Opinione Albania: Blinken’s visit focuses on Western Balkan’s stability

Albania: Blinken’s visit focuses on Western Balkan’s stability

Nga Gjergji Kajana

American Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken’s visit to Tirana on February 15th has made a point in the bilateral relations between Albania and the U.S. whose diplomatic roots were built on former president Thomas Woodrow Wilson’s support to the Albanian independence after World War I, reinforced after the Cold War and furthered in 2009, when Albania joined NATO. Blinken and his Albanian counterpart, Igli Hasani, signed two bilateral memorandums of understanding, one against misinformation by a foreign country, and one concerning education, pertaining the academic exchange program “Fulbright.”

Washington’s ally in Tirana

Mention Balkans and correctly try to figure out how to enhance the security in the area. The stability of Western Balkans needs to be secured through the adhesion of their young democracies to Euro-Atlantic organisations, namely, the European Union and NATO. Particularly Albania, as a NATO member and current candidate to join the EU, aims to be the region’s frontrunner on that path, due to reforms both executed and in progress (i.e. the one regarding the justice system) and considering its status as a pivot in the Albanian ethnic communities spread in five countries of the area (Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo, Serbia, North Macedonia). Within the hegemonic transition from a US supremacy to the conflicting multipolarity that is dominating the global geopolitical framework, the American influence in the Western Balkans is subject to a downsizing (do not expect the USA to solve militarily wars as it did in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 90s), and – as it remains the case for the Middle East – in taking a leave Washington needs to rely on regional loyal allies entrusted with security responsibilities. Albania is a cornerstone candidate to be this ally and aims to obtain this status. Indeed, both public opinion and the government are pro-American. Tirana partook with a contingent in the past US Middle-Eastern campaigns (Afghanistan and Iraq), and has endorsed the sanctions against Russia since the first ones issued in 2014. Its relations with Beijing (the main USA’s rival on the global stage) are restrained and – despite adhering to the 17+1 initiative between China and Central and Eastern European countries – Tirana is reluctant to obtain funding from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) promoted by Beijing. Furthermore, Albania has adhered to the American Clean Network Initiative – launched by the Trump Administration to oppose China’s quest for leadership in the 4G and 5G technologies – and in 2021 Blinken and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama signed a bilateral memorandum of understanding on cooperation in this strategic field, thus dissociating the Balkan country from Huawei.

The Kosovo conundrum

Kosovo – an ethnic Albanian majority country – remains a sore point concerning regional security.  Obtained in 2008 through a decisive American push, Kosovo’s independence is still not recognized by neighbouring Serbia, whose direct rule it used to be under from 1913 to 1999. Beside jeopardising the balance between two of the most menacing nationalisms in the Balkans (Serbian and Albanian), Kosovo is used by Russia as a lever against the West, due to Moscow’s support to Belgrade on Pristina’s non-recognition issue. In 2023 Kosovo was torn by the violence perpetrated by Serbian supporters against the NATO KFOR troops and Kosovar police, with clashes severely escalating in a shooting near the Banjska Monastery last September; in these latter clashes three members of a Serbian commando and an Albanian police officer were killed. Recently the government of Kosovo has banned banks and other financial institutions in the Serb-populated areas from using the dinar – Serbia’s currency – in local transactions, starting Feb. 1, and imposed the euro. These events have downsized the importance of the EU mediated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia as also the relations between Tirana and Belgrade. The Serbia – Albania liaison is erected on the gradual integration of the two economies (mainly inside the Open Balkan Initiative, also joined by North Macedonia) as an intermediate preparatory step for their admission in the EU as the ultimate goal.

Rama has publicly raised the issue of Kosovo’s future NATO adhesion as a step to protect Pristina from security threats. The implementation of this arduous plan would require, as a very first move, the persuasion of four NATO member countries (Spain, Greece, Romania, Slovakia) to recognize Pristina. The hesitation of the Kurti Government to act on allowing a form of self-administration of the Serbian community in the North of the country (despite both Kosovo and Serbia agreeing to the creation of a self-governed association in 2013) has tarnished Pristina’s relations with both Washington and Tirana. “Albanians of Kosovo and all of us must be conscious that it is in our interest, it is in the interest of Kosovo, to progress even unilaterally, should the need arise, to meet all those requests put on the table of dialogue that are not restrictive demands. So even today, after we discussed and talked, I want to repeat our appeal, my appeal, for the authorities in Pristina not to take any steps without consulting and being coordinated with our strategic allies because it is first and foremost in their interest, and of course it is in the interest of our alliance. Actions that are not consulted and uncoordinated could perhaps gain some votes for the moment, turning the foreign policy into a tool and function of the domestic policy. But there is no long-term gain,” stated Edi Rama in the joint press conference with Blinken.

NATO -Albania: Tirana aims to enhance its role

Asked on the statement of the Republican candidate to the White House Donald Trump about not extending protection to NATO countries that do not reach military expenses equal to 2% of their GDP, Rama answered diplomatically, “What makes United States one of a kind in our community of countries and of people all around the world is that United States cannot and will never, in my view, shy away from what are the principles and the values to be protected, whatever it takes.” In its financial law, Albania has committed itself to reach the 2% threshold this year, after the official figures estimated by NATO in 2023 were 1,76% on Tirana’s defence expenditures. The Balkan country participates through a vessel of its military fleet in the Alliance’s naval operations in the Aegean Sea. In March NATO will launch a new air base in Kuçovë, in which 90% of the building costs have been funded by NATO members. Furthermore, as part of the project of the extension of the Adriatic’s Durazzo harbour, a planned construction of a military naval station in Porto Romano – which can be linked to Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast via North Macedonia – is being considered. Tirana has purchased Turkish drones Bayraktar TB2 and recently the USA have supplied Albania’s aircraft with two Black Hawk helicopters.

Involvement on defending NATO’s Southern flank, support to American geopolitical aims against China, Russia and Iran, and efforts to solve the Kosovo conundrum: the Washington – Tirana connection presents herself as an active link giving steam to USA’s presence in the Western Balkans and Albania’s aim to be a Western stronghold.