Letter from Thessaloniki

For a while it looked as though US President George W. Bush meant what he so often says about terrorism – or geography – for example, that «we’re too great a nation to allow the evildoers to affect our soul,» or, after being shown a map of Brazil,«Wow! Brazil is big.» Now, there are certain differentiations. Bush no longer says «America will win» in Iraq but rather, «can win.» And yesterday, the presidential soul came into close proximity with potential evildoers in Albania, this tiny Balkan country very unlike Brazil. Yesterday was the first time ever that a US president visited such a small European country. It was only a few years ago that the World Bank ranked Albania as the most corrupt state in Europe. Those were times, less than a decade ago, when almost half of Albanian citizens admitted to paying bribes, while two-thirds of public officials admitted that bribery was a common phenomenon in the country. «Thank God, things got better,» they say. Asked in an interview by the Albanian journalist Andi Bejtja (on May 31) about the reason for including Albania on his European tour, the president stressed: «First of all, I want to make sure the Albanian people understand that America knows that you exist…» And when posed the question of what comes to mind when he hears the word Albania, Bush countered: «Beautiful coastlines, interesting history, a Muslim people who can live at peace. That’s what comes to mind.» Albanians are the staunchest US allies in the Balkans. They have prepared with warmth and enthusiasm for this virginal visit to their petite country of around 3 million people. From a tender school age, Albanian pupils learn in their school textbooks how the First World War-era US president, Woodrow Wilson, saved their young country from likely partition among its greedy neighbors. During the seven-hour visit, Bush will get a medal, a street named after him and his picture on commemorative stamps. Albania has supported the US-led «war on terrorism» by willingly sending troops into Iraq and Afghanistan. And after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Tirana was the only European capital to see a protest in support of the US intervention, and not against it. Such things count when an incoherent «axis of evil» has to be fought. Just to be sure, the Albanian parliament authorized the entry of more than 500 US Marines into the country. Indigenous forces were allowed to carry guns near the high-profile guest. For there are still some potential America-haters in Tirana. «Those Americans brought me here by force. I refused to come here,» 44-year-old Algerian Abu Mohammed, who lives today against his will in Albania, told the BBC News website. In actual fact a refugee, he lacks the papers to leave its borders. Several such men have ended up, by bilateral agreement, in Albania – an American ally and the only nation that appears to be willing to grant asylum to men Washington recently regarded as terrorists. Their relocation indicates a new trend in the «war on terror.» «It is a very telling example of just how profoundly poor the planning was for Guantanamo that you have to treat Albania as a dumping ground for men like Abu Mohammed,» Mr Trip Mackintosh, Mohammed’s American lawyer says. Poor planning, and persons like Abu Mohammed? Speaking two years ago in Washington, DC, about an Amnesty International report on prisoner abuse at the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Bush said: «It seemed like to me they based some of their decisions on the word, and the allegations, of people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people that had been trained in some instances to disassemble – that means not tell the truth.» However, there was no poor planning during Bush’s seven-hour stay in Albania. Local media reported that Arab nationals were under surveillance by the secret service. The visit is seen as a boost for the Albanian prime minister, Sali Berisha, and is also a most useful chance to gain Washington’s support on behalf of a resolution on the final status of Kosovo. Bush is for the «Ahtisaari plan,» which sets a framework by which Kosovo would come under the regime of «supervised independence» without excluding a formal declaration of independence. But the secession of a province as large as 15 percent of Serbia’s territory would most certainly create a great anomaly in the Balkans, a region that is composed of several minorities. It would also set dangerous precedents for similar acts in Europe – and beyond. For it is not unthinkable that Hispanic-American countries could make similar claims for, say, southern US states, originally populated and administered by the Spanish and later on by Mexico. The Kosovo question has also brought into the limelight the notion of a «Great Albania» or «Natural Albania,» as Albanians prefer to call it. Arben Tzaferi, an Albanian leader in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) – his party is still in government there – stated in November 2005 that Kosovo should be united with Albania and the ethnic Albanians in FYROM should join as well. If that were to become the case, the minority issue across the Balkans would be re-opened again and various groups of people would strive to gain the same status as the Kosovo-Albanians, among them the Cams, Muslim Albanians who lived in the Epirus region before World War II and who yesterday presented themselves once more in Tirana. Being Nazi-collaborators, they scattered around the world after the defeat. Now they want to address the issue of lost properties and request permission to return to their villages. So far, the Greek government has maintained that the Cam issue is closed. But who knows… Anyway, the solution of the Kosovo case is now in the hands of the – still – most powerful man in the world. He is to decide on it. And this is because: «My job is a job to make decisions. If the job description were: ‘What do you do?’ It’s decision-maker,» as Bush proudly declared in Tipp City, Ohio, on April 19. P.S. Unlike Albania, President Bush was not equally welcomed in Bulgaria, a new NATO member. Last week Bulgarian police arrested a student from Skopje on charges of posting online threats to President Bush. The student posted messages saying an attempt on Bush’s life was imminent during his forthcoming trip to the Balkans.

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