or One Visit, Bush Will Feel Pro-U.S. Glow
TIRANA, Albania, June 8 — The highlight of President Bush’s European tour may well be his visit on Sunday to this tiny country, one of the few places left where he can bask in unabashed pro-American sentiment without a protester in sight.
Americans here are greeted with a refreshing adoration that feels as though it comes from another time.
“Albania is for sure the most pro-American country in Europe, maybe even in the world,” said Edi Rama, Tirana’s mayor and leader of the opposition Socialists. “Nowhere else can you find such respect and hospitality for the president of the United States. Even in Michigan, he wouldn’t be as welcome.”
Thousands of young Albanians have been named Bill or Hillary thanks to the Clinton administration’s role in rescuing ethnic Albanians from the Kosovo war. After the visit on Sunday, some people expect to see a rash of babies named George.
So eager is the country to accommodate Mr. Bush that Parliament unanimously approved a bill last month allowing “American forces to engage in any kind of operation, including the use of force, in order to provide security for the president.” One newspaper, reporting on the effusive mood, published a headline that read, “Please Occupy Us!”
There are, to be sure, signs that the rest of Europe is tilting a bit more in America’s direction, narrowing the gap between “old” and “new” Europe that opened with disagreements over the Iraq war.
France’s new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, wants to forget the acrimony that marked his predecessor’s relations with the United States, even appointing a pro-American foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, who supported the United States’ invasion of Iraq.
Shortly after taking office, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Germany did “not have as many values in common with Russia as it does with America.” She has since proposed a new trans-Atlantic economic partnership that would get rid of many non-tariff barriers to trade.
And Gordon Brown, who will succeed Tony Blair as Britain’s prime minister this month, has vacationed several times on Cape Cod and befriended a succession of Treasury officials. He is expected to maintain what Britons call the country’s “special relationship” with the United States, ahead of other American allies.
So “old Europe” has warmed toward the United States, although there has been no fundamental shift toward more American-friendly policies. But even in “new Europe,” as the post-Communist states of Central and Eastern Europe have been called, Albania is special.
Much of Eastern Europe has grown more critical of Mr. Bush, worried that the antimissile defense shield he is pushing will antagonize Russia and lead to another cold war. Many Eastern Europeans, Czechs and Poles among them, are also angry that the United States has maintained cumbersome visa requirements even though their countries are now members of the European Union.
But here in Albania, which has not wavered in its unblinking support for American policies since the end of the cold war, Mr. Bush can do no wrong. While much of the world berates Mr. Bush for warmongering, unilateralism, trampling civil liberties and even turning a blind eye to torture, Albania still loves him without restraint.
Mr. Bush will be the first sitting American president to visit the country, and his arrival could not come on a more auspicious day: the eighth anniversary of the start of Serbian troop withdrawals from Kosovo and ratification by the United Nations Security Council of the American-brokered peace accord that ended the fighting. Mr. Bush is pushing the Security Council to approve a plan that would lead to qualified Kosovo independence.
Albanians are pouring into the capital from across the region. Hotel rooms are as scarce as anti-American feelings.
Albanians’ support for the war in Iraq is nearly unanimous, and any perceived failings of American foreign policy are studiously ignored. A two-day effort to find anyone of prominence who might offer some criticism of the United States turned up just one name, and that person was out of the country.
Every school child in Albania can tell you that President Woodrow Wilson saved Albania from being split up among its neighbors after World War I, and nearly every adult repeats the story when asked why Albanians are so infatuated with the United States.
James A. Baker III was mobbed when he visited the country as secretary of state in 1991. There was even a move to hold a referendum declaring the country America’s 51st state around that time.
“The excitement among Albanians over this visit is immeasurable, beyond words,” said Albania’s new foreign minister, Lulzim Basha, during an interview in his office, decorated with an elegant portrait of Faik Konica, who became the first Albanian ambassador to the United States in 1926. “We truly believe that this is a historic moment that people will look back on decades later and talk about what it meant for the country.”
Mr. Bush’s visit is a reward for Albania’s unflinching performance as an unquestioning ally. The country was among the first American allies to support Washington’s refusal to submit to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. It was one of the first countries to send troops to Afghanistan and one of the first to join the forces in Iraq. It has soldiers in both places.
“They will continue to be deployed as long as the Americans are there,” Albania’s president, Alfred Moisiu, said proudly in an interview.
Most recently, the country has quietly taken several former detainees from the base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, off the Bush administration’s hands when sending them to their home countries was out of the question. There are eight so far, and Mr. Moisiu said he is open to accepting more.
Mr. Rama, Tirana’s mayor, says he is offended when Albania’s pro-Americanism is cast as an expression of “provincial submission.”
“It’s not about being blind,” he said, wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the Great Seal of the United States. “The U.S. is something that is really crucial for the destiny of the world.”
The pro-American feeling has strayed into government-commercial relations. The Albanian government has hired former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge as a consultant on a range of issues, including the implementation of a national identity card.
Many people questioned the procedures under which a joint venture led by Bechtel won Albania’s largest public spending project ever, a contract to build a highway linking Albania and Kosovo. President Moisiu said state prosecutors were now looking at the deal.
In preparation for Mr. Bush’s six-hour visit, Tirana has been draped in American flags and banners that proclaim, “Proud to be Partners.” A portrait of Mr. Bush hangs on the “Pyramid,” a cultural center in the middle of town that was built as a monument to Albania’s Communist strongman, Enver Hoxha. State television is repeatedly playing a slickly produced spot in which Prime Minister Sali Berisha welcomes Mr. Bush in English.
What Mr. Bush will get in return from the visit is the sight of cheering crowds in a predominantly Muslim nation. When asked by an Albanian reporter before leaving Washington what came to mind when he thought of Albania, Mr. Bush replied, “Muslim people who can live at peace.”
Albania is about 70 percent Muslim, with large Orthodox and Catholic populations. To underscore the country’s history of tolerance, President Moisiu will present Mr. Bush with the reproduction of an 18th-century Orthodox icon depicting the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus flanked by two mosques.
“President Bush is safer in Albania than in America,” said Ermin Gjinishti, a Muslim leader in Albania.