Monday, June 11, 2007

Talk about the irony of ironies, on his European tour U.S. President George W. Bush was met with protests in Christian countries and greeted as a liberator in Europe’s largest Muslim nation.

During his recent tour last week of several European venues that included Rome, the Vatican, Prague, and the G8 summit in Germany, the president, an ardent Christian, was received at times by massive demonstrations staged mostly by youths protesting his presence — and his policies — in those very Christian cities and countries.

Yet it was Muslim Albania — the largest Muslim country of Europe (not counting Eurasia’s Turkey of course) — that reserved the warmest welcome for the American president.

Dogged by protests for much of his tour, Mr. Bush received a warmer welcome Sunday in Albania, a former xenophobic Stalinist country now eager to show it remains one of the staunchest U.S. allies in Europe.

Albania transitioned from communist rule between 1990 and 1992, putting an end to 46 years of isolation and establishing a multiparty democracy. The transition to democracy was not easy. The country had to cope with political instability as successive governments tried to deal “with high unemployment, widespread corruption, a dilapidated physical infrastructure, powerful organized crime networks and combative political opponents,” according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

The Stars and Stripes adorned the main roads of Albania’s capital, Tirana. Upon arrival Mr. Bush was greeted by Albanians clad in red-white-and-blue Uncle Sam top hats. Mr. Bush is the first serving president to visit this former staunchly Stalinist reclusive country, now turned to struggle in a free-market economy, but with an economy not doing too hot. To show their appreciation to the president, the Albanians renamed one of the main avenues in his honor. Mr. Bush got to travel down the boulevard named after him.

Appreciation of Americans and of the United States is not unusual among Albanians. In neighboring Kosovo, the rebellious province of Serbia that aspires to break away and seek independence, ethnic Albanians make up more than 95 percent of the population. They too are Muslims, and revere the Americans. In Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, one of the main avenues in the city was remained after Mr. Bush’s predecessor, President Bill Clinton. A gargantuan portrait of the former American president covers the entire side of a 10-story building on an avenue named for him.

In Tirana, hundreds upon hundreds of people lined the streets to catch a glimpse of President Bush. In other European cities the president visited this week, people waited for his motorcade to pass to throw insults at him, requiring the police to intervene with batons, water cannons and tear gas. In contrast, residents of Tirana said they had come to give their hearts to America and to thank Mr. Bush for his efforts in fighting the war on terrorism and the support the United States has shown to Kosovo and Albanians in general.

Indeed, since the fall of its ultra-communist regime, Albania has made a 180-degree turn, going from a North Korean-like reclusion to an open border policy. Albania’s borders are so open that several tens of thousands of its citizens have fled the country’s poverty, high unemployment and rampant crime.

Many Albanians seeking employment have jumped onto any tub that floats to make their way to Italy and other points in Western Europe. Albania, 95 percent Muslim, has become an island of staunch pro-Americanism in Europe.

Albania strongly supports U.S. anti-terrorism efforts and has cooperated with U.S. intelligence services in tracking down suspected terrorists. Albania has participated militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan. Albania’s war effort was modest — in keeping with the country’s limited means. Its contribution was to dispatch 120 troops to northern Iraq in the area around Mosul and 30 more troops to Afghanistan. Tirana has cooperated with Washington in freezing assets of people believed to be terrorists or those assisting terrorists financially.

But it’s not really the number of Albanian soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan that matters but that they are there — from one of the rare Muslim countries to contribute troops to the Iraq campaign.

Albanian trust in the United States predates the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo, which helped save tens of thousands of Muslim lives from the wrath of the Serbian military and paramilitary forces. The U.S.-Albanian friendship can be traced back to the end of World War I when President Woodrow Wilson supported Albanian independence.

Both the Albanians of Albania as well as the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo realize the United States holds the key to Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, much more than Brussels or Moscow.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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