Albania’s former “Stalin town” looks west with NATO air base

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Kucova (Albania) (AFP) – In an Albanian town once named for Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, dozens of Soviet and Chinese-made planes rust in the open at a former communist air base, some with flat tires, others covered in dust.

The central city site, now called Kucova, is being transformed into a modern NATO air base, a symbol of Albania’s westward shift – and a key military buffer in Europe as the Russia is waging war on Ukraine.

The renovation project was approved 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 earlier this year, ahead of Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, which raised fears of a spillover into NATO and EU member states.

Although the timing of the Kucova base redevelopment is coincidental, for some it is welcome.

“The change in the global security environment has now created considerable momentum for the completion of the renovation plan (of the base),” a NATO official in Brussels told AFP, under cover of a statement. anonymity.

The base, which is due to be completed in 2023, will give “the alliance an important strategic installation in the Western Balkans, close to the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Black Sea region”, the official said. NATO.

– ‘Delete message’ –

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

It was shunned by much of the world under the 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 is now eager to become a member of the EU.

capital Tirana.” srcset=”https://s.france24.com/media/display/066e9890-ba23-11ec-98c2-005056bf8594/5a016e63285f2922c3438d454b7bb10a5c6f882e.jpg” sizes=”” loading=”lazy” class=”m-figure__img lazy”/>
Officials also hope the base, which once employed 700 people, will create new jobs in the impoverished region, 85 kilometers south of the capital Tirana. Gent SHKULLAKU AFP

The former aircraft from the Kucova base recalls a chapter in Albania’s history that many are happy to leave behind – and a signal to Russia which has sought to expand its influence in the region.

“The construction of this base is a clear message to other ill-intentioned actors in the Western Balkan region,” Albanian Defense Minister Niko Peleshi told AFP.

The construction is sure to irritate Moscow, which strongly opposes any NATO expansion in Eastern and Central Europe, especially in the Balkans, traditionally torn between East and West.

Today, Albania’s neighbors Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia are also part of NATO.

For Seit Putro, who worked in the base’s finance department 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 Soviet assistance, and later supplemented with a network of the same type of underground tunnels that were dug across the country in the event of a nuclear attack.

Once NATO’s renovation is complete, it will function as a tactical operating base, equipped with a renovated runway over two kilometers (1.2 miles) long, an updated control tower and new storage units.

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

The aircraft currently languishing at the air base consist mainly of Chinese and Soviet MiGs, Antonovs and Soviet-made Yak-18s.
The aircraft currently languishing at the air base consist mainly of Chinese and Soviet MiGs, Antonovs and Soviet-made Yak-18s. Gent SHKULLAKU AFP

Officials also hope the base, which once employed 700 people, will create new jobs in the impoverished region, 85 kilometers south of the capital Tirana.

It will have a “very positive economic and social impact”, said the base’s deputy commander, Major Leandro Syka.

– ‘Natural alliance’ –

The aircraft currently languishing at the air base are mainly Chinese and Soviet MiGs, Antonovs and Soviet-made Yak-18s.

At the end of the Cold War, the base had around 200 aircraft and 40 helicopters, which were decommissioned as obsolete.

About 75 remain today, and their fate remains uncertain.

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

For some, they have painful memories of past conflicts.

Former pilot Niazi Nelaj vividly remembers his first flight in a Mig-15, which bore traces of bullets from combat in distant Asian countries.

Authorities have yet to decide whether they will be auctioned off, put in a museum or turned into scrap metal
Authorities have yet to decide whether they will be auctioned off, put in a museum or turned into scrap metal Gent SHKULLAKU AFP

But the 85-year-old is happy to see the air base aligned with NATO, and he believes Albania’s previous pivot to the east was just an “accident of history”.

“Albania’s natural alliance has always been and will be with the West,” he said.

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