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'We Are Not A Dustbin': Albanians Balk At Reported Chemical Weapons Plan


Environmental activists protest against the proposed chemical weapons plan outside a government building in Tirana on November 13.
Albania has done the United States a lot of favors in recent years.

It has agreed to take in freed Guantanamo Bay prisoners and contributed to the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan with little protest from society.

But with reports surfacing that Syria's chemical weapons might be dismantled in their country, Albanians' generosity appeared to have reached its limit.

Hundreds of protesters took to the streets in the capital, Tirana, on November 12, the second rally in less than a week. Chanting "No To Chemical Weapons," the demonstrators gathered in front of parliament before marching to the U.S. Embassy.

Three days later, Prime Minister Edi Rama announced that it was "impossible for Albania to take part in the operation."

LATEST: Tirana Rejects U.S. Request To Destroy Syrian Chemical Weapons

Sazan Guri of the Alliance Against Waste Imports, which organized the protest earlier in the week, stressed that Albanians remain very pro-American and that the demonstration was not against the United States. The goal, instead, was to spread the message that Albania should not be a "dustbin."

"We are against the weapons and not against America. America is our big brother, always in cooperation with this nation and this country," Guri said.

During the 20th century, there has been strong pro-U.S. sentiment in Albania, in particular in recent years after the U.S. intervention in the Kosovo war in the late 1990s and its commitment to Kosovo's statehood.

Popular Opposition

After years of importing hazardous waste from its richer neighbors, the Rama government banned waste imports in October, weeks after coming to power. The prohibition followed a two-year grassroots campaign from environmentalists. Earlier this month, Albania's parliament passed legislation allowing for the import of some nonhazardous waste.

Besar Likmeta, a Tirana-based editor for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, says there is opposition to taking in Syria's chemical weapons from "all strata of society."

"People are worried for their safety. There isn't much information that is coming out of the government. Also there is this feeling that pro-Americanism has been taken for granted and we're kind of saying yes to everything that is being put on our table," Likmeta says.

Likmeta notes that Albania agreed to take in 11 former Guantanamo Bay prisoners and 210 members of an Iranian opposition group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO). It also supported Washington in its military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed in October that Syria had destroyed all its declared equipment for the production of chemical weapons ahead of a November 1 deadline.

That represented the first step toward eliminating Syria's arsenal by mid-2014 under a September United Nations Security Council resolution. But how that will be achieved has still not been determined.

After media reports surfaced that the United States had asked Albania to destroy the weapons on its soil, Prime Minister Rama confirmed that he had indeed discussed the issue with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Rama stressed at the time, however, that no final decision had been made.

The OPCW, the global chemical-weapons watchdog, was due to discuss plans on eliminating Damascus's arsenal

The U.S. Embassy in Tirana declined comment on any possible deal.

But during a visit to the northern city of Shkoder last week, the U.S. ambassador to Tirana, Alexander Arvizu, said NATO-member Albania and "all the responsible international partners" must look for ways to contribute to disposing of Syria's chemical weapons.

"It's incumbent upon all responsible nations, certainly including the United States and Albania in that group, to find timely and effective ways to eliminate the menace that is posed by Syria's chemical-weapons program," Arvizu said.

Albania has recent experience in eliminating chemical weapons. With U.S. technical and financial assistance, Tirana destroyed its own 16-ton arsenal in 2007.

Albania's geographical position on the Adriatic Sea would allow the transportation of the Syrian stockpiles by sea or by air without transiting another country.

Safety Concerns

But there were also concerns about safety.

Much of the hazardous waste from Albania's own destroyed arsenal remains stored in containers at an army base near Tirana.

Likmeta recently visited that facility and was disturbed by what he saw.

"There was nobody to be seen, guarding these 25 containers of chemical waste and hazardous waste which remain from Albania's stockpiles. I was standing and shouting for somebody to hear it, to meet somebody there at the gate of the base, but there was no one to answer," Likmeta says.

Moreover, an attempt to dispose of Albania’s conventional weapons took a tragic turn in 2008, when 26 people were killed and more than 300 wounded in an explosion at a former army barracks outside Tirana where old artillery shells were being dismantled.

Parliamentary speaker Ilir Meta also raised questions about Tirana's ability to dismantle the weapons in a television interview on November 7, saying, "Even other, much bigger and more developed countries do not accept it."

Norway has already rejected the idea of dismantling Syria's arsenal on its soil. Denmark and Sweden said they were prepared to help transport the weapons but not dismantle them.

France and Belgium have also been mentioned in press reports as possible sites for the dismantling of Syrian chemical weapons.

Ian Anthony, the director of the Arms Control and Nonproliferation Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said ahead of Tirana's rejection of such a role that "both safety and security issues would have to be examined in the specific context of what it is that Albania was being asked to do. If the task that was given and that Albania agrees to accept was broadly comparable to what they've already done, then they have the experience and they have the facilities."

"If they're asked to do something which is of larger scale and a more complicated process, then I think there would be risks unless Albania receives significant assistance from outside parties," Anthony said.

Likewise, Alastair Hay, professor of environmental toxicology at University of Leeds, said Albania wouldn’t be asked to do something that the OPCW didn't think it was capable of doing.

RFE/RL's Balkan Service contributed to this report