Albania: NATO to open Balkan airbase converted from communist-era facility

Albania: NATO to open Balkan airbase converted from communist-era facility
Copyright AP Photo
By Daniel Bellamy with AP
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Renovatory work on the Kuçovë base began in January, as military spending in much of Europe has been rising.


An old communist-era airbase in Albania is set to become a tactical station of operations for NATO when it reopens in 2023.

Military spending is now on the rise in much of Europe — most notably in Germany — but also in the Balkans.

Tensions are also rising in Albania's vicinity. Croatia, which is a NATO member, and Serbia, which opposes the alliance, appear to be in a mini arms race.

Serbia has acquired upgraded MiG-29 aeroplanes, tanks, and missile systems from Russia, whilst Croatia has bought 12 Rafale fighter jets from France.

Work started in January to upgrade the Kuçovë airbase as a modern hub of operations, improving its ability to host an array of modern era fighter jets.

NATO and Albania have pledged €50 million for the centre located 85 kilometres south of the capital Tirana.

The small nearby town of Kuçovë was named Stalin City during Albania's communist regime and the base was built in the 1950s using prison labour under leader Enver Hoxha who, despite being communist, eventually antagonised the USSR, China, and nearby Yugoslavia after World War II, turning it into a hermit state.

During this period, Albania was commonly referred to as "the North Korea of Europe".

Viktor Vangjeli, 83, served for 27 years in Kuçovë flying MiG-19s before he retired in 1990.

He talked about the daily flights countering rare air space violations by neighbours during the Cold War.

"The flying intensity during those times under the Cold War has been very high," he said, adding that this air base "was in charge, until 1962, for the coverage of all the country's air space".

He said that Kuçovë's conversion to a modern NATO hub would be beneficial to the next generation of Albanian pilots who would be trained to fly modern jets.

After the fall of the communist regime in 1990, Albania's military had more than 200 jets -- mostly various models of MiGs -- across three airbases.

Most of them have now been scrapped and the country's old Russian and Chinese-made jets stopped flying in 2005.

For a few years, old Antonov AN-2s, Soviet-era single-engine biplanes, were used for agriculture and other purposes.

Albanian Air Force now has several helicopters -- mostly Bells and Eurocopters -- and is expecting to get a few Blackhawk ones, but no jets.

Albania, a NATO member since 2009, also hopes to join the European Union. It's joined in on the EU's hard-hitting sanctions against Russia and has strongly denounced Kremlin's aggression.

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