Albania Welcomes Bush With Enthusiasm, Affection

Villagers in Fushe Kruje, near Tirana, hold photos of Laura Bush as they wait to welcome President Bush, the first sitting U.S. president to visit Albania.
Villagers in Fushe Kruje, near Tirana, hold photos of Laura Bush as they wait to welcome President Bush, the first sitting U.S. president to visit Albania. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)
By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 11, 2007

TIRANA, Albania, June 10 -- Evidence of Albania's love for the United States lined the road leading into this capital Sunday. U.S. and Albanian flags flew from lampposts. People wearing cardboard Uncle Sam hats milled in the streets. Oversize billboards and banners heralded the American president's visit.

"Albania welcomes President Bush," some of the signs announced. Others proclaimed that he was "making history" as the first U.S. president ever to set foot in the country.

Throughout much of Europe -- particularly in France and Germany, which former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld once labeled "Old Europe" -- a Bush visit is frequently seen as cause for protest.

But in this former communist nation, Bush was accorded a hero's welcome. He was awarded the Order of the Flag medal, the nation's highest honor. His visage is on a new line of commemorative postage stamps, and the street in front of the parliament building has been renamed in his honor.

"I'm pleased that George Bush has arrived here in Albania," said Anisa Torozi, 27, an unemployed office worker who carried a small U.S. flag in this city's central Skanderbeg Square. "He is the president of the United States, which is the state of liberty and peace."

It was the type of reception any president would like. But it must have been especially heartening for Bush, whose vow to foster liberty around the world has faced repeated setbacks in Iraq and elsewhere, and triggered an anti-American backlash in many places.

Thousands of protesters shadowed Bush during the German and Italian legs of his seven-nation swing through Europe, but none of that was evident here.

Military cannons blasted a 21-gun salute as Bush's motorcade arrived at the Palace of Brigades, the 1930s-era building that was once the home of King Zog, who reigned before World War II. Later at a news conference, Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha hailed Bush as "the greatest and most distinguished guest we have ever had in all times."

Bush returned the love -- or some of it. He repeated his public endorsement of Albania's bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He also reiterated his support for the independence of Kosovo, a Serbian province under U.N. supervision. Ethnic Albanians make up the vast majority of Kosovo's population.

"At some point in time, sooner rather than later, you've got to say: Enough's enough -- Kosovo is independent," Bush said.

Responding to a reporter's question in Rome on Saturday, Bush had said a deadline should be set for a U.N. resolution on Kosovo's independence. "In terms of the deadline, there needs to be one," he said. "This needs to come -- this needs to happen."

Asked Sunday about when he would like that deadline set, Bush seemed flummoxed. "I don't think I called for a deadline," he said. Told that he had, Bush responded: "I did? What exactly did I say? I said, 'Deadline'? Okay, yes, then I meant what I said."

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