STRASBOURG, FRANCE – Croatia is NATO member No. 27. Albania is No. 28. The two Balkan states formally joined the alliance April 1 in Washington. But street protests in Strasbourg, the overseas debut of Barack Obama, and troop debates for Afghanistan – partly overshadowed here the final lap of these two states, in what has been a long quest for security.
President Obama’s last question at NATO before heading to Prague was from an Albanian journalist from Tirana. Obama praised both Albania and Croatia for “making extraordinary efforts at reform to see this day come about, “ and to the people of both states for their “hard work” that has helped stabilize the Balkans.
The full membership of Croatia and Albania, agreed at the 2008 summit in Bucharest, inches the Balkans closer to the borderless idea of Europe, and further from the brutal wars of the 1990s. A decade ago, parts of Croatia were still in embers. Albania had barely emerged from the imprisoning reign of Enver Hoxha, who made his barricaded country the North Korea of Europe.
Now, both states are sending troops and equipment to Afghanistan, both have conducted robust rebuilding campaigns, and both are EU suitor nations. Croatia's Adriatic coast has again become a tourist place of choice in Europe. Tirana's downtown now sports streets full of fashionable cafes.
In some ways, Albania, which first broached NATO status in 1992, had further to go to secure the spot. A poster hanging this weekend at the National Opera House in Tirana reads, “This is the miracle of freedom.”
For many Croats, the NATO invitation last year sparked the main celebration. But it is “the prime time news for two days in Zagreb,” says Croatia's first secretary in Paris, Claude Grbesa. “The public views this as a forward step, and I think it is one of the biggest achievements in Croatia’s foreign policy.”
Until a few days ago, a small territorial dispute with Slovenia could have delayed the deal.
In the Balkan region of Europe, Serbia, Macedonia, and Bosnia are still seeking NATO status. In the region, NATO is popularly seen as a stepping stone to European integration; in Europe, it is viewed as aiding a future free of parochial and inward-looking nationalism, and of open borders and trade.
In Strasbourg, Obama offered encouragement to Macedonia status, long bogged down in a dispute with NATO member Greece over its formal name. At the annual NATO summit last year, the Macedonian delegation walked out of the meeting when Greece voted not to accept its bid.
NATO started with 12 states in 1949, in Washington. It has expanded six times to its current number of 28.