By late 1992 Albania had committed itself fully to the Wast, and in particular to the United States. Still, Berisha courted Arab governments and Islamic organizations, which had started coming to Albania the previous year. Albanian government delegations visited Egypt, Libya, Kuwait and Iran to seek financial support.
In December 1992 Berisha traveled to Saudi Arabia and unexpectedly announced that Albania had joined the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Albania had obtained observer status in the conference one year before, mostly to entice aid from Muslim states. Most Albanians expressed shock. To them, Albania rested squarely in the western camp. As one analyst later wrote, Albania at the time was surviving on humanitarian aid from Catholic Italy and remittances from Albanians in Orthodox Greece.[i] Parliament refused to ratify the agreement and some of the country’s intellectuals threatened to convert to Christianity.
In part, Berisha’s decision reflected Albania’s East-West divide. Like an American crossing the street in London, the country did not know which direction to look. The political allegiances were with the West but many of the cultural traditions stemmed from the East. Berisha’s decision also reflected a strategic choice. Despite the rhetoric, the West was providing limited aid and Arab states had promised help. The condition for economic support, Berisha informed the government, was Albania joining the Organization of the Islamic Conference. He hoped this would provide desperately needed aid and push the West to give more.
“There is no tendency to see religion play a political role in Albania,” Berisha said at the time.[ii] To stress the point, he invited Pope John Paul II and NATO Secretary General Manfred Werner to Albania. Albania soon became the first former communist country to request membership in the NATO alliance.
Another reason for Albania joining the Organization of the Islamic Conference was the war in Bosnia, pitting Bosnian Muslims against Serbs. According to former senior Democratic Party and Albanian government officials, Berisha offered Albania as a “gateway” to the Bosnian Muslims for arms and foreign fighters, despite the UN arms embargo on Yugoslavia in place since September 1991. He offered this with the knowledge of at least the United States, they said, which was looking for ways to support the Bosnian Muslims and establish a balance of power between the warring parties.
According to media accounts and U.S. government documents, the December 1992 OIC meeting in Jeddah, when Albania became a full member, was convened specifically to discuss the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, who had visited Albania two months before, took part, as did the West’s chief negotiators for the Yugoslav war, Cyrus Vance and David Owen. According to a diplomatic cable to Washington from the U.S. consul in Jeddah, almost every conference participant was making the same point: “Bosnia must be allowed to receive arms to help in its defense.”[iii] Prime Minister of the Kosovo Albanian government in exile, Bujar Bukoshi, was also in Jeddah at the time, and he had participated in previous meetings of the OIC.[iv]
Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd opened the meeting, flanked by Izetbegovic and Berisha, saying that Bosnia should have the possibility to obtain the weapons it needs for self-defense.[v] Izetbegovic followed with an impassioned ten-minute speech, in which he asked whether the world’s “indifference” was because the victims in Bosnia were Muslim or because the world did not care. Referring to the arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia, he accused those who “bind our hands” of being accomplices in Bosnia’s tragedy, and then asked for “limited quantities” of defensive weapons.[vi] Berisha followed with what the U.S. cable on the meeting called “an anti-Serb diatribe.” He said that Serbian forces had decapitated children and raped women, and warned that war in Kosovo was “just around the corner.”
“In contrast to Izetbegovic’s address, which was well-received, was the speech by the President of Albania, Sali Berisha,” the U.S. cable from Jeddah read. “The Albanian leader’s address, delivered in English which was hard to decipher at times, amounted to a diatribe against Serbia and, especially, against what he called the ‘Serbian Orthodox fundamentalists.’”
In the end, a conference communique stressed Bosnia’s right to self-defense and called on the United Nations Security Council to lift the arms embargo. It urged member states to “extend their cooperation to the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the exercise of its inherent right to individual and collective self-defense.”[vii]
Behind the scenes, Albania became a transit point for arms to the Bosnian Muslims. As Berisha later admitted in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera, Albania also provided some of its own ammunition at the time to what he called “friendly states.”[viii] Some Islamic fighters also made their way through Albania en route to Bosnia during this time. After the war ended in 1995, some of these fighters came to Albania, hoping to make it a European base.
[i]“Tirana: Adieu Brethren Muslims, by Remzi Lani, AIM, December 30, 1997.
[ii] Agence France-Presse, November 27, 1992.
[iii] Cable from US Consul, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to Secretary of State, Washington DC, 02301, 011534Z, December 1992.
[iv] “Bukoshi Asks Aid of Islamic States,” Illryia, December 2, 1992. See also, “Bosnia Warns of Wider War at Islamic Parley,” by Charles A. Radin , Boston Globe, June 18, 1992.
[v] “Fahd Urges Arms Aid for Bosnia; Stronger U.N. Action Needed to Protect Muslims, Saudi King Warns,” by Caryle Murphy, Washington Post, December 2, 1992. See also, “Muslim Foreign Ministers Gather to Aid Bosnians,” by Peter Ford, Christian Science Monitor, December 1, 1992.
[vi] Cable from US Consul, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to Secretary of State, Washington DC, 02301, 011534Z, December 1992.
[vii] “Islamic Countries Call for Arms to Bosnian Muslims,” by Mohammed Ibrahim, Associated Press, December 3, 1992.
[viii] “Berisha: siamo pronti a costruire le centrali nucleari per l’Italia,” Corriere Della Sera, May 29, 2008.