(Tirana, Albania) - When US President George Bush visited Albania earlier this month, my little Balkan country made international headlines for the first time in a very long while -- and it's not hard to see why.
At a time when the American president's popularity is at an all-time low at home, and when his visits abroad are usually met with protesters, my predominantly Muslim countrymen draped our streets with star spangled banners and lined up by the thousands to shower him with praise.
There are many reasons for this aptly dubbed "Bush Mania in Albania." As the Western press pointed out during the visit, we were taught in history class that President Woodrow Wilson stood up for Albania's independence about a century ago. We credit America for helping us overthrow communism. And perhaps most importantly, we are grateful to the US for its intervention in Kosovo, which saved our brethren from Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic-cleansing campaign in 1999.
In appreciation of all this, the press pointed out, Albanians have done whatever we can to support the United States. We are an avid member of the "coalition of the willing," contributing troops to US-led missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We have signed an agreement with Washington promising never to prosecute any Americans before the International Criminal Court. We even volunteered to host several Guantanamo detainees who were not able to return to their home countries -- something no other country in the world has agreed to do.
But here's what the press didn't report: our government, led by Prime Minister Sali Berisha, has abused this relationship with Washington, using it as cover to shore up his increasingly tyrannical rule. Today's Albania is the closest European resemblance to Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. With seemingly unconditional US support, Berisha is slowly undermining respect for human rights and democracy.
Media crackdowns have become a routine, and most of the public is only exposed to governmental airwaves, which often accuse critics of being 'jews' and 'faggots'. In the days before President Bush's arrival here, the government interrupted the transmission of the two top television stations (including the one that was carrying the interview President Bush gave before his visit).
Berisha talks about progress and reform, but these are euphemisms for cracking down on the independence of the judiciary, redistributing private property, solidifying his grip on secret services and stacking the public administration with hardcore supporters of his Democratic party irrespective of their competence. He has used so-called anti-corruption legislation to purge the government of opposition and has even gone as far as taking control of leisure institutions such as the Albanian Football Federation.
Albanian institutions such as the office of the President and Constitutional Court have withstood pressure to adopt his government's problematic legislation thus far, but they are increasingly subject to blackmail and intimidation.
There are no McDonalds or ClubMeds in Albania, and not because we oppose globalization. On the contrary, we welcome it -- but businesses here are constantly harassed, extorted and shut down if not found favourable with the ruling regime. Tourist resorts, gas importers, detergent producers and telecom operators are being strangled to close shop under pressure of the financial police.
This is not the first time Berisha has acted to curtail fundamental democratic freedoms in Albania. In the 1990s, he was our president (politicians in this part of the world don't retire -- they reincarnate) and he proved very adept at jailing his political opponents, shutting down newspapers and stacking the security services with party loyalists.
Back then, Washington viewed Albania as critical in its effort to contain the conflict in the former Yugoslavia by putting a lid on Albanian support for their restive brethren across the border in Kosovo. So long as Berisha did not fan the flames of nationalism, Washington turned a blind eye to his autocratic tendencies.
This policy came back to bite the United States, however, because Berisha's government became so corrupt and abusive, that it eventually imploded. In 1996-97, a string of fraudulent pyramid investment schemes collapsed, bilking tens of thousands of people out of their lives' savings. They took to the streets and demanded his resignation, but not before they raided the country's armories. Many of these weapons they looted eventually wound up across the border in Kosovo, provoking yet another war in the former Yugoslavia -- stopped only by a $45 billion NATO intervention. Exactly what the US wanted to avoid happened.
Washington learned the hard way what the costs are of turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuses. America should be reminded of its past mistakes. We Albanians would be grateful if Washington would remember the principles and values that so many of us have come to admire about the United States of America.
Erion Veliaj is the executive director of Mjaft! (Enough!), an Albanian youth organization that fights corruption and apathy.