The Albanian dream
Albania holds a special place in the history of NATO relations with the former Eastern bloc. This is because it was the first former communist country publicly to announce that it wished to join the Alliance. That was in December 1992. Four months later, then NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner
formally travelled to Tirana and this groundbreaking visit opened a new
chapter in the history of relations between my country and the most successful
alliance of modern times. At the beginning of 1994, Albania endorsed the
Partnership for Peace concept and on 23 February of that year became one
of the first countries to sign the Partnership for Peace document. Since
then, we have systematically pursued a flexible yet comprehensive approach
to NATO membership.
Having been both defence minister and chairman of the Albanian Atlantic Association for eight years before becoming president, I can testify to the fact that integration into NATO has been and remains a top priority for Albania. Indeed, throughout this decade I have had the pleasure to observe the huge support that the Albanian public has given to this endeavour, support that has made it possible for the government to undertake the necessary reforms to bring our standards up to those required by NATO.
Both the government and wider Albanian society view Euro-Atlantic integration as critical for our country and its future. In this way, we are faithfully implementing our annual national programme of the Membership Action Plan, a process that involves the participation of both executive and legislative branches of government, as well as political parties and wider civil society. Both public and political opinion in Albania perceive Alliance membership as a key step towards the development of a stable democratic system and a functioning market economy. Moreover, the goal of membership reflects an active foreign policy and is helping us restructure the Albanian Armed Forces to improve their ability to defend the freedom and sovereignty of our country.
We are aware, however, that we will not be invited to
join NATO simply because of the level of public support for Alliance membership
or for our contribution to NATO-led peacekeeping operations. Rather, when we
are invited to join the Alliance, it will be in recognition of much hard work
and the successful conclusion of a long and comprehensive reform process to bring
our standards in line with those of the Alliance. This reform process is now
moving forward smoothly and I have had the pleasure to witness the steady
improvement in our relations with NATO.
In addition to pursuing NATO membership, Albania is simultaneously seeking closer integration with Europe. To this end, Albania is currently negotiating an Association and Stabilisation Agreement with the European Union, a process of special importance for the development and future of our country. In close cooperation with other countries in Southeastern Europe, Albania is now working towards bringing its standards up to European levels and following the example of the ten countries - eight of which are from Central and Eastern Europe - that will join the European Union on 1 May.
In recent years, Albania has demonstrated both moderation and vision in establishing mutually beneficial and enduring relations with all countries in Southeastern Europe. This has been manifested in a series of high-level political contacts, bilateral and multilateral agreements, and a series of common projects that are currently underway. Improvements in the overall political climate suggest that the countries of Southeastern Europe may be on the verge of a definitive break with the conflict that has characterised their past and especially the 1990s, and on the way - via bilateral and multilateral cooperation - towards closer European and Euro-Atlantic integration.
A significant example of today's more cooperative atmosphere
in Southeastern Europe is the Adriatic Charter that was signed last year by the
three countries aspiring to NATO membership - Albania, Croatia, and the former
Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* - and the United States. The process that has
since been set in train and is being generously supported by the United States
aims at promoting cooperation among these countries in order to meet NATO's entry
criteria. In this way, our countries are able to serve as an example for the
Albania supports democratic processes in Kosovo as well as on-going efforts by both the international community and NATO to build stability there. We believe that the Alliance's presence in the region remains indispensable. This is because stability in parts of the Balkans remains fragile and certain questions of vital importance for our security remain unanswered. We have been impressed by progress achieved to date in Kosovo and in particular the way that the Kosovar institutions that emerged from free and fair elections are increasingly taking responsibility for the province's government. We believe in and support the talks that have now started between Belgrade and Pristina on practical matters and recognise that the international community must seek to uphold minimal standards in Kosovo. Nevertheless, we believe that a decision on Kosovo's ultimate status should not be delayed, since any such delay risks benefiting extremists on both sides.
Meeting membership criteria
Albania is determined to work to meet all NATO membership
criteria, in particular the reform of our Armed Forces. This involves the consolidation
of civilian control over the military, increased state spending on defence and
reform of the way in which we educate, train and drill our soldiers. We are grateful
to the United States for its support for these reforms, as well as to other Alliance
members, including Germany, Italy, Turkey and the United Kingdom, for fruitful
bilateral cooperation and assistance. The reform package is being carried out
in accordance with the 2001-2010 Reform Plan. This provides a new legal
framework covering the best possible security for our country, our participation
operations, and our contribution towards peace and stability in Southeastern
Europe and beyond in the fight against terrorism.
The Albanian Armed Forces are active in NATO's peacekeeping
missions as well as those of the United Nations and the US-led International
Coalition against Terrorism. Our soldiers are deployed in the Stabilisation Force
in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as in the International Security Assistance
in Afghanistan. Albania joined the International Coalition against Terrorism
as soon as it was formed and has supported it in every possible way, politically,
diplomatically and financially, as well as militarily. Indeed, special units
of the Albanian Army are currently deployed in Iraq.
The Prague Summit was a watershed for NATO and a diplomatic triumph for the seven countries that were invited to join the Alliance on that occasion. NATO grew stronger; Europe's zone of security was substantially extended; and, critically from the Albanian perspective, the Summit both reaffirmed NATO's open-door policy and recognised our achievements and those of the two other countries aspiring to membership towards meeting Alliance entry criteria and in the field of military reform, as well as the vigorous support that Albania has given to NATO.
We are aware that Albania's historical political and economic under-development, internal instability and wider conflict in Southeastern Europe undermined our membership aspirations at the Prague Summit. We, nevertheless, remain committed to the accession process and meeting NATO's political, economic and military membership criteria is a key national objective.
We believe that Albania merits eventual NATO membership both because Albanians have a powerful emotional commitment to the Alliance and because our country has already been behaving as a de facto Alliance member for many years. The NATO-led missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* and our own participation in SFOR and ISAF have helped strengthen the feelings of sympathy and support towards NATO, the United States and Euro-Atlantic values, among the wider population. Moreover, the reforms that we are undertaking to strengthen the rule of law and democracy, as well as our contribution to the fight against organised crime and international terrorism will make us a reliable and capable Ally.
Every citizen, politician and president has some idea, some project or goal in his or her life that he or she is willing to fight for above all other. My dream is to witness my country's integration into NATO. It is a dream that I share with the vast majority of my fellow citizens and it is the unanimous goal of tomorrow's generation that is growing up today. Through our combined efforts, I hope and believe that this dream will one day soon become reality.