As more than 200,000 Albanians waved paper American flags and chanted “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” Secretary of State James A. Baker III celebrated the fall of one of Europe’s last Communist regimes Saturday with a declaration that “freedom works.”
For a country that replaced its Communist-dominated government just 10 days ago, Baker’s visit was a massive coming-out party.
People poured into the capital from all over this Maryland-sized nation to demonstrate their admiration for the United States and, at the same time, to plead for U.S. economic aid to rebuild an economy shattered by almost half a century of Stalinist isolation.
“I’ve never seen in my lifetime anything like that,” Baker said following a rally in Tirana’s historic Skanderbeg Square.
Later in the day, addressing the Albanian Parliament, Baker said he realizes the triumph was not his alone.
“I want to say how touched I was . . . by the incredible reception that we have received here in Tirana today,” he said. “I know that that reception was not directed at me personally but rather at what I stand for and represent. I see it as a playing out on the part of the Albanian people of a yearning for freedom and democracy that has been pent up for many years.”
Albanian authorities said that Skanderbeg Square, named for the 15th-Century Albanian king who temporarily pushed back Turkish rule, was designed to hold 200,000 people. It was filled to overflowing, and demonstrators jammed the side streets leading into the square.
Baker said demonstrators along his route from the airport to the capital rushed up and kissed the closed windows of his Mercedes-Benz limousine. Some people pushed their way into some of the other cars in Baker’s motorcade only to be shoved back out.
The usually reserved secretary of state got into the swing of it, deftly kissing a baby that was thrust into his face as he approached the podium to address the crowd.
Albania inaugurated its first non-Communist government on June 12, following the collapse of a Communist regime that was installed in March after the nation’s first multiparty election since 1920.
The Communists--who won the election that the U.S. government said fell short of international democratic standards--control Parliament. The new government, led by a former Communist, Ylli Bufi, includes several ministers representing newly formed opposition parties.
A senior Administration official told reporters traveling with Baker that the anti-Communist opposition appears to be the odds-on favorite to win the free elections that the new government has promised to hold next year.
The rally in central Tirana’s biggest square appeared largely spontaneous, although the Democratic Party, largest of the new opposition groups and the only one represented in Parliament, clearly played a role in organizing it. The crowd seemed to be a sea of blue-and-white Democratic Party banners waving alongside the U.S. flag. Albania’s black-and-red national flag was displayed much less frequently.
Pausing after every sentence to permit his words to be translated into Albanian, Baker delivered an emotional speech which promised that the nation of 3.2 million people--by far the poorest in Europe--"will not be left behind as the new Europe is built.”
The crowd cheered every sentence.
“Welcome, free citizens of Albania, to freedom,” Baker said. “Freedom works.”
The remark had a certain unintended irony because Albania is plagued by a ruinous rate of unemployment.
The crowd at the rally interspersed its chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” with “Baker! Baker! Baker!” and “Bush! Bush! Bush!” although the cheer for President Bush sounded more like “Bushy.”
There were thousands of hand-lettered signs in English welcoming Baker, often displaying substantial originality in their spelling of his name--Backer, Bejker, Beaker and Beicker. Another sign-writer was more specific: “We want for Albanian people a Marshall Plan.”
But if Albanians expect the United States to come through with the sort of economic aid that rebuilt Europe after World War II, they are certain to be disappointed.
Baker announced a new foreign aid program of $6 million, more than half of it in powdered milk. Officials said later that Washington was ready to provide technical assistance to the Albanian economy and might eventually send Peace Corps volunteers to the nation on the Adriatic.
Soli Berisha, leader of the Democratic Party, told reporters after a meeting with Baker that Albania wants technical help, not charity. But he made it clear that he believes the country needs lots of U.S. assistance.
“We said to Mr. Baker, we killed communism, but we are faced with its debris, which is still toxic,” Berisha said. Albania, he added, “has a democratic head, a democratic heart but a Bolshevik body.”
Baker’s reception was far more restrained when he addressed the Communist-controlled Parliament. He was applauded warmly at the beginning and the end of his speech but he was not interrupted once by additional applause.
Nevertheless, President Ramiz Alia, the handpicked successor of dictator Enver Hoxha, said Baker’s visit was “a great event for the Albanian people.”
“Albania’s development on the road of democracy . . . is irreversible,” he told reporters at the presidential palace while awaiting Baker’s arrival.
Baker’s speech to Parliament was a stern lecture on the difficulty of converting a centrally planned economy to a free-market one.
“The passage to prosperity is painful and difficult,” Baker said. “But there is no other way to the future that Albanians want and deserve, for themselves and for their children.”
He said the road to democracy requires “freeing all political prisoners . . . full respect for religious and minority rights, opening the media to genuine pluralism . . . eliminating repressive security organs and bringing legitimate police functions under democratic controls . . . civilian control over the military . . . (and) freeing the factories, farms and mines from political controls and mismanagement.”
Moreover, he said, “it means holding fully free and fair elections . . . that include a fair campaign . . . and fair media access to all parties.”
Democratic Party leaders, who carried Tirana and most other cities in March but lost heavily in the countryside, have accused the government of restricting their access to television and other media outlets.
A senior Administration official said later that Albanians “are right at the early stage (of political and economic reform) where they say all the right things but they haven’t an idea of how to go about it.”
Although the crowd was almost totally friendly, there were times when Baker appeared to be almost in danger of being loved to death. During his motorcade into town, people threw themselves onto the hood of his car. And when he reached Skanderbeg Square, Baker had to wait for several minutes while security agents tried to clear a path for him to the rostrum.
Berisha, the Democratic Party leader who preceded Baker to the rostrum, attempted to calm the crowd that he had just been working up. He said, “The American way of greeting friends is quieter than ours. So please let him speak.”
The United States and Albania established diplomatic relations last March for the first time since 1939, when Fascist Italian troops seized the country. After the war, Albania was ruled by Hoxha’s xenophobic brand of communism which kept the country almost totally isolated from the rest of the world.