Opinion: Albania, The Balkan Cordelia

Today, on the occasion of #WorldHelloDay, I came across a Facebook post of the US embassy in Tirana, which wrote: “Did you know that US diplomats learn the language of the country they serve?” It was a long greeting in the Albanian language, but that surprises no one anymore. The current US ambassador in Tirana, Donald Lu, speaks Albanian so fluently, to be envied by everyone.

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That made me look back retrospectively on the names of all US ambassadors serving in Albania. Of course, not all of them preferred to speak in Albanian, although you rarely doubted the fact that they knew the language well.
In one case in 1998, I was personally translating for Marisa Lino, the US ambassador in Tirana from 1996 to 1999. I felt perplexed when she herself corrected me on one word which did not fit the context. I understood she was following my Albanian closely, as she knew it perfectly.

The re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Albania became a fact in 1991, by appointing Edwin Ryerson, an “accidental” ambassador. He came to Albania with the advance team after diplomatic relations had resumed and was present in Tirana when James A. Baker III, US Secretary of State, paid his visit to Tirana on 22 June 1991. Baker was the first US high-level official to come to Albania after the country’s long period of isolation. I remember people were so excited and welcomed him in such a warm way, that it made him consider his trip very successful, praising Ryerson and his team for the excellent organization and appointing him immediately as the US ambassador in Tirana, despite his lack of experience. Ryerson had served in consular posts elsewhere, but never before been an ambassador. Anyway, they say he knew Albanian well, as he had learned it while serving as consul in Yugoslavia. He is well remembered, not due to any deeds for a former communist country like Albania; but mostly because he represented the USA, Albanians’ godfather. At that time we were expecting “the blank cheque” together with Baker, but it has been delayed….for 26 long years.

Ryerson’s successors have been more or less welcomed in the same warm way, as long as they represent the US interests in Albania. Not all left important traces in the land of eagles. It is worth mentioning that Marisa Lino, the Us ambassador in Tirana from 1996-1999, is remembered for her strong will and determination to put an end to the turmoil of 1997, after the collapse of pyramid schemes, where 3000 people lost their lives. Undoubtedly, Albanians still remember her with affection, as she was one of those few whose influence was really felt and produced a positive outcome for the time.

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Later it was John Withers II, 2007-2010, who became more active and reasonable after he left office. A few years ago, in a long interview from his family home, mainly focused on political issues in Albania, he sounded quite down-to-earth. A pity he was not as much participant when he held his duty. According to the foreign press in 1999, he had been accused of illegal ammunition trafficking to Afghanistan, and later cleared of such wrongdoing. The WikiLeaks release of confidential diplomatic cables showed Withers had authored a report that disqualified Tirana from competing for the lucrative Millennium Challenge Corporation grant. These revelations weakened his reputation.

The last retired US ambassador, Alexander Arvizu, 2010-2015, tried to get more involved in political issues but was not always productive. Arvizu and the current US ambassador, Donald Lu, seem to have been participating more in solving important national concerns and political clashes, criticising each side, position and opposition, trying to mitigate important issues, with varying degrees of success. Ambassador Lu, time and again, makes statements on sensible issues and perhaps due to his fluency in Albanian, is the most trustworthy.

Our small ancient country trusts the USA. We remain their closest ally, especially in the global fight against terrorism. We adore and love the big country forever. But sometimes it seems Albania is like King Lear’s daughter, Cordelia….the Balkan Cordelia, whose love for her Godfather is so big, but maybe it does not know how to express it in a more efficient way and is still waiting to be paid off for its loyalty.

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