Bush Receives Hero's Welcome in Albania
June 11, 2007
By Jennifer Loven.
TIRANA, Albania (AP) - President Bush, enthusiastically welcomed as the first U.S. president in this former communist nation, served notice Sunday he is running out of patience with Russia's objections to independence for neighboring Kosovo.
"Sooner rather than later you've got to say 'Enough's enough - Kosovo is independent,'" Bush said, telling Albanians what they wanted to hear. He said independence was a certainty.
Nearing the end of an eight-day trip, Bush got a hero's reception in this desperately poor country, still struggling to recover from being cut off from the rest of the world for four decades under the harsh rule of dictator Enver Hoxha. Hoxha died in 1985, and Albania emerged from isolation in 1990 but still is one of Europe's most impoverished lands.
Cannons boomed salutes from mountains overlooking the capital. Huge banners proclaimed "Proud to be Partners," and billboards read "President Bush in Albania Making History."
At home, Bush's job approval rating stands at its all-time low. But here, Prime Minister Sali Berisha said Bush was Albania's "greatest and most distinguished guest we have ever had in all times."
Throngs of people grasped Bush's hands, arms and fingers on the streets of Fushe Kruje, a small town near the airport where he stopped to chat in a cafe with business owners. Unused to such adoring crowds in America, Bush reveled in the attention. He kissed women on the cheek, posed for pictures and signed autographs. Someone reached out and rubbed his gray hair.
"Bushie, Bushie," people shouted. Some of the business people have received small loans under U.S. government programs.
The scene was uncharacteristically wild for a presidential crowd. Bush spokesman Dana Perino said later that the Secret Service assured Bush's safety, as always. "If they didn't think the president was safe, obviously they wouldn't have put him in that position," she said.
While the United States supports Albania's bid for membership in NATO, Bush said this country still has to make more political and military reforms and crack down on corruption and organized crime.
"We are determined to take any decision, pass any law and undertake any reform to make Albania appropriate to receive the invitation" to join the western military alliance, Berisha said at a news conference with Bush.
Albania has eagerly embraced democracy and idolizes the United States. Three stamps have been issued featuring Bush's picture and the Statue of Liberty, and the street in front of parliament has been renamed in his honor.
The president spent just eight hours here and then flew to Bulgaria, another Cold War Soviet ally turned pro-American. The two stops gave an upbeat ending to Bush's six-country trip after big protests earlier in Rome and at the summit of industrialized nations in Heiligendamm, Germany.
Kosovo has been run by the United Nations and NATO since 1999, when Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's forces were ousted after a NATO air war ended his crackdown on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of Kosovo's population.
The U.N. Security Council has been divided over Kosovo's independence. The United States and key European countries support Kosovo's statehood while Russia, traditionally a Serbian ally, opposes it. Moscow says it would set a dangerous precedent for other breakaway regions.
Bush said diplomats from the United States, Russia and European Union will try to find common ground on a formula for independence.
"But if it's apparent that that's not going to happen in a relatively quick period of time, in my judgment, we need to put forward the (U.N.) resolution," Bush said. "Hence, deadline." He did not specify a date.
Negotiations must result in "certain independence," Bush said. "That's what's important to know."
Bush said the summit in Heiligendamm had tried to determine whether there was a way to make Kosovo independence acceptable to Russia. French President Nicolas Sarkozy unexpectedly called for a delay on the issue, and the summit failed to reach agreement.
Bush urged Albania to help maintain peace and calm in Kosovo as the independence talks move forward.
Predominantly Muslim, Albania has 140 troops in Afghanistan and about 120 troops in Iraq - a presence that President Alfred Moisiu says will not end as long as the Americans are engaged there. Bush met here with some of the troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Albanians know the horror of tyranny," the president said. "And so they're working to bring the hope of freedom to people who haven't known it. And that's a noble effort and a sacrifice."
In saluting Albania's democracy, Bush praised it as a country that has "cast off the shackles of a very oppressive society and is now showing the world what's possible."
During his visit, the president had lunch with the prime ministers of Albania, Macedonia and Croatia, which hope to join NATO.