Monday, June 11, 2007

Bush at home in the Balkans

After running the gauntlet of protests in Germany and Poland, US President George W Bush is enjoying a better reception on his two day to the Balkans. Bush is now in Bulgaria, on the second leg of his Balkans tour after his astonishingly successful eight hour visit to Albania. In Sofia, the greeting was more low key, but is also expected to be cordial as Bulgaria is now a member of NATO, hosts several US military installations and has agreed to extend its small Iraqi deployment through to the end of 2008. The only cloud on the horizon is the US decision not to deploy its missile defence shield in the country.

On Monday, Bush will have a day of talks with Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov and Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev. The country’s government hopes to change Bush’s mind about excluding southern Europe from the defence shield. The country is also worried by the clash between Bush and Russian President Putin over the shield. Bulgaria can see both sides of the quarrel as a former loyal ally of the Soviet Union and now an emerging EU democracy and may have a role to play in placating their Slavic big brother.

But however cordial the welcome in Bulgaria, it will be unlikely to match the extraordinary scenes of presidential adulation in Albania. George Bush may have record-low approval rating at home, but in Tirana he could do no wrong. His short visit was the first ever by a US president to this mostly Muslim country. Bush was greeted by Prime Minister Ali Berisha who described him as the "greatest and most distinguished guest we have ever had in all times".

Bush was greeted like a conquering hero when he went for a walkabout on the streets of the capital Tirana. People clamoured to get close to him and clapped and cheered, many wearing cardboard Uncle Sam hats and carrying signs saying Albania welcomes President Bush. Officials matched the warmth of the country’s people by awarding Bush the Order of the Flag medal, putting his image on a postage stamp and renaming a street in front of the parliament in his honour.

Bush responded in kind by signalling he was running out of patience with Russia’s stalling on the independence of Kosovo. The mostly-Albanian populated former province of Serbia has been run under the auspices of the UN and NATO since the war in 1999 but Russia rejected calls for its full independence at the G8 summit in Germany last week. Bush played to his Albanian audience by saying "Sooner rather than later you've got to say `Enough's enough - Kosovo is independent.”

Like Bulgaria, Albania has troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has tripled its troop numbers in Afghanistan to 140, and has about 120 troops in Iraq. Albania hopes the visit will help the country’s bid to join NATO and the EU. Government spokesman Grid Roy said it was the primary goal of the government and 94 percent of Albanians support integration into the international organisations. The country with its population of 3.5 million remains desperately poor and subject to mass emigration.

Albania emerged as a national identity out of the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century local intellectuals standardized the Albanian language which was a unique mixture of Latin, Greek, and Slavic dialects, in process creating a literary style for educational use. Albania gained local autonomy in 1911 and used the Balkan Wars of the following two years to gain full independence. But it came at a cost, the Kosovo province was ceded to Serbia.

After World War I, the newly created Kingdom of Yugoslavia backed Albanian chieftain Ahmed Bey Zogu believing him to be a pliable tool of Belgrade. But Zogu had his own ambitions become Prime Minister in 1924 and turning himself into King Zog in 1928. Zog looked to Italy for support and over the next 15 years Albania would become a pawn of Mussolini’s Fascist empire. The Italian military overthrew him in 1939 and ruled the country directly until defeated in 1944.

Internal resistance against the Italians and Nazis was formed a communist insurgency led by Enver Hoxha. Hoxha got crucial British support in 1944 to take control of the newly independent Albania. He installed a Marxist government and ruthlessly suppressed all opposition. For the next 40 years he pursued an increasingly isolationist policy with first Stalin and then Mao, as his only distant ally. Hoxha died in 1985 and the country underwent significant upheaval as Communism fell apart in Eastern Europe at the end of the decade.

In 1990 Albania reorganised itself into a multiparty democracy. The EU was quick to support its process of institutional, political and economic reform. Since then, the country has set a path towards a market-based economy. Initially the country went backwards with much economic hardship as government run enterprises stalled. The entire industrial sector collapsed shortly after Albania emerged from communism, triggering an exodus of 300,000 people to Italy and Greece. In 1997, the country descended into anarchy following the collapse of fraudulent pyramid investment schemes

In 2000, at Summit Zagreb the country joined the rest of the Western Balkan nations in signing a crucial stabilisation and association process agreement with the EU. The EU reaffirmed its commitment at the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit to the integration into the Union of the countries of the Western Balkans. Albania’s growing westernisation is also underscored by its desire to join NATO. While meeting Bush, Prime Minister Berisha said the country would increase its defence budget by 2 per cent. A beaming Bush will gladly accede, if only for the chance to repeat an increasingly rare positive photo opportunity.

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