The National Times - Albania's former 'Stalin City' looks West with NATO airbase

Albania's former 'Stalin City' looks West with NATO airbase

Albania's former 'Stalin City' looks West with NATO airbase
Albania's former 'Stalin City' looks West with NATO airbase

In an Albanian city once named for Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, dozens of Soviet- and Chinese-made planes rust in the open air on a former communist airbase, some with flat tyres, others covered with dust.

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The site in the central city now called Kucova is being transformed into a modern NATO airbase, a symbol of Albania's westward shift -- and a key military buffer in Europe as Russia wages war in Ukraine.

The renovation project was agreed in 2018 by the Balkan state and NATO, which has already committed $55 million (50.4 million euros) to the project, according to Albanian sources.

Construction began at the beginning of the year, ahead of Russia's February 24 invasion of Ukraine that has sparked fears of a spillover into NATO and EU member states.

Though the timing of the Kucova base redevelopment was a coincidence, for some it is a welcome one.

"The changed global security environment has now created considerable impetus for the completion of the (base) renovation plan," a NATO official in Brussels told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The base, due to be completed in 2023, will give the "alliance an important strategic facility in the Western Balkans, within short reach of the Mediterranean, Middle East and the Black Sea region", the NATO official said.

- 'Clear message' -

After decades of global isolation, Albania became a NATO member in 2009.

It was shunned by much of the world under paranoid Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who forged close ties with the Soviet Union and China before falling out with them over their apparent deviation from true Marxism.

The country embraced the West after the fall of the communist regime in 1990, and today is eager to become an EU member.

The defunct aircraft at the Kucova base are reminders of a chapter of Albania's history many are happy to leave behind -- and a signal to Russia which has sought to extend its influence in the region.

"The construction of this base is a clear message to other players with bad intentions in the Western Balkans region," Albania's Defence Minister Niko Peleshi told AFP.

The construction is certain to irk Moscow, which strongly opposes any NATO expansion into eastern and central Europe -- especially in the Balkans which has traditionally been torn between East and West.

Today, Albania's neighbours Croatia, Montenegro and Northern Macedonia are all part of NATO too.

For Seit Putro, who has worked in the finance department at the base for more than 30 years, it's a welcome confirmation of Albania's political allegiances.

"Once in the East, we are now in our place, next to the West, which is a good step forward for all," he told AFP.

- Job creation -

The 350-hectare (865-acre) site in the former 'Stalin City' was built in the 1950s under Hoxha with help from the Soviets, and completed later with a network of the same kind of underground tunnels that were dug across the country in case of nuclear attack.

Once the NATO renovation is finished, it will function as a tactical operational base, kitted out with a refurbished runway more than two kilometres (1.2 miles) long, an updated control tower and new storage units.

It will have the capacity to host state-of-the-art military aircraft and can also be used for refuelling and ammunition storage.

Officials are also hoping the base, which once employed 700 people, will create new jobs in the poor region, 85 kilometres south of the capital Tirana.

It will have a "very positive economic and social impact", said deputy commander of the base, Major Leandro Syka.

- 'Natural alliance' -

The aircraft now languishing on the airbase mainly consist of Chinese and Soviet MiGs, Soviet-made Antonovs and Yak-18s.

At the end of the Cold War, the base had about 200 planes and 40 helicopters, which were put out of commission as they were obsolete.

About 75 remain today, and their fate remains uncertain.

The authorities have to yet to decide whether they will be auctioned, put in a museum or turned into scrap metal.

For some, they hold painful memories from past conflicts.

Former pilot Niazi Nelaj remembers clearly his first flight aboard a Mig-15, which bore bullet marks from combat in distant Asian countries.

But the 85-year-old is happy to see the airbase aligned with NATO, and he believes Albania's previous pivot toward the East was only an "accident of history".

"Albania's natural alliance has always been and will be with the West," he said.