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Albania Moves From Punch Line to Front Line

Balkans: Isolated country has improved its image by helping refugees and NATO.


TIRANA, Albania — Ten years ago, it was a tiny, forgotten corner of Europe, ridiculously xenophobic and caught in the iron grip of Stalinist leaders who deemed private property a crime and made a national obsession of building toadstool-shaped bunkers to defend against invaders.

Then it descended into anarchy, its armories looted in 1997 by mobs angry that a nationwide pyramid scheme had sopped up their savings and left Europe's poorest nation poorer still.

Now, in an amazing transformation, Albania has emerged as the United States' most faithful ally in the Balkans, lauded for its generosity, praised for its democratic aspirations and needed for its land routes into Kosovo, the war-torn Serbian province.

And with thousands of aid workers, journalists, soldiers and dignitaries thronging this capital to play their roles in the Balkan war watch, the long-suffering economy is finally getting a measurable boost from the flurry of spending, hiring and small-scale investment.

In the past, it was easy to make jokes about this obscure country: self-important, paranoid and too small to matter, speaking an impossible language, exporting mainly illegal immigrants and drugs to the rest of Europe.

But these days, Albania and its 3.4 million people have become crucial if the NATO campaign to push Serbian forces out of Kosovo has any chance to succeed.

Fortunately for NATO, the Albanians themselves are aware of their somewhat checkered history and seem more than willing, almost desperate, to be of use in the present campaign. On the diplomatic front, Albanian officials do not hide their satisfaction that the world finally appears to be taking Albania seriously.

"We have a saying: Every bad thing has a good thing in it," said Information Minister Musa Ulqini. Nine years after the collapse of communism, he said, "we have proved that we deserve more attention."

Western diplomats in Tirana tend to agree that the present situation will work to Albania's long-range advantage.

"This is an unbelievable second chance for Albania in a very weird and twisted sense," one diplomat said.

Unlike its neighbor Macedonia, Albania has won plaudits from international relief agencies for its willingness to take in more than 430,000 refugees from Kosovo, even if the welcome mat is beginning to fray nine weeks into the disaster.

It also has shown loyalty to the Western aims by turning over Tirana's international airport to NATO and allowing 5,500 U.S. troops and Apache attack helicopters to be based there.

In fact, Albania is the only country so far willing to be used as a base from which to stage a ground campaign into Kosovo if NATO decides to go that route. Poor roads and rugged terrain, however, would make any such campaign from Albania daunting and perilous.

The Kosovo Albanians spilling out of homes and refugee camps across the country now account for 16% of Albania's population. For comparison, one might imagine the United States taking in more than 40 million refugees in the space of nine weeks.

The refugees themselves are ethnic Albanians, which is a large part of the reason for Albania's open-hearted response. But Albanians insist that they would have done the same anyway because charity is part of the national character.

"It is not by chance that Mother Teresa was an Albanian," Ulqini said.

Still, not many governments would be happy to have so many indigent refugees on their doorstep, or war looming on their frontier, even if both financial and political rewards can be seen looming in the distance.

Nonetheless, in the discussion of a future "Marshall Plan" for the Balkans, few doubt that Tirana will be first in line for the goodies.

According to the independent newspaper Gazeta Shqiptare, Prime Minister Pandeli Majko has informed associates that Albania's membership in NATO is well underway, its foreign debt may be renegotiated or even annulled, and membership in the World Trade Organization and association with the European Union are just around the corner.

The spontaneous boost of having thousands of foreigners setting up shop in Albania for the duration of the neighboring war is hard to measure but impossible not to notice. Drivers, translators and apartment owners with even a single room to rent are earning more in a day than they did in most previous months.

In Kukes, the impoverished border town that is hosting 100,000 refugees and at least 300 relief workers and Western journalists, both hotels are booked indefinitely and dozens of local families are charging $100 a night to turn over a room in their shabby apartments to the foreigners who have no other choice.

The town of 25,000 that had virtually no commerce before the refugee crisis now sports four new restaurants and a bevy of ice cream and snack stands that multiply overnight.

Tirana's restaurants and cafes are packed to capacity each night, and fledgling services such as Adrian Pollo's computer software shop are struggling to keep up with customer demands.

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