Albania-US Relations, a Steady Continuation
By Genc Mlloja
Albanian Daily News
Published March 15, 2018
As today coincides with 15 March 1991, its symbolism is wrapped in the great event, which happened twenty-seven years ago, reestablishing the diplomatic relations between the two countries after a break of 52 years. It will always occupy an irreplaceable and realistic place in the history of Albania and its relations with the United States.
"The relationship between our countries goes back to the early years of this century, when President (Woodrow) Wilson extended American support for the young Albanian state. That relationship was never forgotten by the many thousands of American of Albanian origin, some of whom are in this room, who kept contact with their homeland over all these years. Despite differences in political systems, the common interests of our two countries have not altered since President's Wilson's time," Mr. Raymond G. H. Seitz, Assistant Secretary for European and Canadian Affairs said at the signing ceremony of the Memorandum of Understanding reestablishing diplomatic relations between the United States and Albania in Washington on March 15, 1991.
"We are at a very important ceremony. I call it a historic moment, a big day. It is a big day, for today we are filling a gap which has been felt for too long between us. We are creating the favorable conditions to make up for lost time. This is not simply a symbolic moment of putting a signature in a document. It is milestone on the road of our relations," said the then Foreign Minister, Muhamet Kapllani in his remarks in the ceremony.
Having had the privilege of being a witness to that historical moment as member of the negotiating team of the Albanian-US Memorandum of Understanding, even now I recall vividly the above remarks of the representatives of the two governments, but also the emotions of all those present in the ceremony held at the State Department; it was particularly evident the great joy and pride of outstanding Albanian American figures like the late Anthony Athanas, Father Arthur Liolin, and dozens of others who were present on that occasion. It can hardly be 'reconstructed' in its thoroughness all what happened on that March 15 of the year 1991.
But one thing should not be let untold: for the first time, American Albanians of different political affiliations were together in the same place rejoicing over a common dream- the reestablishment of the relations of the US with their fatherland, Albania. As a matter of fact, the same situation was experienced by us, Albanians from Albania, because besides the government representatives of that time two political figures of the newborn opposition Democratic Party, Sali Berisha and the late Gramoz Pashko, were invited by the US State Department to attend the ceremony.
Everything was happening against the backdrop of the major regional and international developments that had happened after the critical changes in all the Eastern European countries following the fall of the Berlin Wall with Albania remaining the last 'domino' as the well-known US journalist, Marvin Stone would dub this Balkan country in a comment published in the New York Times a few months before the event.
"I will not write any bad things on Albania anymore," Ms. Stone told me as I received her at the Albanian Mission in New York where I was Counsellor at that time. The analyst, who wrote in her story that even tortoises would leave if borders of Albania were opened after visiting it as a Greek tourist, hoped that things would change soon. Ms. Stone did prove to be right because the later developments brought about pluralism and ensuing changes climaxing with the fall of the communist regime even in Tirana.
'Re-finding' an Historical Friend
How do I feel after 27 years from that date? To say the least it is great pleasure and excitement over what that 'signature' has brought to the relations of Albania with the United States. Put it simply it was the 're-finding' of an historical friend of the Albanian people, which at times of uncertainty showed its support to them by deeds. So, history evidences show that while the international community debated over the partition of Albania, the US President, Woodrow Wilson on May 6, 1919 deemed that "Albania ought to be independent." The US supported Albania's current borders and in December 1920 Albania became a full member of the League of Nations. "President Wilson recognized the independence of the Albanian state, integrated it in the League of Nations, defined its borders and protected it from the chauvinist neighbors," Lisen Bashkurti, President of Albanian Diplomatic Academy, told Albanian Daily News. The US officially established bilateral diplomatic relations with Albania in 1922. But the United States withdrew its mission on November 2, 1946 as the Albanian government, which was established in 1944, very quickly went into the orbit of the former Soviet Union, making it hard for the US to maintain its own position.
Now Albanian-US relationship stands on solid foundations, the strategic links have developed steadily and Albania's membership in NATO has made them more vivid. It is no news but on such occasions it should be noted the assessment made by different scholars that Albanians are the most pro American people in the region, rather even beyond it. "The Blessed States of America" was how an Albanian woman called the US during the communist regime something causing her many years in prison. This was told me by the late Pjeter Arbnori, the first Speaker in Albania's democratic 'era', when he was in New York in May 1991 as opposition's lawmaker in the first pluralist Parliament.
It has been crucial the contribution of the United States to help Albania 'walk on its feet' in the full meaning of the word, strengthen its own physiognomy as a free and independent state in all walks of life. In this frame I recall something linked with the visit to Albania on June 22, 1991 of the then Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who was the first US high-level official to visit Tirana after the country's long period of isolation. When Mr. Baker was back home I had a call from a State Department official, who after expressing the great pleasure mixed with wonder of the warm enthusiastic welcome by Albanians, told me that they had sensed a very great expectation of the people for US financial aid. People of my age remember that the impression had been created among Albanians that US dollars would 'fall' from the sky! That worried very much the former State Department official, Susan Sutton, who was my contact during the negotiation process of the Memorandum of Understanding from May 1, 1990, when the talks started until March 1, 1991, but even later during my tenure in New York.
Friendship of America Is Far from Essential
The last 27 seven years have seen an extensive development of the Albanian-US relations in all fields and this strong relationship has been to the benefit of the two countries and people, but also to that of the Western Balkans and the wider transatlantic community. Albania joined NATO in 2009 having the invaluable support of the US a move which opened the Euro-Atlantic path of the geopolitical orientation of this Balkan country.
"Presidents Clinton and Bush supported the proclamation of the independence of Kosovo and its international recognition. So they recognized the second Albanian state in the Balkans. In addition, the US, supported the signing of the Ohrid Framework Agreement on August 13, 2001, which determined Albanians as constitutive state-forming element in Macedonia," said Mr. Bashkurti.
In the meantime the Albanian Armed Forces have undergone intensive modernization thanks to US financial assistance and advice, and they have been among the first to stand with the United States in challenging out-area operations, including Iraq and Afghanistan. The value of the US-Albania relationship is seen as effective to add to needed efforts to reinforce stability and progress in the Western Balkans and to revitalize the transatlantic relationship.
On April 22, 2015, the Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership between Albanian and the United States was signed turning into another milestone in the bilateral relations. The document focused on three aspects: partnership on global issues, partnership on regional issues and partnership on the bilateral agenda. With regard to the latter it anticipates political dialogue, security, strengthening rule of law in Albania, economic development, energy security and education and cultural exchanges.
The US and Albania and Kosovo have established a long-term strategic partnership, and thanks to this the Albanian factor in the Balkans has determined itself as the most pro American one in the region.
The relations of Albania with the United States are multifaceted not only as it is the most important strategic ally for the creation and security of the existence of the Albanian state in the two-century course of history, but also for the developments after '90s when the country was entering the path of democracy and the free market economy.
Since 1992, USAID has delivered over 500 million dollars in foreign aid to support Albania's development, stability, and integration into Europe. Albania has played a positive, moderating role in the Balkans and is making strides toward Euro-Atlantic integration with its 2008 signing of a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the European Union and joining NATO in April 2009, said USAID in an announcement published on its website on February 28, 2018. "However, significant challenges exist for Albania to become a socially-and economically-viable democracy," it said .
USAID's programs in Albania strengthen democratic institutions, promote civil society, reduce corruption, support equality and stimulate inclusive economic growth- all necessary to move Albania forward more quickly towards greater democracy while meeting criteria that are essential to achieving its European aspirations.
In addition the Treaty Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Republic of Albania Concerning the Encouragement and Reciprocal Protection of Investment, with Annex and Protocol, was signed in Washington on January 11, 1995 and it entered into force in 1998. "Since the year 1992 and up to now, the exports of Albania to the US amount to more than 800 million dollar (or an annual average of more than 30 million dollars), while imports are estimated to be about 700 million dollars (an annual amount of 27 million dollars)," said Zef Preci, a former member of the Board of the American Chamber of Commers (2001-2002). According to him, in 2007 exports grew two times, while imports five times at an annual level as compared to 1992. He revealed that Albania has the right to free tax on export to the US in accordance with the global preferential system, and the goal of the program is to give these imports a competitive advantage in the US market.
"Regardless of the modest level of the trade exchanges, the economic relations between the two countries have experienced a significant growth, especially after the year 2000 when the American Chamber of Commerce was created with the aim of promoting the local economic development; monitoring of the legislation and politics which influence on the competition, economic developments and business, offering an effective partner, an mediator between government, businesses and media," said Preci.
"AmCham should be especially evaluated for its contribution to the building of an effective dialogue between the Albanian government and the business community turning gradually into a strong voice of the business with integrity asking for "clear rules of the game" of the market economy, contemporary legislation and rule of law in the Albanian economy," the former AmCham Board member, an expert in economic studies said.
It should be highlighted that the US has consistently supported Albania's efforts to join the European Union encouraging it to improve the rule of law, to pursue transparent elections and political cooperation, to fight corruption as it seeks accession to the Club. It is significant Washington's endeavor along with the EU for the implementation of the judicial reform as a key element for the strengthening of democracy in Albania.
America's 'Favorites' Are Albanian People
On such an occasion, I humbly would underline that in the milestones of the long history of the relations of Albania with the US, nobody can claim 'sole ownership' on them, and in fact, I have seen few people who tempt to make such an effort.
First and foremost, what I have learned, the US and its politics and diplomacy, in their interaction with other countries, do not recognize and do not sing praises to self-styled favorites. They have a 'favorite' and in the case of Albania it is the Albanian people. Politicians and diplomats come and go, and they have their merits in certain moments, as they have their mistakes. However, as in the concrete case, it's never 'only' one politician or political force that has determined the reestablishment of the diplomatic ties between Albania and the United States.
As I am putting down these lines I could not escape the temptation to bring back to my memory a moment of what happened at that time, when, after the closing of the official ceremony, we were informed from Tirana that news was spreading in Albania that the Memorandum of Understanding was signed by Mr. Sali Berisha, who, as I said above, was invited to attend this ceremony as a representative of the opposition DP. The Albanian Mission to UN had not sent the official notification to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs yet because of engagements and the time difference of six hours between the two countries. The truth though came out soon through the official news and photos of the ceremony published at that time. It was Mr. Muhamet Kapllani who had signed the Memorandum!
This spirit of efforts for the 'privatization' of this event continued later as well, especially by Mr. Berisha, who even wrote in daily Rilindja Demokratike on March 16, 2016 that "Only the fall of the Iron Curtain because of the Student Movement of December 1990 and the foundation of the DP made possible the re-establishment of the diplomatic ties with the USA."
"Albania's political approach towards the United States is existential for the Albanian nation and it cannot be sacrificed for experiments and interests of the moment," said in a comment the former Albanian Ambassador to the United Nations, Agim Nesho. His comment was prompted by Albania's stance with regard to a UN General Assembly vote in December last year. Albania voted with the other OIC members in favor of a resolution proposed by Turkey and Yemen on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and a group of Arab countries, rejecting the US's recognition of undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Ahead of the vote, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley had threatened that the US would "take names" of the countries voting in favor of the resolution, which passed with 128 votes in favor, 35 abstentions, and 9 votes against, including the US and Israel.
On the other hand, although Albanian politicians generally express a strong pro-US opinion, Prime Minister Edi Rama has taken a distance from Albania's major ally, criticizing Donald Trump during the US elections. Nowadays, Albania's political scene is involved by accusations and counteraccusations of Prime Minister Rama and Head of DP Lulzim Basha charging each other of having ties with Russians. All this comes after an article was published some days ago by the US magazine Mother Jones.
But turning back to March 15, 1991 after 27 years, or rather beyond that, a lesson should be kept in mind that everybody's contribution to the promotion of the relations with the United States is just the major and honorable task set to any Albanian.
I will conclude these impressions quoting David A. Andelman, Editor Emeritus of New York- based World Policy Journal where he served for seven years as editor and publisher of the 35-year-old global affairs magazine published by the World Policy Institute in his answer to my question on the importance for Albania and its people of the United States as its main strategic ally in an interview with Albanian Daily News on July 14, 2017.
The veteran American analyst noted: "With respect to so many issues that are critical to the immediate and future advancement of Albania, I suspect that the friendship of Trump's America is far from essential given how he is viewed by most of the leading members of the EU and their intense interest in developing new trade and strategic alliances without the participation of the United States."
*The author has been a member of the negotiating team of the Albanian-US Memorandum of Understanding (May 1, 1990-March 15,1991) while he was Councillor to the Albanian Mission to the UN in New York