NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, U.S. General Joseph Ralston, paid a visit in early April to Tirana. There he urged officials to continue efforts to reform the military -- even if the country's prospects for rapid entry into NATO are not very good.
Tirana, 3 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- General Ralston is urging Albanian leaders to continue efforts to bring the country's armed forces up to Western standards.
Speaking yesterday in the Albanian capital, Tirana, Ralston said Albania should do this not only with eventual NATO membership in mind, but for the good of the country itself.
"As we approach the Prague summit, whether or not Albania is invited to join NATO is a political decision, not a military one. I try to keep those in military uniform focused on objective military criteria and will do my best to provide objective military advice to political authorities," Ralston said.
Albania is one of nine Central and Eastern European countries that are actively seeking membership in the 19-member military alliance.
NATO members are expected to name which countries will be included in the next wave of expansion at a summit to be held in Prague in November.
Of the nine, the three Baltic states, Slovenia, and Slovakia are given the best chances of being offered membership. Romania and Bulgaria are considered less likely. The chances of Albania and Macedonia being admitted at this stage are rated very slim.
Ralston took the opportunity of the visit to praise what he called the "big progress" on border control made between Albanian authorities and the KFOR international protection force in Kosovo. He noted that just this week, smugglers trying to enter Kosovo in a coordinated operation were apprehended by Albanian authorities.
"So we will continue to work very closely between NATO and the Albanian authorities with regard to border operations," Ralston said.
Ralston also applauded progress made in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, where a fragile peace plan appears to be holding after an ethnic Albanian insurrection last year: "[For Macedonia], all I can do is to encourage all the parties to continue to operate in good faith and hopefully we will continue the progress towards peace and stability."
Ralston said he was unsure about the fate of a task force set up in Macedonia to support the work of international monitors from the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The mission, formed at the request of the Macedonian government and approved by NATO, runs to 26 June.
Ralston said he is unsure if the mission will be extended after that.
The NATO leader also addressed the question of apprehending individuals suspected of war crimes in the Bosnian and Kosovo wars.
He expressed optimism that the war-time leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic, will ultimately be captured and delivered to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague: "Regarding Karadzic, we will continue [to look for him], and at some point, my view is justice will be done and he will be delivered to The Hague."
Ralston pointed out that the international security force in Bosnia, SFOR, does not have the authority to arrest Karadzic's military counterpart, General Ratko Mladic, who lives in Serbia. Ralston said it is up to Serbian authorities to transfer Mladic to The Hague.