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Albania's 'weird and twisted' second chance

Since the beginning of its military offensive against Serbia, NATO has tirelessly promoted its campaign as one based on humanitarian concern for Kosovo's ethnic Albanians against a brutal Belgrade regime.

NATO's Kosovo cause, however, has become as questionable in the sincerity of motive as it has in the brutal arrogance of its consequences - a refugee-swollen Balkans, severe civilian casualties, a shaky NATO legitimacy.

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The designs behind the mission of "justice" on behalf of the Kosovar Albanians must be more deeply examined.

Two key questions lost amid all the heart-wrenching border reporting and the nightly TV spectacles of Belgrade bombing are:

In whose interest is this massive campaign ultimately directed? And what are the longterm strategic goals of this for the West?

Albania benefits directly in long-term political and military investment. And NATO gets a strong new geopolitical base between the Adriatic and the eastern Mediterranean.

Between the two, the Kosovo campaign is not so much a "cause" as it is a catalyst for long-sought aims in the region by both sides.

First, concerning the domestic and regional stability of a nation viewed as the victim of a more powerful neighbor, Albania's undemocratic, north-vs.-south mafia ruling-class structure has made both the country and surrounding areas - Kosovo and Macedonia - a threat as much to themselves as any territorial bully, Serbian or otherwise.

According to the respected French journal Observatoire Gopolitique des Drogues, Albanian drug rings based in Tirana and Pristina are the second-largest heroin-exporting groups in Europe, after Turkey, netting up to $3 million a month in profits.

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Tirana and Pristina also play host to vast rings of illegal-immigrant operations that smuggle Albanians into Italy for sums that reportedly reach up to $100,000 per boatload of people.

In the chaos of Tirana's notorious "pyramid" banking collapse of 1997, Albanians took hundreds of millions of dollars into Kosovo. In addition, some 650,000 automatic weapons and 1.5 million gun cartridges were spirited out of Albania into western Macedonia - now one of the main shipping routes of arms to Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fighters.

It wasn't until this flux of wealth and arms out of Albania that Albanian leaders - former President Sali Berisha and former Prime Minister Fatos Nano - started calling for Albania's "unification" with the areas to which such high-profit activity spread - Kosovo and western Macedonia.

For example, Albania asked Macedonia to change its constitution so that Albanians there would become a "constituent nation."

At the same time, a newly rich KLA went through a "cleansing" campaign of its own, killing nearly 1,000 Serbs in southern Kosovo.

So what did then-NATO Secretary-General Manfred Wrner mean in 1995 when he urged "the participation of Albania in the security of southeast Europe and the Balkans" as essential?

For nearly a decade NATO has been actively courting Albania, overlooking the nation's internal problems.

Since 1992, Albania and NATO have joined in extensive training exercises, military upgrades, and operational-base drills.

It has been the most actively sought-after country by NATO in the East European "Partnership for Peace" program.

The country served as a base during the Bosnian war, and has been featured in prominent NATO exercises involving the US Sixth Fleet.

For its part, NATO strives to achieve three goals in mounting strong support for Albania:

First, to severely limit Russian interests in the Balkans, as the West also managed to do in Cyprus and Iraq and Syria. Russia's own marginalized diplomatic role in Kosovo also demonstrates this.

Second, Albania serves as a key outpost between the Adriatic and the North Africa-Eastern Mediterranean-Middle East arc - an area combining the world's busiest shipping lanes with the greatest amount of ballistic missile proliferation.

NATO hopefuls Bulgaria and Macedonia - each more democratically sound than Albania - have been ruled out as the kind of NATO military launch pads that Albania has become.

Third, a more infrastructurally sound Albania will stem the tide of immigrants into European countries, and might prove an appeasement to radical Islamic groups for whom Albania could be a kind of European regional buffer.

Albania, once isolated by the world, is so far the Balkans' only winner.

President Rexhap Meidani ambitiously talks of a "Marshall Plan" to follow, and of a European Union association agreement in the works. Germany's Gerhard Schrder and the Pentagon promise aid, infrastructure, and political support.

All of this for a country that has profited despite its own internal chronic disorder.

Or as one Western diplomat summed it up: "This is an unbelievable second chance for Albania, in a very weird and twisted sense."

Very weird and twisted indeed.

*Marcia Christoff Kurop, based in Athens, is a contributor to The International Herald Tribune.

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