LIANE HANSEN, host:
As you heard, they didn't exactly roll out the red carpet for President Bush in Rome yesterday. Today, in Albania, it was a different story.
(Soundbite of marching band)
HANSEN: Mr. Bush received a hero's welcome this morning when he arrived in the capital, Tirana. The president also got the full rock-star treatment -thousands of people gathered in the downtown square, billboards read: President Bush in Albania making history - and indeed, he was. Mr. Bush became the first American president to visit this tiny Balkan country.
NPR's Vicky O'Hara has our story.
VICKY O'HARA: The Albanian capital began sprucing up weeks ago in anticipation of the president's arrival. Now, a huge picture of President Bush flanked by the American and Albanian flags is positioned over the entrance of a pyramid-style building in the center of Tirana. A building that was commissioned as a monument to the former communist dictator Enver Hoxha.
One example of the intense interest in the visit is that Albanian Public Television is running eight half-hour programs on the U.S.-Albania relationship. The correspondent is Lufti Dervishi.
Mr. LUFTI DERVISHI (Correspondent, Albanian Public Television): The history taught us is that you have to remember.
O'HARA: And Albanians, Dervishi says do remember that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson stood up against the Europeans at the end of World War I and helped win independence for Albania as a nation.
Mr. DERVISHI: You know, U.S. is a kind of dream for Albanians.
O'HARA: Albania has done much to show its gratitude. It was the only country that agreed to a U.S. request to give asylum to detainees released from Guantanamo. Albania also has troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Albanian affection for the United States is evident in other ways. Here at the private Woodrow Wilson School in Tirana, the lobby is lined with glass cases filled with Wilson memorabilia and American flags. If you ask the students, why their school is named for President Wilson, they all have the answer.
Ferina Tarei(ph) is a high school senior here.
Ms. FERINA TAREI (High School Senior, Woodrow Wilson School, Albania): It's thanks to Wilson that we are independent now and everybody recognized our independence.
O'HARA: Albanians also remember the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999. That military campaign stopped Serb atrocities against the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. At the Wilson School, student, Ardeta Ishmayila(ph) says he'd like President Bush to emulate Woodrow Wilson.
Mr. ARDETA ISHMAYILA (Student, Woodrow Wilson School, Albania): We are a nation today because Woodrow Wilson permitted this and I like George Bush, the president of the United States, do this or the same for Kosovo.
O'HARA: Former diplomat and presidential adviser Siltarch Trony(ph) says that Albanians have very high expectations.
Mr. SILTARCH TRONY (Former Albanian Diplomat and Presidential Adviser): I think that the most expected thing, you know, from the - that President Bush and the United States administration strongly supporting the Albanians bid for NATO membership, which has been a kind of very, lets say, outspoken desire and wish of the Albanian people.
O'HARA: Trony says many Albanians also believe the presidential visit can bolster Albania's bid to join the European Union.
Mr. TRONY: Not directly, but through a wide range of the supporting of Albania's democracy, supporting its economy, supporting fighting crime, corruption.
O'HARA: His tiny country, which has suffered for centuries under foreign occupation and then communism, has great faith in the United States, and Albanian politicians wrap themselves in the American flag at any opportunity.
Mr. SALI BERISHA (Prime Minister, Albania): (Speaking a foreign language)
O'HARA: When the president's visit to Albania was announced, Prime Minister Sali Berisha called the visit a testament to the reform policies of his administration. The U.S. embassy in Tirana was quick to back away from that statement, but it's hard to curb Albanians' enthusiasm for this presidential event. Albanians still talk about another visit here, that of former Secretary of State James Baker in 1991. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to greet Baker, to kiss his limousine and carry it bodily into Tirana's main square.
Wilson School student Ardeta Ishmayila says he would really like to talk to the U.S. president. This 18-year-old says that if he had the nerve, he'd make a request.
Mr. ISHMAYILI: I'd like to ask him to make me a visa for U.S.A.
(Soundbite of laughter)
O'HARA: Here in Albania, the American dream endures.
Vicky O'Hara, NPR News, Tirana.
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