America’s 51st State

FUSHE-KRUJE, Albania—At first glance, you might think it’s been a rough year for American-Albanian relations. Last summer, the U.S. ambassador to Albania was accused of helping the country’s defense minister cover up the sale of old, ineffective, and prohibited Chinese-made munitions to a then-21-year-old Pentagon contractor supplying the Afghan army and police. In that same week, the Florida-based contractor, by then 22, was indicted; the munitions scandal’s Albanian whistle-blower was found dead; the Justice Department discovered that Tom Ridge, the first secretary of homeland security, had failed to disclose his $500,000 lobbying contract with the Albanian government; and, the week I arrived here in July, a car exploded near parliament on George W. Bush Street.

But on an early Sunday morning in this small town north of Albania’s international airport, sentiments toward America couldn’t be warmer. On the second floor of a salmon-colored building, a leathery old man sips an espresso and smokes a cigarette on the balcony of Bar Kafe George W. Bush. The building’s entrance bears a bronze plaque commemorating “Xhorxh” W.’s June 2007 visit, as does the wooden chair in which the president sat. Atop the stairs there hangs a painting of the White House, rendered, like the cafe, in a pallid shade of pink.

Bush’s reception in this small, Muslim-majority nation may have been the most enthusiastic he ever received. At a time when his domestic approval ratings were near their nadir, crowds waited for hours outside the cafe to grasp, hug, and kiss the president. Ecstatic throngs chanted, “Bush-y! Bush-y!” as his limousine passed by. Three postage stamps displayed Bush’s smiling visage, and a street in Tirana, the capital, was named after him. Parliament unanimously approved a bill authorizing “American forces to engage in any kind of operation, including the use of force, in order to provide security for the president,” and Albanian newspaper Korrieri published the sarcastic headline “Please Occupy Us!”

Albania’s prime minister since 2005, Sali Berisha, called Bush “the greatest and most distinguished guest we have ever had in all times.” Berisha’s rival, Socialist Party leader and Tirana Mayor Edi Rama, said, “Albania is for sure the most pro-American country in Europe, maybe even in the world.”

Though Bush’s visit to Albania was the first by a sitting American president, the country’s ties to the United States are deep. They originate in late-19th-century Boston, where a community of Albanian émigrés, mostly Eastern Orthodox (who today make up roughly 20 percent of Albania’s population), formed an influential center for the Albanian national movement. One member of this community, Fan Noli, arrived in Boston in 1906, at the age of 24, became deputy editor of the nationalist journal Kombi, founded the Albanian Orthodox Church two years later, at 26, and graduated from Harvard in 1912, the year Albania declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire. Back in his homeland, Noli became prime minister of a deservedly short-lived administration, famously ordering, as Miranda Vickers writes in The Albanians, “several of his political opponents to be paraded continuously around Tirana’s central square, whilst being force-fed cod-liver oil, until they defecated in front of the crowd.”

However base a prime minister, Noli was a superb statesman, winning membership for his country in the League of Nations and helping to convince Woodrow Wilson of the need for an independent Albania. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Wilson argued forcefully against Albania’s division among its neighbors—an act fondly remembered here to this day.

Genc Pollo, Albania’s eloquent, Austrian-educated deputy prime minister (he holds a doctorate in Roman history), casually recites the historical reasons for the “rock star treatment” Bush received: “Woodrow Wilson preventing Albania from being carved up”; “Ronald Reagan’s inspiring statements of ‘evil empire’ and ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’ “; “Bush Sr.’s encouragement in our fight against communism”; “Clinton’s bombing of Serbia” to protect the ethnic Albanians who make up roughly 88 percent of Kosovo’s population; and “Bush Jr.’s promotion of Kosovo’s independence and of Albania joining NATO.” But, Pollo says, “there is also an emotional dimension to this affection that cannot always be explained in rational terms.”

Though U.S. support of Albania has gone almost totally unnoticed by the American people, it has engendered feelings of great appreciation here, a gratitude Albanians have been eager to express. After Clinton’s intervention in Kosovo, thousands of Albanians named their babies Bill and Hillary, and many rooted for the latter during the Democratic primaries in 2008. When no other country would take them, Albania accepted five Uighur detainees from Guantanamo and—unlike the United States—prevented Chinese agents from interrogating them.

Albania was one of the first countries to commit troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. In a 2005 op-ed in the Washington Times, the country’s ambassador to the United States wrote, “If you believe in freedom, you believe in fighting for it. If you believe in fighting for freedom, you believe in America. … Were it not for the Americans, there is a good chance there would be no France, nor a United Kingdom nor a Belgium, as we know them today. Were it not for the United States it also is very possible no Balkan countries would be free.”

In late July, Albania announced it would quintuple its presence in Afghanistan by 120 troops. This may not seem like much, until you consider the Albanian soldier’s reputation: Favored as conscripts to the Ottoman Janissary corps, they were described by a 19th-century London Times correspondent as “the finest and most warlike race in southern Europe.” As my friend Dori proudly tells me, each Albanian soldier is said to equal 100 from any other land.

Dori’s father served in the Communist-era Albanian People’s Army alongside another soldier who was slight and frail. Like many servicemen, they were told by their commander that because their small, isolated army would be greatly outnumbered by invading forces from NATO or the Warsaw Pact, each of them would have to kill 100 men. Looking to his poor comrade, Dori’s father told the commander, “He can handle at most 72 or 73. But not to worry—I will kill the remaining 28.”

At the time, Albania was ruled by xenophobic Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who over four decades of misrule turned his country into the most secluded in the world. An admirer of Stalin who found Khrushchev’s brand of communism insufficiently orthodox, calling him “the greatest counterrevolutionary charlatan and clown the world has ever known,” Hoxha first broke ties with the Soviet Union, then with China, whose rapprochement with Nixon he couldn’t abide.

In preparation for attacks from the Soviets and the forces of Anglo-American imperialism, Hoxha covered the Albanian countryside in hundreds of thousands of pillbox-shaped concrete bunkers, roughly one for each family. Today many of these bunkers, now covered in moss, are being dragged away by tanks to make way for tourism on Albania’s Adriatic shore. But others have found new uses, converted into love shacks and restrooms and even capitalist restaurants, where American imperialists are especially welcome to dine.