ALBANIA, a tiny Eastern European country cut off from the world for nearly 50 years, is becoming an important player in the quest for peace in the Balkans.
Albania is the poorest country in Europe and has only fitfully emerged from the rule of a brutal dictator since throwing off communist rule and adopting democracy four years ago.
But eager for American support in everything from fertilizer to foreign investment, Albania has bent over backward to make known its willingness to cooperate militarily with the United States and NATO. Since NATO began bombing Bosnia a month ago, this willingness has become especially welcome.
"Albanian-US relations are excellent and going to be developed [further]," said Sali Berisha, Albania's president, in an interview with the Monitor last Thursday. "We have ... offered all the necessities that the US and NATO might have."
That enthusiasm was rewarded last week when President Berisha was invited for his first White House visit with President Clinton. The visit came as military ties between Albania and the US are growing.
In the past month, five American generals and three congressional delegations have made trips to Albania. On Thursday, US and Albanian military units began their seventh round of joint peacekeeping exercises this year. At that time Clinton pledged to equip Albania's peacekeeping unit.
Albania has also permitted American spy planes and crews to use its air bases to conduct missions over Bosnia. And it has identified some half-dozen air and naval facilities for US and NATO use.
Albania's emergence as a strategic ally to the West in its efforts to contain the war in Yugoslavia would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
First under the wing of Tito's Yugoslavia, later befriended by the Soviet Union, and finally a ward of Communist China, Albania is hardly a natural NATO ally.
But since Albania's Communist dictatorship crumbled in 1991 and Berisha was elected in 1992, Albania has looked to Europe and the United States for aid and protection.
Albania was the first country to push for the expansion of NATO and the first to apply for Partnership for Peace, the program NATO established to build cooperation with formerly communist Eastern Europe.
"I think that Euro-Atlantic cooperation and alliance is vital to peace and stability in Europe and larger than Europe," Berisha says. Bordered on the north and east by the former Yugoslavia, Albania has long worried that it would eventually be dragged into the ethnic fray that has torn apart its neighbor.
Complicating the scenario, ethnic Albanians live throughout the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and in Kosovo, a province of Serbia. In Kosovo, 90 percent of the population is ethnic Albanian. Since the start of the war in Yugoslavia, there has been extensive documentation of Serb persecution of ethnic Albanians there. So, in addition to seeing an alliance with the US as a way to keep safe from invasion, Albania's leaders hope to prod the US to end human rights abuses against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. "I am insisting that Kosovo be treated as one of the major problems of the former Yugoslavia; that the lifting of the embargo against Serbia be linked to a solution in Kosovo," Berisha says.
It was further evidence of a maturing of US-Albanian relations when Clinton promised to keep a close watch of Serb abuses in Kosovo.
An agreement forged at the United Nations Wednesday between Macedonia and Greece also spoke well for further stability in the region. After four years of disputes, Greece agreed to end the economic blockade on Macedonia. Macedonia affirmed that it has no claims on Greek territory.
Berisha lauded the "truce." "Any gesture in the Balkans which contributes to a decrease of tension goes out to all who are striving for integration there," he says. Under Berisha's presidency, Albania has had its own diplomatic wars with Greece. A large ethnic-Greek minority lives in Albania and has been critical of the Albanian government for not providing equal justice and education for them.