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Albania: NATO Hopeful Launches 10-Year Military Reform Program

Authorities in NATO-aspirant Albania say surplus military equipment -- including artillery, light weapons, airplanes, helicopters, and ships -- will either be destroyed or sold in an effort to modernize and reduce the size of the country's armed forces, in accordance with NATO guidelines.

Tirana, 22 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Albania's armed forces have launched a 10-year reform program sponsored and supervised by the U.S. Department of Defense in order to trim down and thoroughly modernize its current standing force of more than 30,000 troops. Weapons and ammunition are to undergo the same radical reform.

Major General Pellumb Qazimi is the chief of general staff of Albania's armed forces: "To reduce them [the military armament capacity], putting [these weapons] out of use, it's necessary to sell them or otherwise to demolish them. To sell, I mean not only ammunition, but all surplus equipment we have, including airplanes, tanks, helicopters, artillery pieces, even navy ships, which would be overstock in the new structure. It's important that these procedures have been initiated and that the necessary legal basis is being prepared in order to enable their elimination, so we can proceed with their possible sale. And if that's not possible, we will proceed with their demolition to prevent them from becoming a risk for the Albanian population."

Qazimi says he is satisfied that Albania's fractious politics have not obstructed any of the reforms undertaken by the armed forces. He admits that his General Staff continues to implement reforms that were launched in Albania just after the fall of communism nearly a decade ago. But as Qazimi is quick to point out, "Our vision is totally modern and our pace is rapid."

Qazimi says the stockpiling of weapons by Macedonian security forces during last year's armed conflict with ethnic Albanian insurgents in Macedonia poses a risk to the whole region.

"In my opinion, the recent weapons stockpiling that Macedonia carried out represents a potential threat. But on the other hand, I don't agree that the military component is the only one threatening peace today. There are other mechanisms like political or diplomatic interventions that can prevent regional conflicts. I consider [the Macedonian decision] a negative message not only for solving the problems Macedonia is trying to rid itself of, but at the same time a bad directive for the other countries in the region. Albania is the only state in the region implementing such military arsenal reduction initiatives."

Albania succeeded with a project to destroy 1.6 million antipersonnel mines and explosives over a recent eight-month period. In addition, 116,000 light and small weapons have been destroyed so far in a joint project with the U.S., Germany, and Norway.

Albania is one of nine Central and Eastern European countries that are actively seeking membership in the 19-member military alliance. NATO is expected to name countries to 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, as well as 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.

Qazimi says Albania is eagerly awaiting the Prague summit, as are all other aspiring NATO members. He said the Albanian military will continue what he called its "serious efforts" to meet all obligations for full integration and membership in NATO.

"We will continue our serious efforts to be taken into consideration for NATO membership, but even if the decision to give us [member status] will not be achieved, we will continue in the same way, for this is to the benefit of the country and serves to raise security for the region."

Qazimi says Tirana is not seeking any special favors from NATO. But Albanian authorities say they believe that goodwill and a commitment to NATO guidelines, as well as military preparedness, should be considered in the process of NATO enlargement.

Albanian experts say off the record that none of the countries asking for full membership in NATO fully meets all requirements for membership. They say that due credit should be given to Albania for being a reliable partner in the war against terrorism, as well as for acting to quell regional unrest.