Clinton to urge Albania to unite behind EU target
(TIRANA) - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was to urge Albania's political rivals Thursday to end long-running feuds that have left Tirana trailing other nations in the Balkans drive to join the European Union.
Clinton was expected to renew the call for faster and deeper reforms she made on the four previous stops of her five-nation regional tour.
Albania has been mired in crisis since the Socialist opposition accused Prime Minister Sali Berisha's Democrats of electoral fraud following June 2009 legislative polls.
A set of key reforms that are requirements for obtaining EU candidate status, dealing mainly with the legal system and anti-corruption efforts, have been blocked by parliament.
The US ambassador in Tirana Alexander Arvizu told journalists ahead of her visit that Clinton would stress "the importance of collaboration between the parties" in her talks with Berisha, President Bujar Nishani and opposition leader Edi Rama.
"She will come to express the US's strong solidarity with Albania as a NATO ally while using the opportunity to underline the importance of cooperation between political parties and the importance of reinforcing the rule of law," the ambassador said.
Albania joined the alliance in 2009.
Since she started her Balkans tour in Bosnia on Monday, Clinton repeatedly stressed that EU and NATO membership for all Balkans nations was the "surest path" to ensure lasting peace.
The region was wracked by conflict in the 1990s and remains volatile.
She arrived in Tirana from Croatia, which she held up as a model of democracy in the region just eight months before it is set to become the EU's newest member.
"Nations around the world today are making the difficult transition to democracy, and they can look to you, they can look to Croatia, as a model," said Clinton after meeting the country's top officials.
In December 2011, Croatia signed an EU accession treaty which was approved in a popular referendum a month later. Croatia is due to become the bloc's 28th member next year.
Albania applied for EU candidate status in 2009 but Brussels has already twice refused to grant it to the country of 2.8 million inhabitants because political infighting has blocked key reforms.
However Tirana has made some progress recently and is now hoping to obtain it by year's end.
Clinton can expect a warm welcome in Tirana where many fondly remember the strong US support for the democratic forces that drove out the communist regime -- which made Albania one of the most isolated countries in the world -- in the early 1990s.
Opinion polls show that 60 percent of Albanians believe that the United States is "the best advocate" of Albanian interests internationally.
The US's leading role in the 1999 NATO air campaign to drive out Serbian forces loyal to Belgrade strongman Slobodan Milosevic fighting ethnic Albanian guerrillas in Kosovo and its unwavering support for Pristina's unilaterally proclaimed independence have further cemented the public's favourable opinion.
On her visit to Pristina Wednesday Clinton again insisted that Kosovo's independence was not debatable, in a statement widely hailed in Albanian media.
"We will oppose any discussion of territorial changes or reopening Kosovos independent status. These matters are not up for discussion," she said.
The disputed status of Kosovo is the main bone of contention still affecting regional ties after the break-up of the communist former Yugoslavia, which collapsed in a series of bloody wars in the 1990s.