Weapons Request Shakes Albania’s Love for US
Gjergj Erebara BIRN Tirana
Albanian officials have confirmed that the United States has asked its small Balkan ally to host the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
Speaking in parliament on Friday, Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati said the government was still considering the request, which had been the topic of a phone call between the new Prime Minister, Edi Rama, and US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Although the government has yet to take a decision, many Albanians already feel worried and humiliated by the request. People fear the possible consequences of having the chemical weapons arsenal of the Assad regime of Syria placed on their soil, and with good reason.
Although with US assistance the destruction of munitions laden with chemical agents might be safe and successful, it will still leave behind a cocktail of hazardous waste. Tirana has no capabilities to deal with such waste.
Waste from its own stockpiles of chemical weapons, which were also destroyed with Washington’s help, is still sitting in a poorly guarded facility and posing an environmental threat.
Albania’s Stalinist dictator, Enver Hoxha, stored massive amounts of ammunition, rocket fuel and other dangerous agents in bunkers across the country, fearing an attack from both the East and West.
The legacy of Hoxha’s madness was a number of deadly explosions over the past two decades, which left dozens of people dead and hundreds of others injured.
Many poor Albanians still try to make a living by salvaging metal from the artillery shells scattered across the country. This not exactly a safe place by any standards to transfer 1,300 tons of deadly chemical agents, ranging from mustard gas to VX.
Apart from the fear that the destruction of Syria’s weapons in Albania will turn into yet another tragedy, Albanians feel humiliated. Many feel the United States is rewarding them for their pro-American sentiments by turning the country into dumping ground.
They feel an even worse sense of shame at their own government’s handling of the issue. Many believe that Albania’s possible nod to the transfer of the chemical weapons will spring from a government culture of saying “yes’ to anything Washington wants.
Urban legend has it that Albania’s corrupt political class lives in constant fear that one day it might become the target of Western law enforcement agencies.
To avert those unwanted probes, Albanian politicians are happy to play ball with anything that the West, and especially the United States, throws its way.
What gives credo to such beliefs is the fact that Tirana has accepted more former Guantanamo prisoners who could not be repatriated to their home states than any other country.
Only recently it agreed to take in 210 members of the Iranian resistance group, Mujahidin-e-Khalq, based on yet another US request.
Hosting the Iranian mujahedin and the former Guantanamo prisoners on humanitarian grounds provoked little resistance from the general public.
However, the mixture of shame and fear produced by the request to take in Syria’s chemical stockpile has drawn protests from the street to social networks.
Those most angry at the government and the US request are the same people who only a few months ago, in the June 23 elections, handed a landslide victory to the centre-left coalition headed by Socialist leader Edi Rama.
Many Socialists supporters fear the transfer of the chemical weapons even more than a return to power of former Prime Minister Sali Berisha, Rama’s archenemy.
Rama’s stay in power is dependent on his junior ally, Ilir Meta, and it’s unclear what impact a dispute over these weapons might have for the coalition.
Meta has already declared that Albania does not have the capabilities to destroy the agents and “should not bear a burden larger than its shoulders”.
When news broke that Albania might take in Syria’s stockpile, some analyst pointed out that Albania’s only comparative advantages as a host country were its lack of a developed civil society and its culture of unresponsive politics.
As they noted, there was no reason for the international community to handpick such a small and impoverished country as the final destination of Assad’s weapons of mass destruction, when other NATO states have far more sophisticated disarmament technology.
Although the weapons are not yet here, opponents are fast patching together a grassroots movement of environmentalists, intellectuals and activists, with some organizations already calling for a civil disobedience campaign.
An online petition has gathered nearly 18,000 signatures in 48 hours, several small protests have been held and larger ones are planned.
In the end, what has been thought Albania’s weakness could turn out to be stronger than anyone imagined.
Published in Balkaninsight