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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 June 2007, 06:44 GMT 07:44 UK
Albania prepares to welcome Bush
By Nick Hawton
BBC News, Tirana

A poster of US President George W Bush in Tirana. Photo: Nick Hawton
Many Albanians feel Mr Bush's visit will put their country on the map
It might not be the first place you would expect the "leader of the free world" to visit, but nobody is complaining in central Tirana about the visit of US President George W Bush.

The city and the country have been in a state of almost permanent excitement for weeks for the first-ever visit by a US president to this small, Western Balkan country.

Travelling in from the airport on the newly constructed road you are immediately confronted with billboard after billboard proclaiming the visit.

"Albania welcomes President Bush" and "President Bush in Albania, making history'" the signs read.

A picture of Mr Bush beams down from giant posters.

Albania was, in many ways, the country that time forgot.

That is until the curtain of isolationist communism fell in the early 1990s.

Since then, the country has been slowly adopting the trappings of democracy and moving towards membership of Nato and the European Union.

Getting ready

Most Albanians now see the United States as their closest ally.

Albanian government spokesman Grid Rroji. Photo: Nick Hawton
Mr Rroji says the visit will boost Albania's integration

The preparations for Mr Bush's arrival have been extensive and to be seen everywhere.

There are few countries, especially one with a majority Muslim population like Albania, which would be so enthusiastic to see the president.

In the upmarket area of Bllok, an area of Tirana that used to be reserved solely for the Communist party hierarchy, young people now enjoy their cappuccinos and beers in swish bars and restaurants.

And everyone is happy Mr Bush is in town.

"This is great. We are proud that the 'President of the World' is visiting Albania," says 23-year-old student Ardita.

"His visit is important for our new democracy."

Konstandin, a 29-year-old waiter at one of the bars, agrees.

"It puts Albania on the map. It shows how close we are to America. We support President Bush and America."

map

In the main square, dominated by a statue of the Albanian national hero, Skanderbeg, US and Albanian flags fly together.

A few hundred metres away, the old mausoleum of the former Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, is now draped in US flags and a huge portrait of Mr Bush hangs above the entrance.

"There is real enthusiasm here, not just from the government but from the people. We hope this visit will help Albania on the path to Euro-Atlantic integration," says Grid Rroji, director of information for the Albanian Government.

It is said here that in 2003, while there were protests in other European capitals against the war in Iraq, Tirana was the only capital where demonstrations were actually held in favour of the war.

Crucial sign

Albania's enthusiasm for the war on terror is not only reflected in its willingness to send troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in the fact that it has agreed to accept former prisoners from Guantanamo who cannot return to their own countries.

This is the type of practical help and support that Mr Bush appreciates.

The country sees the visit of the US president as a "Thank you" for its support but also as a crucial sign that the US cares about Albania's slow road on the path to democracy which some still see as a fragile one.

But there is also another key issue looking over this part of the world - that of neighbouring Kosovo.

Its majority Albanian population are getting increasingly frustrated that they have not been given the independence from Serbia they have been demanding since 1999.

The US has stated its support for independence despite the objections of Serbia and Russia.

Albanian leaders will continue to emphasise the need for the US to push through independence despite those objections.




VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Some Albanian views on the visit of President Bush



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