NOBODY cares about Albania. Yet there is a real risk that the war in Bosnia will extend to Albania and Bulgaria. The United States should care because such a conflict would likely involve two NATO members, Turkey and Greece, on opposite sides. Albania, Europe's stepchild for four decades, will play a central role in determining whether the conflict spreads.
Many in Congress are pushing for cuts in foreign aid at a time when we are scaling back social programs at home. Yet US aid to Albania is critical to reduce chances of a full-fledged war. Cutting aid would be a costly, long-term mistake.
For 40 years of communist rule, the Albanian economy was in desperate shape. Albania had, by far, the lowest per capita income in Europe and the fourth lowest in the world. Since communism ended, conditions have only gotten worse. Seventy percent of the workers are unemployed and agricultural production has been cut by 80 percent.
During a recent visit to Albania, I toured the best children's hospital in the country. It had no heat, even though temperatures outside dipped below freezing. Often this hospital has neither electricity nor water. I saw malnourished babies abandoned by mothers who could not provide their infants with sufficient food. Thirty percent of Albanian babies are said to suffer from malnutrition, and Albania now has the highest infant mortality rate in Europe.
The economic problems are compounded by a rudimentary infrastructure: telephones barely work, and the electric and water supplies are often cut off. The entire nation has two traffic lights; only one works. Many roads are almost impassable. International flights are often delayed because grazing sheep block the runway. Albania's capital, Tirana, is an impoverished city filled with one-story tenements.
Albania's economic downturn comes at a pivotal time. For 45 years, Albania was ruled by one of the world's most despotic and paranoid dictators, Enver Hoxha. Hoxha established a rule of terror patterned after Stalin; Hoxha murdered thousands, including priests, and imprisoned thousands more. Ownership of private property was banned, and the practice of religion was illegal. Until two years ago, Americans were prohibited from even visiting Albania.
But two years ago, communist rule started to crumble. Then, on March 22, 1992, the Albanians elected their first noncommunist leader, Sali Berisha. Mr. Berisha is a charismatic intellectual who is committed to political and economic freedom. In foreign affairs, Berisha pursues a staunchly pro-American policy. At home, Berisha has implemented difficult, but necessary, free-market reforms. Berisha's economic shock therapy needs time to work. In the short run, these policies are causing higher unemployment and inflation. In the long run, they will help Albania to develop a healthy economy.
On my visit, I saw intense domestic political pressure for the Albanian government to adopt a more belligerent stand against Serbia's anti-Muslim policies. Albanians are soul mates to the Muslims being slaughtered in Bosnia. Since most Albanians are Muslim, they identify with the Muslim Bosnians and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Every day in Albania, critics attack the government in the press and parliament. They call for Albania to provide aid and offer sanctuary to Muslims opposing Serbia. If Albania too k such steps, it would invite a Serbian military response that could lead to a Balkan war.
Quite properly, Albania is working through political and diplomatic channels to stop Serbia's monstrous ethnic cleansing. In fact, the world must take much tougher measures to end Serbia's aggression. But no one's interests - including Albania's, the Bosnian Muslims', or America's - would be served by an explosive war in Europe's tinderbox.
Albania's economic crisis has weakened public support for the government and made it harder to withstand pressure to adopt more-aggressive policies. In fact, the ruling party suffered losses at the polls last summer in local elections. But so far the government has resisted the pressure.
US aid is critical during this period for three reasons. First, and most important, it helps ensure the survival of a government that will not provoke a Balkan war. Second, the Albanian people are enduring hardship, and the US has a humanitarian responsibility to help. Third, the US is committed to building democracies around the world. If democracy can take root in Albania, it can grow almost anywhere.
Last year, the US provided $73 million in aid to Albania. Some assert that we can no longer afford to provide as much money. The real question is whether we can afford to face the consequences if we don't.