By Liam Pepper
One of the most pro-American countries in the world, Albania boasts majestic mountains, a stunning coastline, and diverse cultural sites representing its storied history. Its landscape is dotted with ancient fortresses, churches, mosques, and communist-era bunkers. Once known as the “North Korea of Europe” because of its isolationist and repressive Communist regime, the small Balkan country is now a burgeoning democracy. A staunch NATO ally and a candidate for membership to the European Union, it is known for its unique culture of hospitality and interreligious unity.
The foundation for favorable U.S.-Albanian diplomatic relations was laid during post-World War I peace negotiations when in the face of plans to divide the area between Yugoslavia, Italy, and Greece, President Woodrow Wilson intervened. Throwing American support behind the creation of an independent Albanian state, Wilson ensured its genesis. In 1939, the Italians occupied the capital, Tirana, and notified the American legation that Italy had taken control of Albanian foreign affairs. The legation departed the country, leaving behind them the first-ever Department of State purpose-built chancery.
During World War II, Albania distinguished itself through its heroic actions, saving Jewish refugees from across Europe. Deeply rooted in the Albanian code of honor and the value it places on hospitality, Albanians from all walks of life—Muslims and Christians alike—sheltered Jews, risking their own lives to protect their guests. Albania became one of the few European countries with a larger Jewish population after the war than before.
Soon after the end of World War II, Albanian Dictator Enver Hoxha took power. Hoxha’s isolationist regime squeezed the country in an iron grip of repression while enclosing its people with tens of thousands of concrete bunkers and border guards under strict orders to shoot-to-kill anyone who attempted to leave.. Throughout the Hoxha regime’s dark days, the Voice of America (VoA) Albania Service broadcast the news and gave hope to the otherwise cut-off Albanian population. From 1986 to 2004, Dr. Elez Biberaj was chief of VoA’s Albanian Service; he is presently VoA’s acting director.
“In mid-1991, the first-ever U.S. Information Agency Albania survey showed an astoundingly large audience: seven in ten Albanians listened regularly to VoA,” said Biberaj speaking on VoA’s role in Albania. “Moreover, it revealed VoA had served as a significant change agent, challenging the regime’s monopoly on news and information and promoting Albania’s peaceful transition to a pluralistic and democratic polity.”
A few months after diplomatic relations were restored, March 15, 1991, the visit of Secretary of State James Baker III drew a throng of 300,000 Albanians, who gathered to hear him utter the still resonant words, “Welcome to the company of free men and women everywhere, the way our Creator intended us to be. You are with us and we are with you.”
Albania is similar in size to the state of Maryland and, at 3 million residents, about half as populous. Bordering Montenegro and Kosovo to the north, North Macedonia to the east, and Greece to the south, most residents enjoy a Mediterranean climate and access to its 225 miles of stunning coastline framed by the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. Over the centuries, swathes of what now constitutes the country were occupied by various civilizations, including the Illyrians, Thracians, Ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, and Ottomans. The latter eventually obtained territory despite the efforts of Gjergj Skanderbeg, recognized by the U.S. Congress as a “military genius” for helping prevent western Europe from falling to the Ottomans.
Tirana is home to approximately 900,000 people. Its buildings are a mix of styles—including Neo-Renaissance, Stalinist, and Modernist—with a city center layout designed by Di Fausto and Brasini, architects of Italy’s Benito Mussolini period. Mount Dajti National Park borders its eastern edge. Sprawling to the west, Tirana slowly gives way to the Adriatic coastal resort city of Durres. On a clear day, visitors can glimpse the sea’s crystal glint during the 3-mile-long gondola trip up to Mount Dajti’s limestone peak.
From Tirana, practically every road leads the traveler to one of Albania’s enviable and outsized tourist attractions. Albania is also home to several diverse UNESCO World Heritage sites. First, and shared with North Macedonia, the Lake Ohrid region offers outstanding natural beauty, ideally viewed from one of the waterside restaurants serving a unique species of tasty trout, the Koran. The Butrint National Park with its 2,500-year-old ruins, including an amphitheater, is another heritage site. The list is completed by the historic town centers of Berat and Gjirokastër, with their rare Ottoman architecture and the ancient beech forests in northern and central Albania.
Ambassador Yuri Kim arrived in Tirana in January 2020 to lead the post of about 80 U.S. employees, 285 locally employed staff, and approximately 100 USG dependents. She has focused the Mission on three priorities: defense, democracy, and business.
A committed NATO Ally, Albania is a leader in troop deployments with one of the highest troop contributions per capita to missions and operations. The United States and Albania have a strong military relationship, further bolstered by the Albanian military-New Jersey National Guard partnership. The United States recently provided $30 million, coupled with $12 million of Albanian funds, for two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters which will build the Albanian military’s capacity for missions ranging from search and rescue to troop transport.
In 2016, Albania passed a large justice reform package with support from the United States, rewriting significant portions of the country’s constitution to root out corruption. Since then, the embassy has worked to support the implementation of these reforms. The Department of Justice and the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs have provided training and technical assistance. Most recently, a group of U.S. trainers supported Albania’s prosecution system to set up a new polygraph unit to vet employees of the National Bureau of Investigation, a newly established body (which has a role similar to America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation), helping to catalyze justice reform and counter corruption.
After 28 years of partnership with USAID, the USAID/Albanian bilateral programs will end by March 2021, as Albania is on its way to achieving self-reliance. However, USAID plans to launch a multi-million-dollar initiative, the U.S.-Albania Transparency Academy, in fall 2020 to continue the fight against corruption. USAID will also continue to support Balkan regional energy programs and to promote larger government and private sector investments to spur sustainable growth and foster deeper Euro-Atlantic integration.
The embassy’s public affairs section runs a robust portfolio of projects to help build a stronger civil society. These range from three much-used American Corners, to Democracy Commission small grants, to English language programs and international educational exchanges.
There is a breadth of potential opportunities for increased economic partnership between the United States and Albania in several industries—especially tourism and energy—but corruption and the rule of law remain significant barriers. The energy sector continues to hold potential for increased investment —including for U.S. firms—in hydro, solar, and liquefied natural gas power generation, in addition to oil and gas extraction both on- and off-shore.
The U.S.-Albania relationship grows stronger and more vibrant. It is guided by common values forged in crucibles of struggles for freedom and statehood. Whether it is in justice reform, building a more capable NATO Ally, or strengthening the stability of the Balkans and Europe, North America and Albania resolutely stand as the Albanians say, “krah për krah” (side-by-side).
Liam Pepper is a professional associate at Embassy Tirana.