a country is its geography may be used without hesitation in the case of Albania. In its efforts to emerge from isolation and poverty, the tiny country in the western part of the Balkans has felt on its shoulders the heavy burden of an unfortunate geography, even though it has tried to make the most of it. Perhaps in quiet times Albania does not have that geostrategic or geopolitical importance the Albanians attribute to their country, but it is certain that in times of crisis it carries an indisputable weight in the delicate political balance of the region.

The Kosovo crisis this year as well as the Albanian crisis last year have prompted scores of diplomats and generals to land at Tirana airport. The mere facts that, apart from the 3.5 million Albanians who live within the state boundaries of Albania, there are almost as many living in the neighboring countries, and that since March 1997 the “country of eagles” has also become known as the “country of kalashnikovs” has turned Albania into an interesting place, not only for newspapermen.

However, like geography, history—both past and present—has had an influence on Albania’s foreign relations. Albania was a country unknown to the West for about fifty years. After its falling out with Yugoslavia in 1949, with the Soviet Union in 1961 and finally with China in 1978, Albania remained completely isolated in the eighties. Despite a certain improvement of its relations with Greece at the end of the eighties and some timid steps towards cultural and economic cooperation with Western countries after the establishment of relations with the Federal Republic of Germany in 1987, it still had almost frozen relations with neighboring Italy (because the Italian Embassy had granted asylum to the members of the Popa family, which stayed in the embassy for five years, until 1990) and had rejected establishing relations with both the United States and the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, for the first time in its history, Albania played host to the Second Meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Balkan Countries in 1989.

The overthrow of the communist regime in 1991 marked the opening up of Albanian foreign policy. In March 1991, Albania re-established diplomatic relations with the United States and in July of the same year with the Soviet Union. During the five years of his government, President Sali Berisha followed an active, though at times contradictory, foreign policy. Albania became a member of some major international organizations and was for a time the spoilt child of the West. A number of treaties of friendship and cooperation were signed with Italy, Greece, Turkey, France and other countries. Subsequently, however, wavering and a lack of equilibrium became noticeable in Berisha’s foreign policy. Relations with Italy remained unstable. Relations with Greece underwent enormous ups and downs and reached an all-time low. At the very time when he was striving for the integration of his country into Europe, he suddenly took the controversial decision to accede to the Islamic Conference. Initially Berisha had come to power as a pro-American; in the end he left it as an anti-American.

Although Albania’s image abroad can by no means be considered favorable, the new Tirana government is trying to conduct an active and sometimes spectacular foreign policy. Albania’s foreign policy can be characterized as follows:

By following this strategy, Albania is seeking to leave behind a history of diplomatic zigzags, which have made it appear in some moments like a “submissive satellite” and at others like a “stubborn girl”.


Tirana—Pristina: A Difficult Love

Without doubt, Kosovo is the axis around which Albanian foreign policy revolves. On the stance which various countries take towards the unsolved problem of Kosovo depends largely Tirana’s position towards those countries. At the same time, Tirana’s stand on the problem of Kosovo depends to no small degree on the recommendations of the main actors of world policy.

In 1991, some months after the establishment of political pluralism in Albania, the Albanian parliament recognized the independence of the Republic of Kosovo in a special declaration, and a few months later Kosovo established its representation in Tirana. Yet, while Albanian television programs constantly mention the Republic of Kosovo, the Albanian government has never issued an official declaration of recognition.

Berisha, who had come to power using a rhetoric in which there was no lack of emotional statements about Kosovo, also due to the fact that his village of origin is only a few kilometers away from the border, later abandoned his nationalistic phraseology and, acting on the advice of the United States and other Western countries, adopted a more moderate policy towards Kosovo. For a long time Berisha supported Kosovo shadow-state President Ibrahim Rugova’s course, which was looked upon favorably by the Albanians of Kosovo as well as abroad.

No doubt, to an attentive observer of the political situation, Tirana’s stance towards the problem of Kosovo has not infrequently been rather ambiguous. This can be explained both by the general disorientation in Albanian politics and Rugova’s so-called “Ghandiism”, but even more so by the confusing Western policy whose recommendations Tirana has tried to follow. Various political conceptions have been put into circulation, quickly adhered to with enthusiasm and then abandoned just as quickly, beginning with an “international protectorate for Kosovo” 1 and ending with “Kosovo as an independent state open to both Albania and Serbia”. 2

In winter 1996, when the Zajedno and student demonstrations against Milosevic continued in Belgrade, Berisha, in a surprise move, ceased to support Rugova and took the side of senior Kosovo politician and Rugova critic, Adem Demaçi, demanding that the Albanians should join in the wave of student protests in Serbia. Rugova’s policy was labeled as “graveyard peace”. 3 In December 1996, Rugova left Tirana after a glacial meeting with Berisha. Various analysts linked the sudden change in Berisha’s stand with his need to play the card of Kosovo as a countermove against recurrent American pressure to repeat the manipulated elections of May 1996. It is highly probable that Berisha’s calls for the radicalization of the political movement in Kosovo not only marked his divorce with Rugova, but also destroyed his last and most important link with the West, his importance as a factor of stability in the region, leading finally to his break with the United States.

The advent of the Socialists to power in the summer of 1997 was accompanied by new nuances in Tirana’s stance towards Kosovo. However, it was only a matter of nuances, not essential changes. The cabinet of Prime Minister Fatos Nano, just like that of Berisha before him, followed the advice of the important world powers. Berisha’s formula about solving the problem of Kosovo through “the creation of a democratic space for the Albanians” 4 is not too distant from, if not the same as, Nano’s formula about the “Europeanization of the Balkans”, or the creation of some kind of Balkan Schengen. Regardless of the fact that they are avowed enemies and that Berisha enjoys great popularity in Kosovo, while Nano does not, neither of them has been in a position to carry out an independent policy, be it only for the reason that Albania, weakened and half destroyed, cannot survive without Western help.

The course for improving relations between Tirana and Belgrade outlined by Foreign Minister Paskal Milo as soon as he took office, caused suspicions and concern in Pristina. Intended as a means of breaking the half-century old ice in relations between Tirana and Belgrade, the Crete Meeting between Nano and Milosevic on 3 November 1997 has cast a cool spell on relations between Tirana and Pristina.

Actually, during his visit to Tirana some time before the Crete meeting in September 1997, Rugova did not oppose the opening of a dialogue between Tirana and Belgrade and the normalization of relations between the two countries. However, since the meeting, the Kosovar leader has joined in criticism of it, although in milder terms, especially of some unclear expressions of Nano’s, who referred to the people of Kosovo as “the Albanian community of Kosovo”. 5

But much more than over Nano’s confusing use of words, a real storm broke out over an impromptu declaration by Albanian President Rexhep Meidani in Trieste a few days before the elections in Serbia on 7 December 1997. Meidani said that Milosevic was the lesser evil, compared of course to nationalist extremist Vojislav Seselj. The vice-president of the Democratic League of Kosovo, Fehmi Agani, who at that time happened to be in Tirana for the Conference of the Albanian Atlantic Association, opposed Meidani’s view, insisting that “Milosevic and Seselj are both nationalists and no different as far as Albanians are concerned”. 6

In an attempt to tone down the polemics, Nano proposed organizing a joint political round table between Tirana and Pristina. His initiative called for the two main Kosovar leaders, Rugova and Bukoshi, to meet regularly in order to discuss the coordination of strategies and moves for the promotion of the national cause. Pristina replied negatively, however, thereby bringing relations to a dead end.

The Drenica events, in which Serbian police killed about 80 Kosovo Albanians in March 1998, found relations between Tirana and Pristina in this climate of misunderstanding. For the first time since the establishment of political pluralism in Albania, the irreconcilable foes of Albanian political life, Berisha and Meidani, came out together at a protest meeting in support of Kosovo under the slogan “One Nation—One Stand”. Finding itself caught between nationalism and political reality, Tirana, is obliged on the one hand to take measures to defend its northern borders and prepare for an eventual influx of refugees and, on the other, to try to activate all diplomatic channels in an effort to ensure support for the cause of Kosovo.

After the successive visits to Tirana of the representatives of almost all the main international institutions involved in the Kosovo crisis, the Albanian premier caused something of a surprise when he articulated the Albanian position for the first time since 1990, saying that Tirana would be in favor of a status for Kosovo similar to that of Montenegro or the Republika Srpska. In other words, for the first time Tirana pronounced itself openly for what had been surmised but never said: the possibility of a solution within the framework of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. There has been no lack of suppositions that the formula of a Third Republic could have been suggested by Washington and adopted by Nano. This sounds credible if one considers that during all these years Tirana has never taken the initiative on the question of Kosovo, but has almost always blindly followed the recommendations of the West, the United States above all, ensuring in return Western support for those in power even when doubtful political standards were applied within the country, as was the case under Berisha.

The formula of a Third Republic in the framework of Yugoslavia, which indeed is not altogether new, can be seen as an attempt by Tirana to tread with circumspection between the West and Pristina, trying to please both sides or at least not offend either of them. According to this concept, the borders of the former Yugoslavia, or what is called its territorial integrity, should not be affected, and yet the Albanians should fulfill their dream of getting rid of Serb domination. But if there are good reasons for the West to be satisfied or at least not worried about what Tirana is up to, even though the notion of a Third Republic still sounds rather utopian and not altogether to the liking of all Western diplomats, this cannot be said for Pristina: for most Albanians living in a village or town of Kosovo, staying within federal Yugoslavia or within Serbia would mean much the same thing.

Nevertheless, the gap between official Tirana and “official” Pristina is narrower than that between official Tirana and other more radical political groupings in Kosovo, but also in Albania. The emergence of the Kosovo Liberation Army has been met with great suspicion in the Albanian capital, although part of the press has not been lacking in expressions of sympathy for it. Still, Albanian politicians hesitate to use the term “terrorist” when there is talk of the members of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

The reason that Tirana openly supported Rugova in the recent self-styled Kosovar elections (March 22) should be sought in the fact that in Tirana, as well as in other decision-making centers, a clear and indisputable mandate for Rugova was needed, after his rivals in Pristina as well as his critics in Tirana and skeptics in the West had put it in doubt. The elections at least reconfirmed that the person the Serbs have to negotiate with is Rugova.

Like Pristina, Tirana would prefer negotiations with Belgrade to take place in the presence of a third party. Although there was no opposition to the mission of EU and OSCE special envoy Felipe Gonzalez, it cannot be said that it was received with particular enthusiasm. During a television debate in March, both government and opposition politicians agreed that the United States would have been the most appropriate intermediary.

Albania, has attentively followed the meetings of the Contact Group, but it seems to be dissatisfied with the great powers’ unsteady attitude towards Milosevic. Rather unusually, Albanian governmental officials did not hesitate to use a stronger vocabulary and make critical comments on the statements of the Contact Group. This is also reflected in the critical attitudes kept towards the countries that showed resistance or uncertainty within the Group. Tirana would prefer to use the stick instead of the carrot with Belgrade.

Tirana has officially demanded the establishment of a NATO presence on its northern border, not only because it is concerned about the spread of the conflict, but also to dispel suspicions of its implication in arm trafficking, which has not lacked on the border between the two countries. In reality, despite the hesitations of the moment, the emplacement of a military force, similar to the one in Macedonia, cannot be excluded, though it is not an easy decision to be made.

In a nutshell the stand of the present Albanian government over Kosovo is as follows: “Albania stands for a peaceful solution of the problem of Kosovo, it does not call for a change of borders, it is for the road of dialogue, for direct Albanian-Serb talks under international supervision, for the treatment of Kosovo as a federal element equal to the other republics of Yugoslavia, with some complementary aspects according to European models.” 7

If war breaks out in Kosovo, it can easily spill over to Macedonia and Albania. The delicate ethnic equilibrium of the former and the fragile political situation of the latter would be upset almost immediately. Streams of Albanian refugees from Kosovo would be pushed towards Albania, waves of Albanian refugees would stream down to Greece, the Albanians of Macedonia would not sit with folded arms, and nobody can predict whether Bulgaria and Greece would not be affected by this conflagration.


Tirana-Belgrade-Podgorica: No Thaw in Sight

For the first time since the beginning of the nineties, the foreign ministers of Albania and Yugoslavia, Paskal Milo and Milan Milutinovic, met in New York at the end of October 1997 in an attempt to normalize the frozen bilateral relations. Before that, the last and only important meeting between high officials of the two countries was in 1992 when Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panic, who had been brought over from the United States to serve his term, made a surprise visit to Tirana, of which neither Belgrade nor Tirana ever gave any details. “The new Albanian government wishes and expresses its readiness to establish a dialogue with Belgrade proceeding from the idea that it is better to talk in order to find solutions than to stand up on the barricades of the Cold War”, Milo declared in an interview. 8 A month later, during the Crete Summit, for the first time after Enver Hoxha’s meeting with Josip Broz Tito in Belgrade 50 years ago, Premier Nano met with President Milosevic at a meeting which was called historical.

Relations between Albania and Yugoslavia have been and continue to be tense because of the unceasing Serb oppression of the Albanian population of Kosovo. Tirana has made improvement of its relations with Belgrade conditional on respect of the rights of the Albanians in Kosovo. However, even though Albania was Milosevic’s severest critic, it allowed the systematic violation of the embargo during the war in former Yugoslavia, smuggling large quantities of oil through Montenegro to Yugoslavia.

Before the Crete Summit, the two countries made it known that they would sign a number of agreements in various fields such as border trade, transport, encouragement and protection of investments, abolition of double taxation, etc. This package of agreements would mark the restarting of the economic cooperation interrupted in the early nineties. Of course, one of the main ones for Tirana’s diplomatic moves was the need of a country ruined by the crisis of the spring 1997 to develop economic relations with its northern neighbor, which was, even in the years of communism, an important economic partner of Albania. The development of border trade, the easing of formalities for the circulation of people, the creation of free trade zones are looked upon in Tirana as important means for the development of its border regions. Albania is in great need of ensuring access to the roads of the neighboring country, through which it is linked with the European system of communication.

After the Crete Summit, however, while considering his meeting with Nano a positive step, Milosevic let it to be understood that it is still too early for a change in policy. The subsequent events in Drenica seem to support those who criticized the meeting. Yet, it cannot be said that Tirana came out a loser at the Crete Meeting. In the eyes of the international community, Albania was no longer the “stubborn girl” now that it had extended the olive branch. The road to improving relations between Tirana and Belgrade has been made a great deal longer by the recent bloody events in Kosovo. Now that Belgrade is under international pressure, it is clear that hopes for breaking the ice in relations between the two countries are rather slim.

Albania and Yugoslavia exchanged fierce allegations at the end of April, when Belgrade accused Tirana of supporting Albanian terrorism in Kosova. Tirana, for its part, accused Belgrade of state terrorism, denying the allegations made against it. Relations between both countries reached the lowest point in the decade. Albania intensified its military forces as Yugoslav troops approached the vicinity of its northern border.

Nevertheless, Albania is, just as in the past, trying to build differentiated relations with Montenegro. The victory of liberal Milo Djukanovic in the recent presidential elections was received with satisfaction in Tirana. But its course for creating a privileged relationship with Montenegro has come up against the jealousy of federal authorities in Belgrade, who have kept the main door between Albania and Montenegro, the border checkpoint of Hani i Hotit, shut since the Albanian crisis.

Actually the unexpressed dream of Albanians would be to have pressure put on Belgrade from both Pristina and Podgorica. At the same time Albania seems to have no complaints about the condition of Albanians in Montenegro, who make up about 6 percent of the republic’s population. The Albanians voted almost unanimously for Djukanovic and even have a minister of their nationality in the Montenegrin government. President Djukanovic’s stance on Kosova, and especially his criticism of Milosevic’s policy, have been widely reflected in the Tirana press.


Tirana-Skopje: Linking Up

After the end of communism Albania had difficulties defining its position towards Macedonia. On one hand it was strongly interested in promoting regional cooperation and improving economic ties, on the other it was anxious not to create the impression that it was neglecting the concerns of the Albanians living there.

Berisha’s government followed an inconsistent and at times confusing policy towards Macedonia. While it recognized Macedonia as early as 1993, despite concern that it might alienate its powerful neighbor Greece in the process, and also offered its neighbor access to its sea port in Durres during the 1993 Greek trade blockade, it tried to use that position to put pressure on the Macedonian government to give in to demands by the ethnic Albanian parties in Macedonia.

During a party congress of the then still united ethnic Albanian Party of Democratic Prosperity (PPD) on 4 December 1993, for the first time Tirana directly used its influence on the Macedonian Albanians in what appeared to be a move to destabilize Macedonia. While having been cautious previously when approaching the neighbor and using its influence on the Albanians there in a moderating way, that party congress indicated a change in politics. Using its state media, Tirana openly began to support the radical wing in the PPD, which wanted to leave the government coalition, arguing that the Social Democrat-led coalition was not ready to accept the Albanians’ demands for a special constitutional status and university education in Albanian language and that the moderates were not serious in their strategy to achieve the commonly formulated aim. The moderate wing of the party wanted to continue to be part of the coalition and reach higher minority status by participating in government institutions. As a result of the conflict the PPD split in two. Both of the parties maintained the same name and program for a while, but in 1994 the more radical group changed became the Party of Democratic Prosperity of the Albanians (PPDSH) and later the Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH).

Albanian-Macedonian relations were also later influenced by Skopje’s policy towards its Albanian minority and Tirana’s claim to protect them. Relations with Macedonia deteriorated further after the opening of the illegal Albanian-language university in Tetovo, and repeated demands by the Albanian government to guarantee minority rights, including Albanian-language education at university level. The flying of Albanian flags from public buildings has become a major point of tensions. Albania supports the demand for university level education in Albanian language but does not offcially endorse the Tetovo University. While protesting against the violent crackdown of the Macedonian government, it has been careful not to offend Skopje over the issue of the Albanian minority. Shortly after his inauguration, Foreign Minister Milo sent a reconciliatory message to Skopje on 28 July 1997, saying that “having new relations with neighboring countries is better than remaining in a Cold War situation with them.” 9 Considering its long-term integration interest, the new Albanian government is trying harder than its predecessor to contain Macedonian-Albanian separatism by cultivating good neighborly relations with Skopje and discouraging ethnic conflicts through the promotion of regional integration.

The improvement in relations has been marked by two visits by Prime Minister Nano to Macedonia in early 1998. The first involved an Albanian government delegation which signed eight cooperation agreements in Skopje on 15 January. The agreements had not been signed earlier because of Albanian’s hesitance to use the term Macedonia, probably due to fears that it could offend Greece. The compromise found was that the documents avoid mentioning the name of either state. The agreements provide for the reduction of customs tariffs, lifting of double taxation, joint investment projects in agriculture and transports and cooperation in the field of the judiciary. Nano invited Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov to Tirana to sign a mutual friendship and cooperation agreement later this year. He also visited the mostly Albanian populated city of Tetovo, where he held a meeting with local representatives. During the meeting, in an apparent attempt to discourage separatism, Nano pointed out that “the future of all citizens in the Balkans, wherever they live . . . is only integration into a new Europe”. 10 Another meeting with his Macedonian counterpart Branko Crvenkovski took place in Ohrid one month later. At that time, Crvenkovski pledged to address the issue of university education in the Albanian language, but according to media reports there was a mutual understanding that both sides would show restraint considering the danger that nationalist forces could win the upcoming parliamentary elections in Macedonia in fall 1998.


Tirana—Athens: Love and Intrigue

Between 1991 and 1995 the relationship between Greece and Albania had its positive as well as its negative aspects. There was an improvement in the economic and political relationship, while uneasy tension resulted from Greece’s attempts to protect the ethnic Greek minority in southern Albania, which Albania regarded as interference into its internal affairs and an encouragement of separatism. The symbiosis of economies continued: Greek agriculture was dependent on the flow of Albanian workers, especially during the harvest season, and Albania desperately needed the hard currency trickling back with the returning workers. The largely illegal immigration of Albanians to Greece, which began in 1991, reached a level of about 300,000 persons permanently residing in Greece, depending on developments in Albania.

But between 1991 and 1995, tensions between the two countries were focused on the ethnic Greek minority in Albania. Five leaders of Albania’s ethnic Greek organization, Omonia, were arrested and jailed in August 1994 for spying on Albanian military bases and for separatist activity designed to promote Greek territorial ambitions in southern Albania. The ethnic Greeks’ military trial placed a further burden on the strained relationship between both countries. Albanian officials claimed the suspects cooperated with the Greek secret service, the Greek Orthodox Church and nationalist extremists, who were preparing an armed uprising. Greece maintained that the incident was a witch-hunt and vetoed a $43 million EU loan package to Albania in response to the arrests. There was a temporary freezing of diplomatic relations in response to the convictions of the men, and Greece expelled about 70,000 illegal Albanian immigrants. 11

Another source of strain on Greek-Albanian relations was the appointment of the head of the Albanian Orthodox Church. After the fall of communism the Orthodox Church realized that it could not reconstruct itself without help from outside, considering that there were few experienced priests left from before. Therefore, the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople, in agreement with the Albanian government, appointed the Greek citizen Anastasios Giannulatos to head the Albanian Orthodox Church. Even though the Greek advice was welcome at first, tensions rose between the Albanian government and the Greek clergy. The conflict culminated when the government introduced a paragraph favored by Berisha that banned foreigners from holding the position of head of a religious community into a draft of the constitution. The new constitution was defeated by popular referendum in November 1994, but Albania’s governments have avoided pressing Greece over the issue since then, despite popular protests in the city of Elbasan, where a local priest refuses to recognize the Archbishop. Relations improved after the release of the five Omonia activists in February 1995 following an amnesty issued by Berisha. Within one month of their release, Greek Foreign Minister Karolos Papoulias visited Tirana to discuss political and economic cooperation. Subsequently Greece lifted its veto on EU aid and both countries signed a series of military, economic and cultural cooperation agreements.

Another conflict, centering on the opening of Greek schools in Albania, was solved in 1996 with the opening of four schools. Greek President Kostis Stephanopoulos, who had refused to visit Albania before, came to Tirana in March 1996 as the first Greek President to visit Albania. Stephanopoulos and Berisha signed a cooperation and friendship treaty. This visit was also a help to Berisha on the domestic front, namely as a sign of support from Greece just one week before Albania’s third parliamentary elections on 26 May.

With the outbreak of anarchy in Albania in March of the following year, relations again focused on the massive influx of refugees from Albania to Greece. At the peak of the crisis estimates of Albanians in Greece went as high as 500,000-600,000. Besides accommodating refugees during the worst time of the crisis, Greece also gave substantial medical assistance to the victims of the violence by treating numerous patients in its hospitals in regions bordering southern Albania. Nevertheless, when the new Albanian government took office in August it had little difficulty in picking up ties with Athens and quickly established trust with the Socialist government in Greece. Soon after, the cooperation that had developed since 1995 was reactivated. Prime Minister Kostas Simitis visited Tirana on 15 October 1997 to discuss further steps in implementing the previous agreements and in assisting the Albanian government in its reform efforts after the unrest.

Both sides also agreed to implement seasonal labor agreements and to legalize Albanian immigrants in Greece. Moreover, Simitis praised Albania’s foreign policy aim of promoting regional integration and provided a forum for discussion of practical steps at the Balkan leaders summit in Crete in November. As concerns the Kosovo conflict, Greece repeated earlier offers of mediation at the Crete meeting. Two month later, Greek Defense Minister Akis Tsohatzopoulos visited Tirana and pledged to help reorganize Albania’s navy and upgrade the ports of Saranda and Durres.

During a two day visit on 29 and 30 December, he also proposed creating a common security institution for the Balkans and holding a meeting of Balkan defense ministers in mid-1998. Greece has helped rebuild the military hospital in Tirana and is planning to improve Tirana’s military airport. Athens, furthermore, said it would assist Tirana with funds to build apartments for army officers and help revive Albania’s military industry.

In the meantime, the opposition’s relations to Greece have deteriorated, largely as a result of domestic interests and a strategy designed to embarrass the government. Berisha, who has never visited Greece, protested against the visit of Tsohatzopoulos and claimed that the presence of Greek troops on Albania’s territory constituted a violation of its sovereignty.


Tirana—Ankara: No Problems

Turkey and Albania have traditionally had close relations and the Turkish government has supported all Albanian leaders without exception, beginning with Enver Hoxha. But, whereas Hoxha did not conceal the fact that he preferred Turkey to its hostile brother Greece, things have changed since his departure from government.

At present Tirana seeks to be on good terms with both its neighbors, trying not to be involved in their quarrels. But one cannot help noticing that whereas Athens is an important political and economic partner, Turkey remains, as it was before, Tirana’s most important military partner, next to Washington. Turkey saw to it that the number of Turkish soldiers who came to Albania in the framework of the Alba operation was equal to that of Greek soldiers: each side sent 700. Tirana has now become accustomed to the practice that every visit from a Greek minister is unfailingly followed by a visit from a Turkish minister. After Greek Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos, his Turkish counterpart Ismail Cem necessarily had to visit Tirana.

It is perhaps not mistaken to affirm that, after Albania, Turkey is the country in which the events in Kosovo are followed with the highest sensitivity. Top Turkish politicians and the diplomacy of that country are involved in a flurry of diplomatic activities reflecting Turkey’s very active stance. The most frequently repeated phrase of Turkish politicians is that “Turkey cannot stand idly by when there is a conflict in Kosovo”. Ankara has a dual relationship with the Albanians of Kosovo. On one hand, there are the cultural ties, which imply first of all the Muslim religious identity, because the majority of the population of Kosovo professes Islam. On the other hand, the presence in Turkey of a great number of Albanians or Turkish citizens of Albanian extraction, mainly from Kosovo, raises Turkish sensitivity to this question. Doubtlessly this cannot fail to be taken into account in Tirana.

In a broader Balkan context, Turkey has always seen the Albanians as its natural allies in the Balkans. If the Greeks and Serbs have stood on one side of the scale, the Turks and the Albanians have stood on the other. Although some kind of dissatisfaction with Nano’s government is felt in Ankara over what is seen in the Turkish capital as Tirana’s pro-Greek orientation, Turkey continues to have close military ties with Tirana; indeed, it is playing an important role in the re-organization of the disintegrated Albanian army. Albania’s most important military base, which was destroyed during the armed uprising last year, will be rebuilt by Turkey.


Tirana—Washington: The Much Desired Partner

The blind hostility of Tirana’s communist regime towards America was replaced by close relations, which the Albanians, accustomed to powerful tutors, liked to advertise by all manner of means. When, in the summer 1992, Italy demanded that Operation Pelican be transformed into a logistic operation which would assist in the reformation of the Albanian army, Berisha politely refused, implying that the United States would do the job.

For a long time, military matters were the most important aspect of the relations between the small Balkan country and the greatest power in the world. James Baker was the only US Secretary of State to come to Albania (June 1991), at a time when the secretaries of defense or the Chiefs of Staff of the United States had come more than once to Albania. In 1994 Tirana offered Washington the Gjader military airport for reconnaissance missions of American spy planes in the skies of the former Yugoslavia after a refusal from NATO member Italy. This earned Albania the title of “US satellite” in the Balkans. In 1995, Secretary of Defense, William Perry, convened a meeting of the defense ministers of Balkan countries in Tirana, from which both Yugoslavia and Greece were absent.

Although the American contribution to the development of the Albanian economy has been a modest one, close political relations with the United States have constantly been considered of particular importance for Albania, which has looked upon the American “umbrella” as a sure defense in a troubled region like the Balkans. Nevertheless, not everything has gone smoothly. Washington began to look unfavorably upon some of Berisha’s moves, especially the detention of the five Greek Omonia activists. But while the United States could close an eye to Berisha’s authoritarian behavior, it could not tolerate the manipulation of the elections on 26 May 1996. This was the beginning of Berisha’s break with the United States which, from an ardent supporter, turned into one of his fiercest critics. The Albanian leader rejected repetition of the elections and even refused to receive the Undersecretary of State, Wirth, in Tirana.

Apart from those factors, many think that Berisha’s demands for the radicalization of the political movement of the Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia also had an influence on the worsening of relations. Eventually Berisha accused the American CIA and the Greek lobby in the United States of having organized the armed uprising of March 1997.

The post-Berisha period has marked a return to the starting point. The Nano government, while trying to strike a balance between the pro-American and the pro-European orientation, continues to lean toward Washington. The more resolute American stand on the crisis in Kosovo has, no doubt, had an influence on this direction, at least for the moment. Nano has had repeated meetings with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Tirana, as usual, has followed American recommendations over Kosovo. The recent rapprochement between Tirana and Skopje is thought to have taken place under American direction, for Macedonia is not only a zone of American interests but also the greatest question mark in the future of the Balkans.


Tirana—Moscow: Memories And Doubts

In a declaration on 30 July 1990, the then foreign minister of the Soviet Union, Edvard Shevarnadze asked Albania for forgiveness for his country’s part of the guilt for breaking relations with Albania three decades earlier. The fall of communism removed the last obstacles to the normalization of the links interrupted for thirty years. On 27 May 1991, the Soviet Embassy was re-opened in Tirana and the Albanian Embassy in Moscow re-opened on 23 November of the same year. On 4 January 1992, Albania recognized the former Soviet republics as independent states.

Seven years after the normalization of Albanian-Russian relations it can be said that they are on a careful rise. A distinctive feature is the inequality between political exchanges, on one hand, and the economic, military, cultural and scientific exchanges on the other. In early 1998, Albanian Foreign Minister Milo went to Moscow on the first visit of an Albanian chief of diplomacy after 40 years (the last visit was in 1958). After signing some cooperation agreements with his Russian counterpart, the Albanian minister made it possible for the joint economic commission, which had not met for two years, to start work again. Restructuring of Albania’s obsolete Russian technology, renewal of infrastructure, the mining industry, a soft loan for Albania, construction of a gas pipeline, promotion of tourism are just some of the fields in which Albania would like to cooperate with its former Soviet brother.

However, just when Albanian President Meidani was to visit Moscow for the signing of a treaty of friendship and cooperation between the two countries, among other things, the Kosovo crisis has put everything on hold. Moscow’s stance in the Contact Group as well as a letter from Russian Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov, accusing Tirana of stirring up the upheaval in Kosovo, has reintroduced the Cold War vocabulary in relations between the two countries. Milo reacted harshly to that letter and, as a result, everything seems to have been postponed to a more propitious time. Primakov is scheduled to visit Albania for the first time this year , but in the meantime there have been calls in the Albanian press not to sign the treaty of friendship and cooperation. 12


Tirana—Rome, Bonn, Paris: A Matter of Interest

There can be no doubt that Italy is the most influential country in Albania. Among foreign languages, the Italian language is the most widely spoken in the country and RAI (the Italian public broadcasting corporation) and Berlusconi’s programs (three private Italian channels) are widely watched. Even the weekly lottery is organized with the results of the matches of the Italian soccer championship.

At the same time, Italy is Albania’s main economic partner; Italian business has penetrated deeply into the fragile Balkan country. Italy is Albania’s main aid donor. Italian investments also occupy the first place in the overall bulk of investments in Albania. A number of Italian projects focus on improvement of the destroyed infrastructure of the country, especially improvement of roads, renovation of the electrical energy distribution network and the outdated water supply system in the main cities.

But the level of political relationships between the two countries has lagged behind the human and economic ones. In quiet times, Rome shows little interest in its neighbor, while during crises, it is obliged to take over the responsibilities it deserves and even to spend a good deal of money. More than a country with which Italy can have normal relations, Albania is seen by Italy as a boring neighbor that continuously causes problems. During 1997, the Italian premier, Prodi, visited Albania three times in six months, while in contrast, no Italian premier had ever visited Albania during the previous six years, or for that matter, since the Second World War.

In spite of the fact that the two countries signed a Friendship and Cooperation Treaty (Memorandum) in 1995, it can be said that Italy has not had a clear policy for the country lying across the Adriatic and at the same time Tirana has applied an unsteady policy to its wealthy neighbor.

In Albania, an old debate is still ongoing about whether its natural route to Europe goes through Italy or Greece. Last year, when Italy led the Alba international military force, jealousy overwhelmed Athens. Athens’ dailies accused Italy of trying to appear as a regional superpower, striving to implement the mare nostrum dogma. Later on, when the new government was having its honeymoon with Greece, it was Rome’s turn be disgruntled and make allegations of ungratefulness.

The “Rome-Athens” dilemma soon changed into an internal political debate. Opposition and part of the press requested a change in course to make it more Rome-oriented. It should be underlined that despite the memories of World War II, public opinion in Albania tends to to be dubious of messages or gifts coming from Athens, whereas this is not true of the messages and gifts that come from Rome. The Balkan neighbor is regarded as being more implicated in its interests in Albania, as they are linked with the Greek minority or the privileged Athens—Belgrade relations. In any case, Nano made the necessary corrections by signing, within a short time after this coming to power, a number of agreements with Italy.

Italy was the organizing country of the Rome Conference (31 July 1997), just a few days prior to the establishment of the new government. In less than a year, close cooperation has been established between both countries. The first agreements envisaged Italian assistance for the revival of the collapsed Albanian state: army, police, customs, etc. Italy is also active in educational projects in Albania, especially in cooperating with universities. On 18 December 1997, the Declaration of Intent for Cooperation between the Italian government and the Albanian government was signed in Rome. The Agreement defines the main directions of Italian assistance to Albania’s development in various areas till year 2000.

A delicate topic between Italy and Albania remains the question of emigrants. Despite some decrease, a flux of Albanian, Kurd, Chinese and even Pakistani illegals still continues to cross the Adriatic from Albanian shores. In addition to illegal persons, drug traffic takes the same road. Both countries have agreed on preventive measures, but given the current situation in Tirana, it is less capable of implementing these measures.

Many consider Italy’s stance towards Kosovo as unsteady and conditioned by its desire to keep aloof of Balkan conflicts and by its present economic interests in Yugoslavia, especially in Yugoslav Telekom. The outburst of violence in Kosovo still casts a shadow over the relations between Rome and Tirana; Rome reduced contacts with Tirana, which caused dissatisfaction and doubts there. The Italian stance in the meetings of the Contact Group has been criticized by Tirana’s dailies.

Germany, on the other hand, is the country the Albanians trust the most as far as the future of Kosovo is concerned, besides the US. In principle, Albanians believe that Germany is an ally concerning Kosovo because it maintained a strong position on recognizing the independence of Croatia (which Albanians believe is similar to the Kosovo case) and has a sympathetic position towards Albania as opposed to Serbia. While Greek, Russian, French or Italian initiatives are viewed suspiciously, German ones are welcomed. This is also due to the fact that these countries have been more friendly towards Serbia in the past and present.

Excluding its neighbors, Germany is also the country with which Albania has established the closest relations. Having been Berisha’s political ally during most of his five-year mandate, Kohl’s government started behaving coldly after the dubious elections of May 1996, but without voicing any open criticism as America did. Stability in the region was more important than the democratic standards being applied in Albania.

In April 1997, however, Bonn refused to participate in the multinational force. It has been said that the reason for that passive stance was the disillusionment of German diplomacy with the failure of its five-year effort with Berisha. On the other hand, it seems more likely that Bonn had decided to wait for the results of the 29 June elections to be able to start to negotiate with the winners. Another dimension is that the German public is still hesitant to get involved in out-of-area operations, especially in countries that Germany occupied during World War II.

In autumn of 1997, relations between both countries—starting with German economic aid for Tirana—were further enhanced. During his 6 February 1998 visit to Tirana, German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel demonstrated clear support for the Nano government, giving the impression that Berisha had already lost his former support.

If the actors have changed in Albania, Germany’s regional interests have not. During his meetings in Tirana, Kinkel made clear that he is interested in internal stability being restored as soon as possible in Albania, a strong premise for the stability of turbulent Kosovo.

Kosovo and emigrants are the two axes around which the German policy towards Albania revolves. About 400,000 Albanians, mainly from Kosovo, are currently living in Germany. Most of them are looking for political asylum and refuse to go home, a situation that is making German authorities very anxious.

France is less concerned about the emigrant issue. Nor did it hesitate to participate in the peaceful military force. It sent 1000 troops to Albania, occupying the second place in that force. Indeed, the military operation in Albania was undoubtedly a good chance for France to stress its special role within NATO, which has been and still is one of Chirac’s strategic objectives. At the same time, the coming to power of the new political class, many of whom have studied in France, has provided an opportunity for both countries to activate the francophone card in Albania. Tirana was admitted to the Conference of Francophone Countries at the Hanoi summit, which means a return to the pre-war tradition when Albania ranked among francophone countries.


Regional Initiatives

The new Albanian government is striving to get involved and be active in various regional initiatives. Among them, the most spectacular one has been the Crete Summit, where Tirana was, in addition to Athens, one of the main actors. The Crete Summit became the pivot of various debates in Tirana—not only because of the Nano-Milosevic meeting. Two main directions were evident in Crete. The first, epitomized by the catch words “the Balkans to the Balkan peoples”, was well liked not only by Milosevic, whose relations with the West are at stake, but also by Athens, because the Summit brought to the fore its role as the engine of the Balkans. The other direction, advocated above all by Premier Nano and President Gligorov, underlined the idea of Europeanizing the Balkans. Some of the words most frequently repeated by Premier Nano and President Meidani were “Balkan Schengen” and “Eighth Corridor”, two concepts dear to Tirana’s Balkan policy and related in that they both involve the opening of borders and the free flow of people and commodities.

In Crete, Nano said that “we should be heading towards a gradual lifting of visas between countries in the Balkans”. 13 This idea seems attractive in Tirana, not only because of the need for increased economic contacts, but also because the Balkans without visas would mean free communication among the Albanians on both sides of the borders. However, it has little chance of being supported, first of all, because Serbia is afraid of free inter-Albanian communication and, second and most important, because Greece, as the newest member of the European Schengen, is at the moment under pressure to close rather than open its doors to its Balkan neighbors. For the time being, the Balkans sans frontières is a utopia, or at least science fiction.

As concerns the Eighth Corridor—a corridor between East and West—this is not a new idea. Three years ago, the presidents of Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey signed an agreement in New York, by which a highway would connect Durres, Skopje, Sofia and Istanbul or, in other words, the Adriatic with the Black Sea.

The US had expressed support for this project, but Greece criticized it because construction of this road would reduce traffic through the port of Thessaloniki. Greece would prefer revival of the old Egnatia route instead of this route which is known, in Athens, as Para-Egnatia. Due to the explosive events in the region in the last years and Greek opposition, this project was long forgotten. Tirana revived it and it seems that, in addition to the backing of the US, it now also enjoys the support of Italy which is turning an eye towards the east. At the same time, it seems that even Greece will no longer be against it as, in its second phase, a branch of the Eighth Corridor is planned to extend to Thessaloniki.

The project went through a long development phase under the previous government, but work on the Albanian side came to a halt during the unrest in 1997. Work on the project is more advanced in Macedonia where a new highway is being built as part of the already sophisticated road network from Yugoslav times linking Skopje with Tetovo and Gostivar. Work is supposed to resume on the Albanian side in summer 1998. By the year 2020, a railway and a full-fledged highway are to link the two countries, currently connected by two rural roads only. On the Albanian side, only a small number of bridges have been built so far to improve and secure the existing two-lane road, which sometimes narrows to one. The only part of the corridor on Albanian territory that indeed looks like a real highway is a short stretch between Durres and Tirana.

Transport ministers from Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania, meeting in Tirana on 11 December 1997, took essential steps to revive the project. Afterwards, representatives of the Albanian and US governments signed an agreement for the construction of an Albanian-Macedonian highway. In a first phase Albania will reconstruct the main road and railway line between Durres and the Macedonian-Albanian border crossing of Qafe Thane by the year 2003. Later the government envisages building a completely new highway by 2010. The project could, by promoting regional integration and trade, considerably reduce the pressure of illegal migration and trafficking between both countries. The US will support the project in Albania with an initial grant of $10.3 million. It has also pledged to pay another $20 million to Bulgaria and Macedonia for the project linking the ports of Durres and Varna. The three countries also plan the construction of gas and oil pipelines. 14


Euro-Atlantic Institutions


Since the end of communism, all Albanian governments have been eager to develop their ties with and integration into international organizations. During the dramatic developments in 1991, most of the contacts to international organizations developed out of the necessity to bring urgent assistance to the country. In that year, the three governments made initial contacts with the international community which were only developed properly after 1992. Both the Democratic Party and Socialist Party governments maintained integration into NATO and the EU as a foreign policy objective.

Albania was the first Eastern European country to apply formally for NATO membership in 1992. Thereafter, it entered into a number of bilateral treaties for military cooperation and the following year applied for membership in the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, to which it acceded in January 1994. Since then the country has received substantial assistance, both bilateral and multilateral, in restructuring the military at all levels. In 1995, Albania conducted a total of nine military exercises in cooperation with the US in the framework of the PfP program. In addition to US troops, the joint NATO exercises mostly included Turkish, Greek and Italian troops, but also contingents from other PfP member states. US Marines were trained on Albanian territory in December 1995 in preparation for further deployment in Bosnia, while Albanian soldiers trained in the US for future peace-keeping missions. Albania provided airport and port facilities for NATO during the Bosnian war.

Despite political tension between the US and Albania over the parliamentary elections, military cooperation continued to develop throughout 1996. Albania took the leading role in the Balkans in holding joint PfP exercises. The government also organized a conference of Balkan and Mediterranean Defense Ministers in March of that year and the US opened a training base in the Martanesh Mountains as part of a military aid package with an overall value of $100 million. 15 Furthermore, the first 40-strong Albanian peace-keeping contingent participated in the German IFOR contingent, based in the Croatian port of Trogir. Until the outbreak of unrest and the destruction of a large part of the army and the looting of military depots in March 1997, Greece and Italy supported Albania’s candidacy in the first round of NATO expansion.

In April 1997, the embattled government of national reconciliation, headed by Bashkim Fino, called for NATO military intervention to prevent the conflict in Albania between the rebels who wanted to topple the government and Berisha’s supporters from extending. The fact that Albania was a member of PfP did not expedite the request. NATO rejected the appeal and General Secretary Havier Solana said that the conflict was internal and that NATO could not interfere. The NATO rejection may have been largely due to fears that it would set a precedent and reinforce Russian objections to NATO’s enlargement eastward.

The Western European Union also turned down a request, then backed by OSCE envoy Franz Vranitzky. Finally, it was left up to Italy to assemble the force for which it received a UN Security Council mandate. Troops from NATO and PfP countries came to Albania, but not under the NATO flag.

In addition to Italians, the 7,000-strong operation code named Alba also involved troops from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain and Turkey. It is interesting to observe that the 11 countries that participated in the Alba operation, with the exceptions of Belgium and Denmark, constitute a combination of southern European (Austria, Italy, France, Portugal, Spain) and Balkan countries (Greece, Romania, Slovenia, Turkey).

The sending of the Multinational Protection Force (MPF), as Alba was otherwise called, was an expression of the fear that the Albanian conflict might spill over to other parts of the region, especially Kosovo. Although Alba’s mandate was not too clear, prompting the Albanians to call the foreign soldiers “armed tourists”, the MPF played an important psychological role. It may be safely said that more important than what 7,000 soldiers could accomplish was the mere fact that they were present in a country in which the state had disintegrated and large parts of the army were destroyed.

Only after the June elections was the government able to reconstruct the military. The new government maintained the foreign policy objectives of its predecessor and formulated an ambitious program which again included the aim of NATO and EU membership.

Italy and Greece kept several hundred soldiers in Albania after the multinational forces withdrew in late August and have since then given substantial assistance in rebuilding the army. 16 Other international involvement includes a 60-strong WEU police training mission, which has focused on reorganizing and training the police in terms of work organization and professional ethics. In early 1998, foreign military and police representatives in Albania included 20 persons from the Italian Ministry of Defense, another 20 from the Italian Interior Ministry, and 40 from the Italian Guardia di Finanza or customs, who are involved in developing Albanian customs control. The largest foreign contingents includes 200 soldiers from the Italian marines and another 200-strong Greek contingent. There is also a core group of five Turkish soldiers, but its number will increase in spring 1998, since Turkey and Albania signed a bilateral accord in February providing for the Turks to upgrade the port of Pashaliman, near Vlore.

Following calls from the Albanian government to send a NATO contingent to the northern border with Kosovo after the outbreak of fighting there in March 1998, NATO has pledged to send eight teams of experts over a period of two months. The seven-strong teams will be composed of both civilian and military personnel. The first team arrived on 30 March. NATO is also considering opening a special office in Albania to coordinate further activities in regard to Kosovo. 17

Council of Europe and OSCE

One of the first requests of the anti-communist opposition was admission into the OSCE. Indeed, in summer 1991, former President Ramiz Alia signed the Helsinki Documents. Until the elections of 1996, however, the OSCE was not one of the main actors on the Albanian political scene. Albania was admitted into the Council of Europe in July 1995.

Membership in both organizations stirred a strong debate inside Albania at the time, but the most heated was over membership in the Council of Europe. The question was whether the Council should admit Albania, given the increasing authoritarian tendencies of the Berisha government. Nevertheless, the harsh conflict between the government and the opposition over whether or not a new draft constitution should provide for a strong presidency or a strong parliament did not seem to hinder Albania’s candidacy. The Council’s specialists concluded that the constitutional provisions from 1991 and a package of additional laws guaranteed a democratic constitutional framework and that a new constitution was not required for admission.

During 1995, however, government and parliament took a number of measures that endangered the division of powers and independence of the judiciary. Shortly after admission to the Council of Europe, parliament sacked Supreme Court Chief Judge Zef Brozi in an apparent violation of constitutional principles. Also the continued imprisonment of then opposition leader Fatos Nano was criticized by human rights groups as politically motivated. But the Council of Europe did not outspokenly criticize the government and Berisha continued to enjoy a certain degree of support from the conservative majority in the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly.

The first serious blow to Albania’s relations with the OSCE and the Council of Europe came with the parliamentary elections of 1996. The ballot also marked the first open contrast between the policy towards Albania of the two bodies. While election monitors from the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly issued a statement shortly after the vote saying that they did not observe any considerable irregularities, the observations of the OSCE indicated that the elections were fraudulent. The official report of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) said the elections fell short of legal standards and that government cooperation with monitors was insufficient. 18

The next test case for Albania’s foreign relations were the local elections of October 1996. The Socialists and various other opposition parties had threatened to boycott the vote. After a months-long standstill, a US-mediated round table agreed on a package of legislative reforms designed to ensure a free and fair vote. In the end, all parties participated in the October ballot, even though a critical point of dispute remained unresolved. The opposition had demanded that the OSCE’s ODIHR office be allowed to monitor the balloting. But just days before the vote the Albanian Foreign Ministry refused to issue accreditation to all ODIHR monitors. Subsequently the OSCE withdrew completely. The Council of Europe then coordinated the monitoring missions alone and concluded that the voting was by and large free and fair.

The next major foreign policy involvement of international organizations came with the arrival of OSCE envoy Franz Vranitzky on 2 March 1997. Vranitzky successfully mediated an agreement between President Sali Berisha and the opposition. Both sides agreed on 9 March to the formation of a government of national reconciliation under Socialist Prime Minister Bashkim Fino, and announced early elections.

The parliamentary elections on 29 June and 6 July 1997 proceeded without the eruption of major violence, even though the Albanian government, assisted by the OSCE, had barely two months’ time to prepare them. The OSCE’s monitoring effort was huge and involved a total of about 500 observers, including those from other organizations. Despite much fear that they would be a failure, the elections were a success and largely contributed to the stabilization of the country. The OSCE concluded that the ballot was “acceptable”. 19

Since the elections, the OSCE has played an important role in coordinating international assistance efforts, building up civil society and facilitating dialogue between the government and the opposition. The OSCE has also opened a number of field offices in the south and the north.

The European Union

Since 1992, the European Union has allocated considerable funds to Albania, the most per capita compared to other former communist countries. After the signing of a Framework Agreement that marked the beginning of the relationships with Brussels, annual Financing Memoranda have been signed, through which funds for various projects in Albania have been activated.

In 1995, a Sui Generis Agreement was signed, which in fact was an effort to make up for the absence of an Associate Agreement with the European Union, whose conditions Tirana has not been able to meet. Albania is the only former communist country (Republics of Former Soviet Union excluded) that has not signed an Associate Agreement with EU.

With regard to political relations, Tirana enjoyed continuous EU support until the 26 May 1996 elections. After that, the EU stance towards Berisha’s government was confused, because of the various positions of the different EU member countries. When crisis broke out last spring, EU sent its chairman-in-office, the Dutch foreign minister, Hans Van Mierlo to Tirana.

After the elections of June 1997, EU offered its support to the country brought down by anarchy. The two Donors’ Conferences, in Rome and Brussels, marked the re-beginning of the Projects for Albania. These Projects envisage support for the public administration, reforms in police structures, etc. Most relations with EU are channeled through bilateral projects with EU member states and especially the neighbours, Italy and Greece.


Tirana and the Islamic World: A Farewell

Five years ago, former President Berisha, who had just come to power, brought Albania into the Islamic Conference, giving rise to violent criticism within the country and suspicions in the chancelleries of the Western countries. Nobody had a clear idea of the reasons that impelled Berisha to take such a step. At the time, in October 1992, when he put his signature to the Charter that began with the words, “In name of Allah the Merciful . .”, Berisha was still the darling of the Western world. Furthermore, his country was living with aid given by its Catholic neighbor, Italy, and with the remittances of about 300,000 Albanian emigrants sent from its Orthodox neighbor, Greece. It is highly probable that promises of economic and financial aid from the various Islamic countries drove Berisha to take this step, but it was not without consequences not only for the country’s image abroad, but also for domestic inter-confessional relations.

For many centuries Albania has been a country of three religions: Muslim, Orthodox and Roman Catholic. An admirable tolerance in relations between religions and, in general, a shallow religious feeling have characterized and still continue to characterize the religious panorama in Albania. The latest censuses of religions in Albania date back to the pre-war period (1923, 1939, 1942). According to the most recent of them, 70 percent of Albanians were Muslim, 20 percent Orthodox and 10 percent Roman Catholic. Usually these figures are projected onto the present situation, and today’s religious landscape is assumed to be built on that basis. Regardless of the present religious situation in Albania, attempts to present Albania as an Islamic country, or worse still, as an Islamic island in the heart of Europe, after Bosnia, are unfounded speculation.

Berisha had foreseen neither the violent criticism of the opposition and intellectual circles, nor the displeasure of the other religious communities of the country, nor the reaction of Western opinion. In particular, the new generation, under strong Western influence, especially from neighboring Italy, could not accept the identification of their country with Islam.

In addition, instead of Arab investments flowing into Albania after the signature in Jeddah, the only thing that was evident was a proliferation of minarets alongside the national roads, done with the express purpose of creating the image of Albania as an Islamic country. The unilateral abolition of visas for citizens of Arab countries led to the landing in Albania of various religious groupings, including some from Iran and Sudan, who sought to convince—and were even ready to pay for it—young Muslin women to wear the veil. Computer courses often concealed lessons on the Islamic religion. The government was obliged to ban the distribution of a new edition of the Koran translated into Albanian and printed in Cairo, in the foreword of which Christianity was attacked and Albania was considered an Islamic island in the middle of Europe.

Berisha’s signing of the Charter of the Islamic Conference was never ratified by the Albanian parliament, and for a long time this chapter seemed closed. However, an invitation extended by Iran in December 1997 to take part in a high level meeting of the Islamic Conference rekindled the old debate.

Berisha was no longer in power, and the new government had to define its position. The Tehran Summit sped up Tirana’s predictable divorce with the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The seat reserved for the Albanian representative in the hall of the Tehran Summit remained unoccupied. Subsequently, on the occasion of the meeting of the foreign ministers of Islamic countries in Qatar, Tirana acted in the same way. But Tirana’s absence did not pass unnoticed and has caused some problems in relations with Islamic countries. It is hard to believe that Albania will withdraw officially from the Islamic Conference, but its presence in this organization will likely become more and more perfunctory. Freezing relations with the Islamic Conference, rather than official abandonment of it, seems to be the road that Tirana has chosen in order not to complicate matters.

The motives for the eagerness of the Nano government to leave as inconspicuously as possible the Islamic Conference, an organization as political as it is religious, must be sought, first of all, in the fact that the present majority thinks that getting out of it would be interpreted in Western political circles as a move once again confirming the pro-Western line of the new cabinet (which is dominated by former communists who, like other colleagues in post-communist Eastern Europe, often have complexes about relations with the West), and, second, in that the present majority has often looked with concern upon Berisha’s connections with certain circles in the Islamic world. Among other things, the former head of the Albanian intelligence service (SHIK) Bashkim Gazidede has been accused of dubious links with Islamic fundamentalist circles. Rumours suggest that he has found asylum in one of these countries. 20

The Nano government hopes that cooler relations with the Islamic Conference will be more than compensated by the intensification of bilateral relations with Islamic countries. However, relations with them, with the exception of Turkey, are not at their best at present. The Albanian embassies in the Islamic countries of Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan are almost paralyzed—to some extent also because of the collapse of most embassies when the crisis broke out last year.

In an attempt to expand bilateral cooperation, Premier Nano had planned a tour in the Middle East and some Arab countries, which would have started in Cairo and ended in Jeddah. But by 10 March, Nano had only got as far as Tel Aviv and Gaza before he was prevented from completing his diplomatic tour for “technical and health reasons”. 21

Yet, apart from the economic and financial aid, which has never carried much weight in the Albanian economy, it is important for Tirana not to lose the support it receives from Islamic countries in international organizations, especially the United Nations, on the Kosovo question. Through the Islamic Conference Tirana can count on approximately 50 votes every time resolutions on Kosovo come up in the General Assembly, and it is only natural that it does not want to lose them.



Albanian foreign policy strongly depends on outside factors and is largely determined by them. On the one hand, Albania is an underdeveloped and poor country in comparison to its neighbors and the main geopolitical players. Thus it needs to develop good economic relations with all of them. Furthermore its has to find a balance between the different sides and define its own position without alienating any of the competing and sometimes hostile interests. The current Albanian government’s long-term strategy is promotion of regional integration to the benefit of all sides, and it has been largely successful in creating some degree of trust. The only current exception is Serbia, to which Albania’s rapprochement has failed, due to the Kosovo crisis and the stubborn reaction of international mediation on the side of Milosevic. Under these circumstances Kosovo also influences the relationship of Albania to the main geopolitical powers. Relations to Russia are also currently deteriorating due to Russia’s continuing support for Serbia. The US remains a reliable partner whom Albania can trust for support while Albania’s position towards the EU reflects the EU’s own lack of a decisive policy. While EU countries have not shown much enthusiasm for supporting tough measures towards Belgrade, Albania needs the EU in its attempt to go ahead with regional integration and is eager to cultivate good relations with its member states.


Remzi Lani is Director of the Albanian Media Institute, Tirana, and political commentator for the Alternative Information Network (AIM); Fabian Schmidt is the Tirana Project Director of the Institute for Journalism in Transition.



Note 1: Press conference statement of Ibrahim Rugova quoted by the Kosovo Information Center (KIC), “Kosova Daily Report”, 3 November 1995.  Back.

Note 2: Rugova press conference according to KIC, “Kosova Daily Report”, 1 September 1995.  Back.

Note 3: “A duhet t i besoje Prishtina Beogradit?” (Does Prishtina have to Believe Belgrade?) Albania (daily), 17 December 1996.  Back.

Note 4: Berisha’s press conference, quoted by Albanian Telegraphic Agency, 31 December 1996.  Back.

Note 5: Interview with Prime Minister Fatos Nano after the Crete Summit, Koha Jone , 6 November 1997.  Back.

Note 6: Zeri i Popullit , 23 November 1997.  Back.

Note 7: From the speech of Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano to the Albanian Parliament on 31 March 1998, Zeri i Popullit, 1 April 1998.  Back.

Note 8: Interview with Foreign Minister Paskal Milo in Gazeta Shqiptare , 10 July 1997.  Back.

Note 9: Reuters, 26 July 1997.  Back.

Note 10: Koha Jone , 16 January 1998.  Back.

Note 11: M. Sullivan, “A Mending of Relations,” Transition , vol. 1, no. 15, 25 August 1995.  Back.

Note 12: Gazeta 55 , 5 April 1998.  Back.

Note 13: Zeri i Popullit, 4 November 1997.  Back.

Note 14: Gazeta Shqiptare , 12 December 1997 and RFE/RL Newsline, 20 August 1997.  Back.

Note 15: Agence France Press, 2 April 1996.  Back.

Note 16: RFE/RL Newsline, 7 April 1998.  Back.

Note 17: RFE/RL Newsline, 2 April 1998.  Back.

Note 18: Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Observation of the Parliamentary Elections Held in the Republic of Albania May 26 and June 2 (final report)(Warsaw: OECD, June 1996).  Back.

Note 19: Reuters, 3 July 1997.  Back.

Note 20: Gazeta Shqiptare , 29 April 1998.  Back.

Note 21: Alternative Information Network, 15 March 1997.  Back.