President Bush yesterday kept the pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin, making the first stop by a U.S. president in Albania and bluntly declaring that the Kosovo province should be allowed to break away from Serbia, a Kremlin ally.
Arriving to enthusiastic cheers of "Bushie, Bushie," the president called on the United Nations to swiftly settle the issue, in flux since a 1999 Kosovo war between Serb forces and ethnic Albanians, which make up 90 percent of the country.
"At some point in time — sooner rather than later — you've got to say 'Enough is enough. Kosovo is independent" and that's the position we've taken," Mr. Bush said during a press conference with the prime minister of Albania.
"I happen to believe it's important to push the process along," he said. "The time is now. ... Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice will be moving hard to see if we can't reach an agreement."
Mr. Bush's press for independence was aimed at Russia and others that object to Kosovo breaking away from Serbia. The president has spent most of his eight-day, six-country trip targeting Russia, first by stopping in the Czech Republic and Poland, two nations that support a U.S. missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe and with stops in Albania and Bulgaria, two countries seeking NATO admittance.
The Kremlin leader opposed the missile shield, as well as the spread of NATO into Eastern Europe, which he sees as a threat to Russian allies.
Standing alongside Prime Minister Sali Berisha, Mr. Bush said Albania must achieve additional political and military reforms before it could be considered for NATO, to which the Albanian leader quickly agreed.
"We are determined to take any decision, adopt any law, undertake any reform that would make Albania suitable to receive the invitation" to join the Western military alliance, Mr. Berisha said.
The president arrived to a hero's welcome in Albania. Thousands gathered in a downtown square to see him and first lady Laura Bush, and when he later waded into a crowd, he was nearly mobbed, with Albanians hugging him and grabbing at his arms, as anxious Secret Service agents held him by the belt from behind.
Mr. Berisha gushed that the visit was historic.
"Among us is the greatest and most distinguished guest we have ever had in all times, the president of the United States of America, the leading country of the free world," he said.
Albania, one of Eastern Europe's poorest nations, suffered under a brutal dictator, Enver Hoxha, after World War II. Afraid of invasion, he oversaw construction of more than half a million concrete pillbox bunkers as lookouts and gun emplacements, but then used the sites to subjugate Albanians.
Mr. Hoxha died in 1985, and although Albania emerged from isolation in 1990, it has been slow to embrace reforms and enter into the world marketplace.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Bush also met with Albanian President Alfred Moisiu and greeted troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Albania recently decided to triple its deployment in Afghanistan to 140 troops and has about 120 troops in Iraq.
As he has on many trips, Mr. Bush bookended a meeting with Mr. Putin — this time at the Group of Eight summit in Germany — with stops in former Soviet satellites. He irked the Russian leader with stops in the Czech Republic and Poland and ended his trip in nations that may soon join NATO. The Soviet Union oversaw the creation of the Warsaw Pact to counter NATO, but the alliance dissolved after the fall of communism in 1989.
Russia opposes NATO's spread into Eastern Europe and is concerned about the prospect that its neighbors Ukraine and Georgia may be brought into the Western military alliance. The president's stops in Albania and Bulgaria were sure to annoy Mr. Putin — again.
Russia, an ally of Serbia, contends that independence would set a dangerous precedent for the world's other breakaway regions. Serbia also opposes statehood for Kosovo, which it sees as the heart of its historic homeland.
Last month, the U.S. and European nations introduced a revised U.N. resolution supporting independence for Kosovo under international supervision, but it was immediately rejected by Russia — which hinted that it would veto the measure.