TIRANA, Albania -- President Bush, making a historic and welcome appearance yesterday in this former communist nation where no previous sitting American president has set foot, pledged full commitment to promoting Albania's admission to NATO.
But Bush appeared less certain about his stated commitment to the independence of neighboring Kosovo, with the president insisting that he will push for international agreement on the autonomous province's freedom from Serbia - yet questioning whether he had actually called for a deadline.
Asked yesterday about a deadline he had discussed the day before in Italy, Bush, speaking at a joint news conference with the Albanian leader, replied that he hadn't used the word deadline.
"A couple of points on that," Bush said. "First of all, I don't think I called for a deadline."
Yes, he had, the reporter reminded him.
"What exactly did I say?" Bush asked.
"Deadline," the reporter replied.
"I said deadline?" Bush said. "OK, yes, then I meant what I said," Bush said with a smile, then laughing as he eyed reporters in the courtyard of the Council of Ministers.
"There just cannot be continued drift, because I'm worried about expectations not being met in Kosovo," Bush said. "That's what I meant. And therefore we'll push the process."
At a news conference 21 hours earlier with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi in Rome, Bush had been asked about a deadline for securing independence for Kosovo.
"In terms of the deadline, there needs to be one," Bush said. "There's been a series of delays. ... Our view is that time is up."
Bush arrived yesterday in the Albanian capital, Tirana, and will complete his eight-day European trip today with appearances in Bulgaria to press his support for emerging democracies in Eastern Europe.
And in the capital of this nation that threw off communist rule 15 years ago, people lined the streets to welcome the U.S. president, a striking departure from the mass anti-war and anti-American protests that marked Bush's two-day visit to Rome. The prime minister of Albania, appearing side by side with Bush, heaped praise upon his visitor.
Bush is "the greatest and most distinguished guest we have ever had in all times," Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha said in a courtyard where banner-length American and Albanian flags hung side by side and banners declared the two nations "Proud to be Partners."
With a campaign-style appeal to the Albanian public, Bush plunged into a crowd in a public square in the nearby village of Fusche Kruje, where people kissed him, embraced him, grabbed the back of his head and chanted "Boosh-y, Boosh-y." Albania had commissioned a commemorative stamp with Bush's face on it.
Albania has supported the U.S. military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is increasing its troop deployment in Afghanistan by 120 this summer. The prime minister pledged yesterday that his nation will offer whatever "modest and resolute" support it can in the war against terrorism.
But Bush offered little tangible hope of progress on an issue of great importance to his Albanian ally, the liberation of Kosovo - whose people are largely ethnic Albanians - from Serbia. Asked what will happen if the United Nations plan is not accepted, Bush said leaders might have to seek a new U.N. Security Council resolution.
Russia remains the most significant opponent to Kosovo's independence, and the final statement of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations, which met in Germany last week, reflects this division. Russia is a member of the G-8, whose final communique on Kosovo from Heiligendamm stated: "While there continue to be different views on substance and on the way forward, we will remain engaged on the issue."
While still part of Serbia, Kosovo remains an international protectorate of the United Nations, after a Security Council resolution adopted in 1999 that permits a NATO-led security force to keep the peace there. NATO has 17,000 troops in Kosovo, including 1,700 U.S. troops.
"What's important is for the people of Kosovo to know that the United States and Albania strongly support independence, as did most of the people in the G-8," Bush said.
Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune.