For much of the 20th century, Albania remained trapped under its own hardline communist yolk, closed off from the world, with no diplomatic ties to the United States and shaky ties with the Soviet Union and China. Today, the small East European nation aspires to be part of greater Europe, although it has a long way to go and many conditions to fulfill before the European Union would consider it a candidate for membership.

"Albanians have warm sentiments for the United States," said Albanian national Hamit Kaba, who spent the past several months as a scholar with the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP). Kaba, a researcher at the Institute of Contemporary History in the Academy of Sciences in Albania, said the United States defended and supported Albania's territorial integrity during the Cold War despite its opposition to Albania's communist regime. Albanians also recall President Woodrow Wilson's defense of Albania at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.

"President Wilson defined Albania by not allowing its partition," Kaba said. "Everyone remembers this act and it remains important."

When Italy invaded Albania 20 years later, the United States did not recognize the annexation. But that year, 1939, the United States cut off diplomatic relations with Albania, and ties remained severed throughout the Cold War, even after Albania's break from the Soviet Union in 1961 and despite several informal missions during the 1970s.

While the Albanian government clamped down on freedoms during the Cold War, Albanian youth gained some exposure to the West from their Italian neighbors, tapping into their signal to watch Italian television. By 1978, the youth movements in America and Western Europe calling for a free Albania inspired an Albanian youth movement. But the Albanian communist regime imprisoned leaders of the movement and continued suppressing political and cultural freedoms. The collapse of that regime in 1991 paved the way for freedom and the resumption of diplomatic relations with the United States.

In 1999, historians and archivists established the Albanian Center for Cold War Research, a nongovernmental organization created with the support of CWIHP. Kaba, who is a member, said the organization works to compile, clarify, and publish documents about Cold War themes, particularly Albania's relations with China, the Soviet Union, Europe, and the United States.

While in Washington, Kaba conducted extensive research in the National Archives and Library of Congress on U.S.-Albanian relations over the past half-century. He said it remains difficult to acquire records from Albania's national archives even though official policy allows researchers access to declassified government sources. In Albania, to receive copies of ordered records, several signatures are required including that of the archive director. Meanwhile, said Kaba, many of the Communist Party's documents from that period remain classified.

Today, the United States continues to support and provide aid for democratic and market development in Albania, but a weak economy and high-level corruption hamper progress. Kaba remains hopeful that progress will come followed by an invitation for Albania to integrate with European institutions.

"We need a functional democracy," he said. "We need to implement rule of law. We need to change the mentality in Albania."