WASHINGTON — For years, when the United States has needed to hand off a dirty diplomatic chore, one obscure nation has reliably raised its hand: Albania.
A poor sliver of a country clinging to the edge of Europe, Albania took in ethnic Uighur prisoners from Guantanamo Bay when the United States couldn't repatriate them to China. It offered asylum to 210 members of the Mujahedin Khalq, the Iranian dissident group long confined to a camp in Iraq.
Now the United States is turning to Albania again, hoping it will allow Syria's chemical weapons to be destroyed on its soil.
The Obama administration's request to Albania, confirmed by government officials in Tirana last week, aims to resolve one of the thorniest questions surrounding the U.S.-sponsored plan to disarm Syria's lethal arsenal of sarin, VX and mustard gas.
With a civil war raging in Syria, President Bashar Assad wants his weapons — including 1,300 tons of chemical agents and precursors, and 1,200 tons of unfilled munitions — destroyed outside the country. The head of the international watchdog agency overseeing the disarmament has said removing the materiel from Syria "remains the most viable option."
The United States is leading the search for a country to take in the toxic stockpile. But few nations have been eager to volunteer for a task that could provoke domestic opposition, create security and environmental challenges and cost tens of millions of dollars.
Another country that U.S. officials asked to handle the job, Norway, has refused. And Danish officials said Friday that their country was willing to help transport weapons from Syria by sea, but not destroy them. Albanian officials said they were considering the request. The State Department said no decisions had been made and declined to discuss the matter further.
"There have been some positive signals from Albania, but it is a very sensitive issue there," said a European official with knowledge of the talks who was not authorized to speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Albania has experience with chemical weapons. In 2007, with extensive U.S. technical and financial help, the coastal Balkan nation became the first country to destroy its arsenal under the Chemical Weapons Convention, the international treaty banning the production and use of the weapons.
But after years of importing non-hazardous waste from richer neighbors such as Italy — a scheme that produced thousands of jobs and millions in revenue — Albanians decided they no longer want to be Europe's garbage dump. A new Socialist government in Tirana recently imposed a ban on waste imports after a two-year campaign by environmental activists led to a referendum on the issue.
"Albania has been quite the yes man toward Washington, but taking in Assad's chemical stockpile will likely face more resistance," Besar Likmeta, Albania editor for the news website Balkan Insight, said by phone from Tirana. "Taking in the weapons now for destruction, after imposing a ban on non-hazardous waste, is a tough sell."
There also are serious questions about Albania's ability to secure dangerous materials. In 2008, an explosion at a munitions depot outside the capital, where old artillery shells were being dismantled, killed 26 people and injured 300.
Much of the waste from its mustard gas program remains stored in huge containers at an army facility near Tirana. Likmeta said that when he visited the base last week there was no guard in sight.
The speaker of the parliament, Ilir Meta, said Friday that his country doesn't have the "necessary means" to destroy Syria's stockpile.
Still, some Albanians believe that doing so could bolster their corruption-riddled nation's standing among Western powers and help its bid to join the European Union.
In the 2000s, the United States spent $45 million to help destroy Albania's 18 tons of mustard gas. Eliminating Syria's far larger program would prompt a fresh influx of Western cash and equipment.
"There has to be some money, obviously, though we don't know how much," said Adrian Neritani, a former Albanian ambassador to the United Nations who practices law in New York. "But if this is a way that Albania can offer its help and assistance and show it is a good member of the international community, why not?"
Polls rank Albania, with an overwhelming majority of Muslims, among the most pro-American nations. The sentiment dates to President Woodrow Wilson, who backed Albanian independence after World War I, and was strengthened during the 1999 NATO military campaign in Kosovo, a majority ethnic Albanian region that later declared independence from Serbia.
Albania deployed a small contingent of troops to Afghanistan and was among the first to send soldiers to Iraq. In 2007, when then-President George W. Bush was being pilloried across Europe, he received a hero's welcome in Tirana.
The government this year presented Bush's former defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, with a medal as thanks for backing Albania's 2009 entry to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
On an official visit late last month, Hoyt Yee, a senior State Department official, reportedly visited several border posts. In public remarks, Yee praised the two nations' "strong relations, friendship and partnership."
Less subtly, the U.S. ambassador to Tirana, Alexander Arvizu, was quoted by Radio Free Europe on Thursday as saying that "all responsible NATO partners must find a way to contribute" to rid Syria of chemical weapons.
It was a reminder, Likmeta said, that "all Albanian governments are susceptible to U.S. pressure."Copyright © 2015, CT Now