TIRANA/ZAGREB (Reuters) - A giant clock on Tirana's highest building is counting down the minutes until the former Stalinist country joins the once-hated NATO alliance this week.
Albania, one of the poorest countries in Europe, is brimming with pride and the prospect of joining the alliance
, together with fellow Adriatic state Croatia, at a NATO summit hosted jointly by France and Germany on Friday and Saturday.
Government and parliament buildings have been decorated with the flags of NATO members and street concerts are scheduled.
Every evening, a projector outside Prime Minister Sali Berisha's office flashes NATO symbols across the main street, on to what once was the office of communist dictator Enver Hoxha.
"NATO is a very positive thing. It will protect our national security and foreigners wishing to invest will know it is safe here," said Ilir, 30, a waiter in the Albanian mining town of Prrenjas.
There is none of this hoopla in Croatia, where joining NATO is almost taken for granted and the real prize remains the more elusive membership in the European Union.
Since Albania applied to join NATO in 1992, support for membership has steadily risen to 96 percent after NATO's U.S.-led campaign halted the Serbian police and army offensive against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1999.
Half a million Kosovo Albanians who fled to Albania were able to return home under NATO's protection and NATO troops remained in Kosovo for years to maintain security and the province's U.N. administration.
By contrast, NATO stayed on the sidelines during fighting between Croatia and Serbia in the 1990s as Yugoslavia collapsed.
CROATS IGNORE NATO
Analysts said Berisha's ruling Democrats were trumpeting NATO to promote the party before the June 28 general election, which the EU will be closely watching for signs of progress.
Observers say Albania has never run a truly free and fair election, and such elections are important for progress toward the EU.
"The problem with this propaganda pomp is that it tries to represent NATO membership as the antechamber for entering the European Union, almost as good as getting into the EU," said columnist and former dissident Fatos Lubonja.
"This is not the case, as the Europeans insist on making clear to us, but our politicians feign ignorance."
Albania has an association agreement with the EU and has yet to apply for membership. Croatia is ahead and hopes to join in 2011 if it settles a border dispute with Slovenia blocking entry talks.
Both countries already have troops on NATO-led missions abroad, including Afghanistan and Iraq.
Zoran Kusovac, a Balkans strategic analyst, said the expansion had little practical effect for the new members or the alliance, although it was a welcome safety shield for the region still feeling consequences of ethnic wars fought in the 1990s.
The lack of any celebrations or even formal events in Croatia was therefore hardly surprising. Even anti-globalists and NATO opponents were nowhere in sight last week, when parliament approved NATO accession, Croatia's biggest international success since becoming independent in 1991.
"NATO has a much more symbolic than practical value. But the important work has already been done, membership is a sign that a country has met certain standards," Kusovac said.