06/22/2011 09:59 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2013

Albania and the Accidental Ambassador

This chapter is from a forthcoming book on the fall of communism in Albania to be published next year by New York University Press. It describes the visit, 20 years ago today, of U.S. Secretary of State James Baker to Albania. Political parties had recently been legalized, but the communist party still ruled.

Secretary of State James Baker arrived in Tirana on June 22, 1991, a sweltering day near 100 degrees. Unlike the usual military reception for visiting dignitaries, a few hundred irrepressible Albanians greeted him at the airport and escorted the convoy into town. On the outskirts of Tirana, an ecstatic mob engulfed the cars, hoping to glimpse the guest from the West. Men threw flowers, kissed the windshields and wanted to carry Baker's limousine into town. U.S. security agents jogged along Baker's car, sweating in their suits. "In fifteen years I had spent in national politics I had never seen anything like this," Baker later wrote about the trip. [Baker, James A. with DeFrank, Thomas M., The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War and Peace, 1989-1992. (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995), p. 485.]

The delegation drove to Skanderbeg Square, where more than 300,000 people had crammed every corner and nook, waving small American and Democratic Party flags. A large banner with the Statue of Liberty holding an American flag hung from the Palace of Culture. Spectators clung to lampposts and tree branches. They dangled off rooftops and balconies to get a better view. Someone raised a sign that read, in English: "Welcome Mr. Baker, Albania Has Been Waiting For You For 50 Years." Another said "Albania Needs A Marshall Plan." The famously unflappable Baker was overwhelmed. "I have never felt more privileged to represent my country," he later wrote. [The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War and Peace, p. 486.]

Surprised by the crowd, Baker and his entourage dipped into the Ethem Bey Mosque on the southeast corner of the square to consult. Someone needed to calm the crowd. A U.S. official turned around, saw Sali Berisha, and pulled him into the mosque.

"What should I say?" Berisha asked, according to a U.S. official who was present.

"Just calm them down," the Americans implored.

Berisha climbed the rostrum that had been constructed in front of Skanderbeg's statue, stepped to the microphone and addressed the sea of faces.

"The American way of greeting friends is quieter than ours," he said in his booming voice. "So please, let him speak." [Norman Kempster, "Albanians Mob Baker, Cheer U.S., Europe," Los Angeles Times, June 23, 1991.]

Berisha then declared Baker to be an honorary citizen of Tirana. The crowd went wild.

American security cleared a path from the mosque and Baker made his way to the microphone, kissing a baby along the way. Berisha slipped to the back of the stage as Baker raised his hands in the two-fingered victory salute--the symbol of the Democratic Party.

"On behalf of President Bush and the American people, I come here today to say to you: freedom works!" Baker said through his interpreter, the Voice of America Albanian service chief Elez Biberaj. "At last, you are free to think your own thoughts." ["300,000 Albanians Pour into Streets to Welcome Baker," New York Times, June 22, 1991.]

From the awe-struck and hopeful faces--true believers--Washington understood it faced a small and desperate country full of fans. The U.S. had a chance to win the last battle of the Cold War and to establish a trusted ally in a volatile region. Baker announced $6 million in aid and left for meetings with the prime minister and President Alia.

Later that day, Baker visited the Dajti Hotel, where he met ten members of the political opposition. The group sat around a long table with Baker at the center and Elez Biberaj at his side. Berisha sat across from Baker, wearing a fresh suit after the mob scene in the square. Representatives from the other political parties that had recently been established--Republicans, Social Democrats and the Christian Islamic Party--all took their seats, as did a person from a new independent organization called the Forum for Human Rights. On the table in front of each seat was a small American gift: a necklace for the one woman present, and a pin and cufflinks for the men--all of them with the bald eagle.

The Albanian delegates had agreed beforehand that each of them would have ten minutes to speak. Berisha took the floor first and spoke for twenty-five minutes in Albanian, with Biberaj translating, according to two of the participants. In the remaining time, the other parties and organizations briefly presented their views.

One of the men, a former political prisoner from the newly established Christian Islamic Party, comprised of intellectuals who wanted an inter-faith party, complained that the government had refused to legalize his party.

"What's happening," Baker asked.

"Pure communist chicanery," a U.S. official replied. The official was right. Alia had allowed only those opposition parties that he felt he could control, like the Social Democrats run by the trusted former Education Minister Skënder Gjinushi.

From the hotel, Baker went to address parliament, where he presented the U.S. government's support for Albania's democratic reform. In case it was not clear to anyone by that point, he pinned the final star on Berisha's shoulder.

"Dr. Sali Berisha invited me to come to Albania," he told the members of parliament. "I came here as soon as I could." ["Albania: Progress Along Freedom's Road. (Address by Secretary of State James Baker)," U.S. Department of State Dispatch, Vol. 2, No. 26, July 1, 1991.]

Back at the airport, Baker waited in the VIP lounge with a U.S. diplomat named Bill Ryerson, who had come to Tirana with the advance team after U.S.-Albanian diplomatic relations had resumed.

"Now Bill, you let me know if you need anything out here," Ryerson remembered Baker saying. Ryerson answered that they needed an ambassador and full embassy staff as soon as possible.

"Remind me on Monday to talk with Larry [Eagleburger] about staffing," Baker told an aide before boarding the plane. At that point, a U.S. diplomat named David Schwartz had been pegged as the first ambassador, but Baker apparently thought Ryerson had organized his successful trip. Despite Ryerson's lack of experience - mostly consular posts in places such as Barbados, Poland, Germany, and most recently Yugoslavia, where he learned Albanian - Baker appointed Ryerson the first U.S. ambassador to Albania since 1939.

"Baker lost his cool and I was the result," Ryerson joked as he ground coffee for me with a traditional Albanian hand-grinder in his Virginia home near Washington D.C. Large American and Albanian flags fluttered outside the front door. Inside the main entrance hung the Albanian Order of the National Flag--First Degree, presented by President Sali Berisha on October 4, 1994.

"Did you ever expect this," I asked Ryerson's wife. "Who, Bill?" she replied.

Of course Albanians knew nothing of this amusing twist. For them, Ryerson became the representative of the strongest nation on Earth, and with that came incredible might. Despite being in counselor affairs for most of his life, Ryerson became one of Albania's most influential men.

At the same time, Washington and the Albanian political leaders realized that someone else was needed for the delicate work. While Ryerson maintained his symbolic importance, his newly appointed deputy, Chris Hill, undertook most complex political tasks. The son of a diplomat, the 39-year-old Hill was smooth and ambitious. He quickly assumed responsibility for dealing with the president, political parties and regional affairs.

"Berisha and I were on a first name basis. He called me in on occasion," Ryerson told me later in his Virginia home. "But the substance was with Hill."