The status of the Serbian province of Kosovo, which has an ethnic-Albanian majority, was sure to be on the agenda. At the recent Group of Eight (G8) summit in Germany, French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed delaying a decision on the UN-administered province's status for six months.
What follows is an edited transcript of the RFE/RL South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service's interview with Berisha.
RFE/RL: Politicians and media seem agreed that President Bush's visit to Tirana is historic. Why is that?
Sali Berisha: This is a historic visit because it is the first visit to Albania of a U.S. president in office. This marks a very important momentum in bilateral relations and in the history of Albania's international relations. All sides and all Albanian citizens welcome President Bush because friendly feelings toward the United States and pro-Americanism have deep roots in our national conscience.... If Albanians have been successful in the battle for freedom it is thanks to the U.S. position, the position of the American government, and the American people.
RFE/RL: What will be on the agenda of your meeting with President Bush? Can you make it public?
Berisha: Sure, there is an agenda and we can make it public. The first thing on the agenda is the deep expression of gratitude for the support the United States has given to Albania and Albanians in the region. Second, we will discuss the process of reforms in Albania, our bilateral relationship, and ways how to intensify our cooperation. Third, part of agenda will [concern] regional developments with a special focus on the future of Kosovo. The U.S. support for Albanian membership in NATO is a very key issue, bearing in mind that NATO membership is our main objective.
"Independence is the logical result of what they have voted for, and what they have fought and sacrificed a lot for. There will be no solution other than a free and independent country."
RFE/RL: According to several experts, President Bush will visit Tirana to encourage the Albanian government, as Albania is behind other Adriatic Charter countries regarding the process of reforms for NATO membership. Do you share the same opinion?
Berisha: Let's face reality. Albanian has made the biggest and most intensive reforms compared to other countries, if we remember our country's starting point. When Albania started its reforms it was the most state-controlled society, whereas today 80 percent of our gross domestic product [GDP] comes from the private sector. We can say the same thing for our economic growth if we compare it to our starting point. That's how I can explain the differences between the level of reforms in Albania compared with two other member states of the Adriatic Charter -- Croatia and Macedonia.
But I would like to remind you of the two main advantages of our country. Albania has been the most loyal collaborator of NATO in the last 15 years compared with other postcommunist countries. This fact becomes clear if we remember that Albania and Albanians in the region have been part of a conflict zone and for several years even war zones. The Albanian Army has gone through the most radical reforms, more than any other army in the region. The Albanian Army has made lots of serious and honest efforts as part of efforts to meet NATO standards. Saying this, I am conscious of our problems. But again, although Albania is not up to the same level as Croatia and, in certain aspects, is behind Macedonia. Albania is advanced from another point of view: Ninety-three percent of Albanians support NATO membership, which means that if we think of membership in NATO as a state of mind, we are already a member.
RFE/RL: The visit of President Bush takes place at a time when U.S. relations with Russia are tense. We have even heard talk of a new Cold War. What is the position of the Albanian government on this?
Berisha: President Bush himself has made it clear that there is no Cold War. The government in Tirana has firmly supported the United States and still does, first of all based on our history, and I will repeat because of our gratitude for American support in our battle for freedom and dignity. But not only that. The United States is the main reason [there is] freedom, peace, and stability in the world. And this is becoming even clearer in the case of Kosovo. Unfortunately the Kremlin is conducting the same policy toward the Balkans. The Kremlin continues to believe that peace and stability in the Balkans can be met through Serbian hegemony in the region. This has been an unchanged position for almost 130 years now, although it has proved to be catastrophe for the Balkans.
RFE/RL: What about the proposal at the G8 summit in Germany that there will be at least a six-months delay in solving the status of Kosovo? Your government has said repeatedly that the status quo can not be continued.
Berisha: Albania believes that the status quo does not help as we are convinced that there is no alternative to Kosovar independence. I have not been formally informed about the proposal you mention, but I deeply believe that it is necessary to move forward toward a final solution. My opinion is based on the fact that neither six months nor several years are enough for Belgrade to get rid of the idea of a Greater Serbia. The same is true of the Kremlin. It looks like the Kremlin is not ready to reevaluate its position toward the Albanians, a position which, in addition to some other factors, has been the source of many barriers to peace and stability in the Balkans.
RFE/RL: What steps would Albania take if Western countries agree to a delay on Kosovo's status?Will you ask President Bush about this? And what about Pristina's position?
Berisha: I will make known the position of the Albanian government to President Bush, and focus on the relevance that status definition has for peace and stability in the region. Regarding Pristina, I would urge again that Kosovo's leaders and citizens show wisdom, self-restraint, and at the same time be sure that there will not be any other solution other than independence. Independence is the logical result of what they have voted for, and what they have fought and sacrificed a lot for. There will be no solution other than a free and independent country.
RFE/RL: So can we say that your government will continue to support independence for Kosovo as soon as possible, despite the apparent delay coming from the international community?
Berisha: It is correct to say that we support only independence. At the same time we have decided to cooperate closely with the international community so that independence can be widely recognized. In such circumstances, we are very firm on coordinating our position with the great friends of Kosovo. The latter, as well, are convinced that there is no solution other than independence, which would be supervised during the early phase. We will always be coordinating our actions with Pristina to make sure that, despite any potential delay, the process is on the right track.