by Susan M. Spencer,
Writer and Senior Editor, Western Policy Center

Albania believes that the support of the United States for the establishment of "standards before status" in Kosovo is the correct approach and hopes that this process will serve as a foundation for peace in the province, Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano stated at a Policy Forum organized by the Western Policy Center.

Kosovo is not far from the targets and frameworks that will identify its future, the prime minister said. It must have the same "interdependent status" with respect to the European Union as Tirana and Skopje do, he added.

Referring to the mid-March outbreak of violence in Kosovo, Nano stated that he did not believe that it was premeditated or organized, characterizing it as a "burst of emotion." The prime minister stated that the return of Serb refugees to Kosovo must take place, and he praised Kosovo Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi for launching an initiative to rebuild the Serb houses and churches that were destroyed in the March wave of violence. Nano stressed that the problems in Kosovo must be resolved through discussion, not through violence.

Nano was in Washington to attend the March 29 ceremony at the White House welcoming the entry of seven new nations into NATO. Although Albania, Croatia, and F.Y.R. Macedonia are not joining the alliance this year, the countries were represented at the event by their prime ministers as NATO aspirants, which signed the Adriatic Charter with the United States in May 2003, aimed at advancing these nations' integration into the alliance.

Nano stated that, in his meeting with President Bush, the president said he remained committed "to keeping the NATO door open to Albania." The prime minister stated that Albania had "earned its way down that difficult path" toward NATO, despite the instability, financial crisis, and ethnic violence in neighboring countries that have occurred during the 13 years since the country emerged from its international isolation.

The prime minister said that Albania, in its fifth year as part of NATO's Membership Action Plan, was one of the first countries to join the "coalition of the willing" with respect to taking military action against Iraq, having lived under totalitarianism and brutality. Today, he said, Albanian troops are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Albania has been contributing soldiers to the SFOR peacekeeping force in Bosnia for more than six years.

The need to act against global terrorism has driven countries to earn a place in NATO in order to become champions of democracy, Nano stated. He noted that the Albanian military is, in some respects, ahead of schedule in meeting requirements for NATO membership. The country's reforms have included modernizing and downsizing the military, teaching soldiers English, retooling officer and basic training, destroying obsolete equipment, and meeting obligations regarding NATO's rapid reaction force.

The prime minister emphasized that all Balkan capitals must work together to face shared dangers in the region, such as trafficking in drugs and humans. To further this goal, he said, the militaries of Balkan nations, including Albania, are engaging in joint training exercises, the border patrols of each nation are sharing information with neighboring countries, and the nations are cooperating with international police entities. Nano said that the high-speed transmission of trafficked humans and contraband by boat across the Adriatic Sea had been halted through Tirana's cooperation with regional governments.

With respect to organized crime and corruption within Albania, which he said were threats to economic growth, Nano stated that these problems were not unique to Albania, but had taken hold in the vacuum that occurred in the region when communism collapsed. As Albania prepared for EU and NATO membership, he stated, progress was being made in combating these problems through steps such as the establishment of the rule of law and the reform of the judicial system. Measures have included the setting up of a task force to combat human trafficking, greater transparency in record keeping, the establishment of a special court for prosecuting those participating in organized crime, and laws against money laundering. Nano called on every Balkan capital to establish the same European standards in order to integrate the Balkans into the European Union.

When asked about a report issued by the EU in 2001 criticizing Albania for not taking measures to ensure minority rights in the country, the prime minister said the government had recently formed a committee, on which each minority community in the country is represented, to help identify ways to guarantee minorities a range of opportunities that will allow them to enjoy full rights and will recognize their interests. This committee will facilitate the government's work with EU agencies to help eliminate problems concerning minorities, he said.

Nano said that Albania had signed international conventions that protect the fundamental freedoms of all minorities. He noted that there were some deficiencies and weaknesses in a system "that is becoming interoperable with international standards" as Albania integrates into Euro-Atlantic institutions. He said a census would be conducted by 2006.

He noted that the region where the ethnic Greeks in Albania have settled is the most fertile in the country. "We want them to stay in Albania," he added.