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Published: Saturday, 6/16/2007

Albania's adulation

It's hard to say that the Albanians would not have given President Bush such a rousing welcome last Sunday if Kosovo's independence were not at stake, but it most certainly played a part.

His eight-hour stop in Tirana, the capital, was definitely a love fest, with cheering crowds and personal warmth. He is, after all, the first American president to visit the ex-communist country of 3.6 million. The Albanians clearly appreciated his attention, short though the visit was. From the U.S. point of view, it helped that Albania has furnished troops, albeit in small numbers, to fight alongside Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the real crux of the relationship for the Albanians is the fact that the United States supports independence for the neighboring Serbian province of Kosovo. Mr. Bush said so while he was there. Kosovo is 90 percent Albanian and Muslim, by ethnicity and religion.

Its independence would mean twin Albanian-majority Muslim republics in that part of the Balkans, a development that would thrill the Albanians.

The reason U.S. support for independence is so important is that Serbia, backed by Russia (a veto-bearing member of the United Nations Security Council), opposes it. Serbia is concerned that an independent Kosovo would trample the political and civil rights of the Serbian and Christian Orthodox minority (10 percent of the population) and that important historic and religious sites would not be protected.

Serbia's recourse, in the event of trouble after independence, would be to send in troops. That, however, would be unacceptable to the rest of the world, particularly since NATO forces, with American help, forced the Serbian military out in 1999.

Serbia, which hopes to join the European Union, is thus reluctant to agree to Kosovo's independence. Mr. Bush was supposed to discuss this with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the recent G-8 summit in Germany. The two may talk about it when they meet again next month in Kennebunkport, Maine.

In any case, the Albanians want Mr. Bush to have warm, positive feelings about them and Kosovo when he speaks with the Russian leader. That was at the base of the frenetic, friendly reception the American president received in Tirana.

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