Clinton set to urge Albania to set aside differences and push for EU membership

AFP , Thursday 1 Nov 2012

In last leg of Balkans tour, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will stress importance of collaboration between Albanian political parties to push through EU-required reforms

Croatian President Ivo Josipovic, right, shakes hands with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during a press conference Wednesday 31 Oct., 2012 following their meeting at the presidency in Zagreb (Photo:AP)

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was due to arrive in EU-hopeful Albania Thursday on the last leg of her Balkans tour where she is expected to urge opposing political sides to work together to push through reforms demanded by Brussels.

Albania has spent much of the past few years mired in political crisis since the Socialist opposition accused Prime Minister Sali Berisha's Democrats of electoral fraud after legislative polls in June 2009.

Despite some recent successes several reforms, key conditions for getting EU candidate status, are still blocked in parliament. The reforms are mainly linked to the legal system and the fight against corruption and organised crime.

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 Prime Minister Sali Berisha, President Bujar Nishani and opposition leader Edi Rama. She will also address the parliament around 1130 GMT.

"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.

During her five-nation Balkans tour-which started in Bosnia Monday, Clinton repeatedly stressed that EU and NATO membership for all Balkans nations was the "surest path" to ensure lasting peace and stability in the volatile region which was wracked by conflict in the 1990s.

She arrives 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 Wednesday.

In December 2011, Croatia signed an EU accession treaty which was approved in a popular referendum a month later.

Albania has 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 of the political infighting which blocked key reforms. Tirana is now hoping to obtain it by year's end.

Clinton can expect a warm welcome in Tirana where many 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 in the 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 has further cemented the public's favourable opinion of Washington.

On her visit to Pristina Wednesday Clinton again insisted that Kosovo's independence was not debatable, in statement widely hailed in Albanian media.

"We will oppose any discussion of territorial changes or reopening Kosovo’s 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.

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