First ever visit of Albanian President to Prague

Albanian President Rexhep Meidani

For the first time in history an Albanian President is on a state visit to the Czech Republic. After decades of hardline rule in Albania, followed by a period of anarchy that broke loose in 1997, today's President, Rexhep Meidani, is presiding over a gradual return to stability. Although Czech-Albanian links are limited and most Czechs know little or nothing about the country, Mr Meidani's visit does have symbolic significance. David Vaughan reports.

Albanian President Rexhep Meidani
President Meidani is in the Czech Republic on the invitation of his counterpart, Vaclav Havel, and at least on the surface, the two men have some things in common. Both are intellectuals - Mr Meidani has enjoyed a long academic career - and both are fond of the rhetoric of the civil society and European integration, not balking at the idea of a federal Europe, although for Albania, European Union membership is a more distant dream, and the stability enjoyed by the Czech Republic is very far from Albanian reality. But to people who know Mr Havel's speeches, Mr Meidani's comments in Prague on the possible future of the Balkans, had a familiar tone.

"We must look for a kind of free zone in the Balkans, we have supported the free movement of people in the region. Also we have spoken about the kind of common customs system to have a kind of common economic space in the region or a kind of mini-Schengen in the Balkans. The regional integration will help all the countries in the Balkans to be integrated as soon as possible to European or Euro-Atlantic structures."

The Czech Republic is a good fifteen hundred kilometers from Albania. Although in communist times, Czechoslovakia was one of Albania's main trade partners, today trade between the two countries is extremely limited. But Czech and Balkans specialist, Jolyon Naegele from Radio Free Europe, feels that there is at least some symbolic significance in the visit.

"No Albanian head of state has ever been in this country before, Albania has been Europe's most isolated state for most of its independent existence, and has suffered such a degree of instability and anarchy in the ten years since the collapse of Communist, neo-Stalinist rule there, that there really was not much time for visits to foreign states other than the key players, those with major interests and finances to offer. Things are settling down now. Meidani has time for smaller countries, that nevertheless still play a role on the international field and that's, I suppose why he's here."

The two countries may have little in common, but in their very different ways, they are both having to come to terms with a hardline communist legacy. In this respect Jolyon Naegele feels that for all the distance between the two countries, perhaps the two presidents were not on completely different ground.

"They both come from countries where corruption is a serious problem, where the issue of goodwill versus cynicism in politics is virtually a taboo subject but it is unfortunately the essence of what's wrong with both societies, so certainly they have something to talk about."