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Albania: Prime Minister Pledges To Build Highway To Kosovo

Albanian Prime Minister Pandeli Majko says the construction of a new highway connecting Albania and Kosovo is a top priority for his administration. As RFE/RL's Alban Bala reports from Tirana, Majko says relations between Tirana and Belgrade are strongly conditioned by the Kosovo question.

Tirana, 20 May 2002, (RFE/RL) -- Albanian Prime Minister Pandeli Majko has renewed his call to begin construction of a new highway from the Adriatic port city of Durres to the Kosovo border.

The current road, dating to the Italian military occupation is narrow, winding, and dangerous. The new road would traverse the Fan Valley and proceed to Kukes along the Drin River, reaching Kosovo at the Morina/Vermica border crossing near Prizren.

In a television interview last week, Majko spoke of the importance of the highway. "Can you imagine what an impact this [road] would have on the entire Albanian market, if the ride from Durres to Morina would take about two hours? This is not a dream. It's a reality! We have discussed several options and agreed on one project, which costs $250 million."

Majko announced a new tax to be added to the next fiscal year's budget that will enable the state to fund the road. According to Majko, the goal is to collect $30 million annually, in addition to the donations that have already been promised by businesses and leaders of the Albanian diaspora.

But the main business groups in the country differ in their opinions about the new tax. The Union of Business Associations applaud the idea, while the Association of Investors and Producers objects to imposing a new tax.

Analysts note that with the economy in the doldrums -- the government has failed to privatize two strategic state-owned companies, Albanian Telecom and the Savings Bank -- the government has decided to cut this year's state budget by 6 percent in order to respond to growing inflation.

In a bid to prevent the collapse of his highway project, Majko has lent weight to those in the country calling for a more nationalist-oriented policy. Independent papers are questioning the effectiveness of Greek businesses in the Albanian market in the five years since the civil unrest that engulfed Albania. The government has also decided to liberalize the fuels' market, until now largely controlled by Greek importers. Analysts also note that many Albanians would prefer the remaining Greek military stabilization troops in Albania be replaced with an expanded Italian military presence.

But Majko's opponents within his Socialist Party, in an apparent attempt to dilute his policies, sent his predecessor, Ilir Meta, to Belgrade earlier this month for talks with Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic. Meta also met with leaders of the Albanian minority living in the Presevo Valley in southernmost Serbia.

Meta's visit caused consternation across the political spectrum in Tirana, since such a visit -- if made at all -- would normally be made by the foreign minister or the prime minister, rather than a party functionary. Moreover, the visit was apparently conducted without consulting the authorities in Kosovo, which remains de jure a part of Yugoslavia, albeit under NATO-led occupation.

Commenting on Meta's trip, Majko said that if he ever visits Belgrade, he will first consult with Kosovar Albanian leaders in Pristina.

"Pristina is the core of relations between Tirana and Belgrade. We cannot become the tutors of Kosovo and discuss things that belong to them, to their government, their parliament, and to Kosovo's president. Belgrade is just one capital in the Balkans," Majko said.

Majko believes that while there are some topics that should be discussed between Tirana and Belgrade, he said he intends to wait until the situation becomes clearer to initiate such discussions. And then, only after consulting with Kosovo's prime minister, Bajram Rexhepi, would Majko say he would even consider visiting Belgrade.

Foreign-policy differences within the ruling Socialist Party have provoked calls for better coordination of Albanian diplomacy. For example, Genc Pollo, the chairman of the opposition Reformed Democrats, the third main group in Parliament, said he would like to see greater coordination in Albanian foreign policy.

"It would be great to have unified foreign policies, above all in dealing with Kosovo, which represents a big question, but also with Serbia, a delicate relation for us. In my opinion, the Kosovar question has to be a priority, which would condition somehow the relations we have with Serbia. By saying that, I think that the normalization of the relations with all the countries in the region would serve as a general contribution in the framework of overcoming our bitter inheritances from the past," Pollo said.

Albert Rakipi is the president of the Albanian Institute for International Studies, a Tirana-based think tank.

"I want to point out that Albania's administrations have pursued controversial policies on regional events and especially on Kosovo. This contradiction derives from the fact that the Albanian question in the region and the question of Kosovo have been misused for domestic political reasons, and in my opinion the former [Socialist] administration has offered a moderate position in order to gain credibility and [international] political support," Rakipi said.

Rakipi, a former deputy foreign minister in the Democratic administration, said agreeing to a well-defined status for Kosovo would accelerate the process of the reconciliation in the Balkans, especially between Albanians and Serbs.

In the meantime, the Albanian government will continue to try raising funds to build that highway over the mountains to Kosovo. Whether the highway is completed before Kosovo's status is finally resolved is anyone's guess.