The Honored Guest

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times June 22, 2015 11:42

Story Highlights

  • Excerpt from the book "Modern Albania: From Dictatorship to Democracy" about U.S. Secretary of State James Baker's visit to Albania on June 22, 1991.

Related Articles

U.S. secretary of state James Baker addresses a massive crowd in Skanderbeg Square on June 22, 1991. © ATA

U.S. secretary of state James Baker addresses a massive crowd in Skanderbeg Square on June 22, 1991. Photo: ATA (c)

Twenty four years ago, on June 22, 1991, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker visited Tirana, becoming the first American high official to visit the country, as Albania opened up after decades of communist isolation. Fred C. Abrahams, the author of a recently published book, “Modern Albania: From Dictatorship to Democracy,” describes the historic visit.

By FRED C. ABRAHAMS*

By Spring 1991 the United States government was watching Albania from the ground. The Italians still occupied the embassy, so the Americans worked from the Dajti Hotel. They quickly grasped the massive pro-Americanism among Albanians and proposed that Washington send a senior official. Washington agreed and on June 22, 1991, Secretary of State James Baker’s plane touched down in Tirana as part of a Balkan tour. His few hours in town set the stage for U.S.-Albanian relations over the next twenty years.

A massive crowd welcomed Secretary of State James Baker in Skanderbeg Square on June 22, 1991. (c) Gani Xhengo

A massive crowd welcomed Secretary of State James Baker in Skanderbeg Square on June 22, 1991. Photo: Gani Xhengo (c)

Baker’s convoy drove in from the airport around 9:00 a.m. through empty streets. “I assumed it was going to be a disaster,” said the American diplomat Chris Hill, who already was in Tirana. Then, on the outskirts of Tirana, an ecstatic mob engulfed the cars, hoping to glimpse the guest from the West. Men threw flowers, kissed the windshields, and tried to carry Baker’s limousine into town.

“People were literally jumping on the hood of our car,” Hill said. American security agents jogged along the vehicle, sweating in their suits. “In fifteen years I had spent in national politics I had never seen anything like this,” Baker later wrote about the trip. (1)

The delegation drove to Skanderbeg Square, where more than three hundred thousand people had crammed every corner and nook despite oppressive heat, waving small American and Democratic Party flags. A large banner with the Statue of Liberty holding an American flag hung from the Palace of Culture. Spectators clung to lampposts and tree branches. They dangled off rooftops and balconies to get a better view. Someone raised a sign that read, in English: “Welcome Mr. Baker, Albania Has Been Waiting for You for 50 Years.” The famously unflappable Baker was overwhelmed. “I have never felt more privileged to represent my country,” he wrote. (2)

Baker and his entourage dipped into the Et’hem Bey Mosque on the southeast corner of the square to regroup. Someone needed to calm the crowd. A U.S. official turned around, saw Sali Berisha, and pulled him into the mosque.

“What should I say?” Berisha asked, according to a U.S. official who was present.

“Just calm them down,” the Americans implored.

Berisha climbed the rostrum that had been constructed in front of Skanderbeg’s statue, stepped to the microphone, and addressed the sea of faces.

“The American way of greeting friends is quieter than ours,” he said in his booming voice. “So please, let him speak.” (3)

Berisha then declared Baker to be an honorary citizen of Tirana. The crowd went wild.

American security cleared a path from the mosque and Baker made his way to the microphone, kissing a baby along the way. Berisha slipped to the back of the stage as Baker raised his hands in the two-fingered victory salute—the symbol of the Democratic Party.

“On behalf of President Bush and the American people, I come here today to say to you: freedom works!” Baker said through his interpreter, the VOA Albanian service chief Elez Biberaj. “At last, you are free to think your own thoughts.” (4)

From the awestruck and hopeful faces—those of true believers—Washington understood it was dealing with a small and desperate country full of fans. The U.S. had a chance to win the last battle of the Cold War and to establish a trusted ally in a volatile region. Baker announced $6 million in aid and left for meetings with the prime minister and President Alia.

Excerpted by the author for Tirana Times reader from the book Modern Albania: From Dictatorship to Democracy (New York University Press, 2015). See www.modern-albania.com more more information.

1 - Baker, James A., with DeFrank, Thomas M., The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War and Peace, 1989–1992 
(New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995), p. 485.
2 - Ibid., p. 486.
3 - “Albanians Mob Baker, Cheer U.S., Europe,” by Norman Kempster, Los Angeles Times, June 23, 1991.
4 - “300,000 Albanians Pour into Streets to Welcome Baker,” New York Times, June 22, 1991.

 

 

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times June 22, 2015 11:42