Dogged by protest for much of his European tour, President Bush received a warmer welcome Sunday in Albania, a former communist country eager to show that it remains one of America's staunchest allies.
Tirana, the capital, was festooned with giant American flags and the president was greeted by Albanians in red-white-and-blue Uncle Sam top hats. Mr. Bush, the first sitting president to visit Albania, traveled down a boulevard renamed in his honor.
"We have come to give our hearts to America and to President Bush to say that we are with them in the war on terrorism and we appreciate what they have done for Kosovo and for Albanians," says Arjanit Iljazi, a nurse who waited for hours to catch a glimpse of Bush in a central square Sunday morning.
Albanians see this weekend's visit, the second-to-last stop on the president's Eastern European tour, as a reward for their country's staunch pro-American sentiment and its support of US antiterrorism efforts. It's sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, frozen the assets of suspected terrorist-financiers, and taken in eight former Guantánamo Bay detainees whom no other country would take in.
"There is a strong feeling of gratefulness that the Albanian people nourish towards the United States, whether it be their politicians or people," says Ferit Hoxha, secretary general of the Albanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Roots of pro-American sentiment
The roots of Albanian pro-American sentiment, people here say, date to Woodrow Wilson's support of the country's independence after World War I and were cemented during the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo, a majority ethnic Albanian province of Serbia. Albanians also see the US as the strongest advocate for the independence of Kosovo, whose status is due to be reviewed by the UN Security Council this month.
Although Albania's contribution to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are numerically small – 120 troops in Mosul, and 30 in Afghanistan with an additional 110 to come soon – they have a symbolic importance for the US. The US sees Albania as a model of moderate Islam and religious tolerance. Officially 70 percent Muslim, the country has a strong secular ethos after nearly a quarter of a century of state-enforced atheism under communism.
"I appreciated the fact that Albania is a model of religious tolerance," Bush said in a press conference with the Albanian prime minister. "And I appreciate the fact that Albania is a trusted friend and a strong ally."
Even in mosques, they love US
Pro-American sentiment is widespread here, even among Albania's Muslim faithful. At the historic Ottoman-era Ethem Bey mosque in central Tirana, the worshipers emerging from midday prayers last week said they welcomed President Bush.
Few of the men were bearded and many of the women's heads were uncovered; during prayers they borrowed scarves from a plastic bag near the entrance.
"We want better relations between the two countries," says the mosque's imam, Shaban Saliaj, who is also the mufti – the highest Sunni Muslim leader – of Tirana and looks very much like the professor of geophysics he once was. "Everyone is grateful for what the Americans did in Kosovo."
Mr. Saliaj does not support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – the Koran forbids killing, he says – but still supports the US.
On the streets, other Albanians expressed mixed opinions about the military campaigns there. But there is little public debate in Albania about their government's support of the wars, and it's difficult to find anyone in Tirana, politician or ordinary person, who has anything bad to say about America.
"I think the sentiment is pro-American rather than pro-Bush," says Endri Fuga, director of communications for Mjaft! Movement, one of Albania's largest activist organizations. For many Albanians who remember communism, he says, America still represents the ideal of freedom and democracy.
Poor country with high hopes
During the communist era, Albania was perhaps the most isolated and underdeveloped country in Europe. The country is still one of the poorest on the continent, but since the end of communism in 1992 it has allied itself closely with America and Western Europe.
The country hopes to gain NATO membership in 2008 and, eventually, to win a place in the European Union.
Bush reiterated the United States' support of Albania's NATO bid and emphasized that he is committed to Kosovo gaining its independence.
Seremb Gjergjaj, who drove more than six hours from Kosovo with friends in hopes of catching a glimpse of the president, says he came to thank Bush for America's support and that Kosovars would be patient.
"We have a saying in Kosovo that good things come slow."