The war is over. Most Kosovo refugees have returned home. And now Albania, NATO's steadfast ally during the air campaign against Yugoslavia, has a blunt message for the Western powers: Show me the money.
In advance of a major conference on the reconstruction of the Balkans, to be held in Sarajevo at the end of the month, Albania's Socialist-led coalition government is assembling a multibillion-dollar wish list of infrastructure and energy projects to be financed by the West. The government would also like to secure a permanent NATO presence here, including U.S. troops, and government officials said they are holding talks with the alliance on the issue.
"We are going [to Sarajevo] to stress especially the big contribution of Albania during the crisis and, based on this, to demand from [the] international community assistance for Albania for economic development," Foreign Minister Paskal Milo said in an interview. "It is not enough to say good words about the Albanian contribution during the crisis. We have heard a lot of this. . . . We will ask our partners to prove, as we say in Albanian, that they are not dividing their words from their deeds."
But some Western and Albanian observers caution that while major infrastructural change is needed here, Europe's poorest country must strengthen the sinews of its democracy, its business environment and the skills of its people before it can begin to absorb the kind of massive assistance it hopes for.
"Big regional projects are the fashion," said Remzi Lani, executive director of the Albanian Media Institute. "That's good, but it's not enough. We need to deal with criminality, corruption, instability, political infighting. I don't see a lot of great visions about those basic things.
"When I hear about these super-highways, it reminds me of the Russian writer Ilia Ehrenburg, who visited Tirana in 1951 and saw our great boulevard and said, 'I have seen a lot of cities without boulevards, but here I saw a boulevard without a city.' We can build great roads, but what will be on either side of these roads?"
World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn, who visited Tirana Monday to sign loan agreements with the government worth $41 million--including $24 million for an irrigation and drainage project--said the next six to 12 months will be crucial for Albania as it tries to cash in on its contribution during the Kosovo conflict. "After the Kosovo crisis, Albania is now on the front pages, and there is tremendous will in the world to help," Wolfensohn said.
Among a long list of potential projects, the government would like to accelerate work on highway and rail links that would run through Albania and connect the states of the Balkans from Greece and Bulgaria to Montenegro and Croatia. The government is also proposing construction of a $600 million hydroelectric plant near the Macedonian border, gas pipelines from Italy and a highway linking Kosovo with the Albanian port of Durres on the Adriatic Sea.
Gramoz Pashko, chief adviser to Albanian Prime Minister Pandeli Majko, estimated that the cost of new construction in Albania could run to $3 billion and regionally the bill will be at least $10 billion.
Many of these proposals, particularly an inter-Balkan highway, have been on the drawing board for years, but work on the Albanian leg has languished because of repeat political crises, chronic corruption and a lack of law and order. In 1997, Albania collapsed into social chaos with the failure of a number of nationwide pyramid schemes in which at least 40 percent of the population had invested. In 1998, leaders of the opposition Democratic Party, which has been boycotting the parliament, staged a failed attempt to bring down the government, and this year the country endured the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees who were expelled from Kosovo.
"This is a time of historic opportunity for Albania," said a Western diplomat. "But a good deal needs to be done to overcome the chaos of the past. There are too many gangs . . . that need to be brought under control. And you can't build roads if all your equipment is going to be stolen."
NATO has scaled down its force here since the war ended.
The United States has withdrawn 24 Apache AH-64A attack helicopters that had been in training here, along with some of the support personnel that accompanied them. The remaining NATO troops here are helping break down refugee tent cities as well as fend off potential looters.
Albanian officials believe that a NATO presence combined with sustained economic engagement by the West will foster stability.
"The presence of NATO in Albania is giving to Albanians much more security, and it sends a strong message [to us] to build democracy and economic prosperity," Milo said.
The Democratic Party, the largest political opposition group, voted Saturday to end its year-long boycott of parliament after negotiations with U.S. diplomats, sources said. Party leader Sali Berisha, the country's former president, had said he would not return to parliament unless the government vigorously investigated the assassination last year of Azem Hajdari, a Democratic Party official.
U.S. officials recently took statements from Berisha and other party officials about the case and promised to turn the statements over to the government with a request that it reexamine the case.
"Fulfilling the request of the U.S. government to return to parliament is the least we could do after all that [it] did for Albanians," Berisha said in a speech to his party, adding that his first parliamentary proposal will be to make President Clinton an honorary Albanian citizen.