TIRANA, Albania — “I am here because we are friends, we are allies,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Sunday during his first, brief visit to this small Balkan nation.
The friendship between the United States and Albania, a NATO member, has been solidified in recent years by the country’s strong support for U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East, its participation in the anti-Islamic State coalition and NATO’s operations in Afghanistan, and its willingness to take in more than 1,000 members of the Iranian opposition group in exile known as the Mujahideen-e Khalq, or MEK.
Long considered one of the most corrupt and crime-ridden countries in Europe, Albania is undergoing governance, law enforcement and judicial reforms to boost its application for membership in the European Union and to increase international investment. This year, the Obama administration is spending $25 million to assist those efforts.
Returning to the United States after four days of Syria-related meetings in Munich, Kerry made a four-hour stop here to meet with Prime Minister Edi Rama, civil society representatives and opposition leaders whose support is crucial to completion of the reforms.
“The evidence is clear that Albania is moving in the right direction,” Kerry said in a joint appearance with Rama. “That begins with an awareness of the need to combat corruption, and I am heartened that essential reforms are underway.” Kerry declared himself “impressed” with approval of legislation that bars those with criminal records from participating in the political system.
Rama noted that Albanians are “today more respected than any time in their history,” a status that he said would not have been possible “without the United States by our side.”
Albania, with an arsenal of Russian-made weaponry dating from the era of the Soviet Union, has donated about 1,500 tons of small arms and ammunition to the peshmerga, the Iraqi Kurdish force fighting against the Islamic State. In 2013 and 2014, up to 140 would-be terrorists were believed to have traveled to Syria from Albania, a Muslim-majority country. Last year, a senior State Department official said, that number was believed to have dropped to zero.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the State Department, described the Albanians as “regional heavyweights” in efforts to counter extremist propaganda and recruitment in the rest of the Balkans.
In his closed-door talks here, the official said, Kerry also expressed gratitude for Albania’s willingness to solve a festering U.S. policy problem by serving as a destination country for the Iranian MEK members.
As an opponent of the shah of Iran before that country’s 1979 revolution, the MEK was believed to be responsible for acts of terrorism, including the alleged killing of U.S. citizens. It broke violently with the revolutionary government in the early 1980s, eventually finding common cause with Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Many of its members were housed in an Iraqi military camp along the Iranian border. The United States declared the MEK a terrorist organization during the Clinton administration.
Following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which overthrew Hussein and led to the rise of Iranian influence, the new Iraqi government turned against the MEK, subjected it to harassment and pushed for its relocation to another country.
Aided by heavy lobbying in the United States, the group became a cause celebre among some lawmakers, who support it as a resistance group against Iran’s Islamist government. At least partly in exchange for the Obama administration’s decision in 2012 to lift the group’s terrorist designation, MEK’s several thousand members agreed to transfer to a protected former U.S. military base in Baghdad while the United States and the United Nations sought more permanent homes for them.
An estimated 700 now living in Albania are expected to be joined by additional numbers sometime this year.