U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken came to Tirana, Albania.

He did not stay long. Not long enough for a state dinner. He would eat in Munich, his next stop.  The Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama chastised him for this diplomatic slight.

While Blinken was in Tirana he met with his people at the Pyramid built by Enver Hoxha’s daughter in 1988 to honor him, repurposed after the fall of his regime in 1991, to be a tourist and commercial hub. You can climb to the top for a 360 view of the city. Around the pyramid are cute box-shaped buildings the size of rooms in bright colors, some askew so that the floor and roof are slanted. Some are in use, others boast signs promising commerce to come.  Blinken met in one of those boxes, a turquoise one, and then had a press conference with Eli Rama, Prime Minister of Albania.

While this was going on we were at the international bus station by the Eastside Mall (TEG), retrunng from our trip to Lake Ohrid trying to catch a city bus back into town. Three buses arrived and said they could not make the return ride. Finally, someone explained that the buses were suspended to make room for Blinken’s entourage.” Amerikane!” we heard people say with frustration as they were told the only way into town was by taxi. The bus is 40 cents, a taxi $8 — a quarter of a day’s wages for a barista or salesperson at the mall.

As we stood at the bus stop with Tirana workers trying to get home, the New York Times alerted my phone that Israel bombed a hospital in Rafah. We took a taxi halfway and walked the rest, passing within a block of where the diplomatic meeting was held. At home we watched hours of coverage on TV, not understanding but trying to catch drifts, leaning in for the journalist’s questions about Gaza. Later we found an English transcript of the press conference and articles in the Washington Post.

The trip to Albania is largely about Kosovo, and Ukraine.  While Blinken was there, a Kosovo flag big as a building, covered a state office building in Tirana. I thought there was a Kosovo flag, up on the podium along with the US and Albanian ones as Blinken and Rama addressed the press, but it was probably the European Union Commission flag. Unfurled it is hard to tell the difference. Recent clashes between the Serb minority and Kosovar Albanians in Northern Kosovo have reignited a war that was never resolved for Serbs and Albanians, just subdued by NATO bombs.  Today these tensions are another theater in a world where nations are lining up behind Russia and/or China against the EU and/or Ukraine, and/or the United States.

Kosovo flag on Tirana Government building. Valentine’s Day heart shadow in the foreground.

While Blinken visited Albania and met with NATO allies in Germany, the Biden administration received US Senate approval for its military appropriation bill that included 14 billion more in aid to Israel. The Balkans were the focus of the Press Conference, but thanks to a reporter from CNN, the two could not escape questions about Israel/Palestine. Eli Rama reminded the reporter that Albania recognized the Palestinian state when it was under the rule of the Dictator Hoxha, whose regime believed the world faced three global enemies: “American Imperialism, Soviet socialist imperialism, and Jewish Zionism.”

He went on to explain how Albania also has this history of being the only European country to harbor Albanian and refugee Jews during the Nazi period.

I was hoping he would say because of this very history, Albania understands how good people can be ruled by despots like Hamas and Netanyahu. It understands the plight of refugees, and the internally displaced. I hoped he might say that due to the experience of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo not so long ago, and motivated by the same principles of besa that led them to save the Jews in the 1940s, today Albania opposes Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza and demands that the US halt its military aid to Israel. 

Here is what Rama did say: 

“Now, of course, the situation is tragic because on one hand, Israel has its legitimate right to defend itself, but on the other hand, the destroyal and the loss of life on the Palestinian side are far too much to accept the escalation, the further escalation.  And the trouble is that this further escalation is not an action that, at the end, by itself will wipe out Hamas or whatever form of Hamas may grow from the bottom of the rubbles.  So for sure the two-state solutions – solution is the only way.  But my humble opinion is that, in this situation, there are many things that have to happen at the same time.  It’s not one thing.  Because if one envisage a two-state solution now, just like one piece, then who will be on the Palestinian side?

So the reform of Palestinian politics, the need for a body that would somehow represent all the Palestinian society and would be a credible interlocutor to all the parties involved, on one hand; on the other hand, direct involvement of the Arab countries that are the most interested and those, and also at the same time, the most vulnerable, potentially, from the escalation of this conflict, to create an interforce that, together with Türkiye and under some guarantees of United States, would somehow make sure that what may be a Palestinian state will not be seen like a threat again for Israel.

And of course, all this without the liberation of hostages sounds very improbable.  And at the end, last but not least, for sure I don’t envy the Secretary of State.”

He did not mention that Albania , as a member of the Islamic Organization of Countries, did join the South African lawsuit in the International Court of Justice. But there was no reference to that fact in his remarks.  I understand that his belief that the United States will help it secure Albania’s place in the European Union makes it difficult for the Prime Minister to confront or embarrass the Secretary of State at this meeting. Kosovo was his priority, and probably more central to the Albanian people right now.

In November, when a mass protest for Gaza began in Skanderbeg Square in Tirana, it was shut down by police just steps away from the bunk art museum that documents the brutality of the police state under Enver Hoxha. I know there was another mass protest supporting Palestine on January 24 a couple of days before we arrived. I don’t know how that protest was received by the police.

When the Albanian Prime Minister and the US Secretary of State meet, there is no equal exchange. The Albanian is lectured about their need to reform their judiciary. The US Secretary is not lectured about the mess of the US criminal injustice system that incarcerates the highest percentage of its citizens in the world, a majority of whom are not white, and rarely brings a white-collar criminal to justice.  In the case of foreign policy in general, and Gaza, in particular,  the power, the ability to halt genocide, lies with the United States. Blinken’s remarks, refusing to even evoke the words ceasefire, focusing only on Israeli hostages, and expressing no urgency to stop the killing and suffering of Palestinians, were predictably inhumane. I had no expectations and heard nothing to give me hope from my own government.  

I had hoped to witness something braver from the Albanian. Instead, Prime Minister Rami reserved his most chastising words for a state dinner.

(Albanian food is delicious. The Secretary missed out.)