Coalition's Newest Democracies Helping Fledgling Democracies

By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla., Jan. 29, 2006  - For more than a year, Albanian army Maj. Ilirjan Balliu has served as the senior national representative for Albania with the 63-nation coalition organized to combat global terrorism.

Shortly after his arrival to U.S. Central Command here, Balliu had breakfast with a U.S. military officer. As the two shared conversation and coffee, the U.S. officer revealed what was on his mind. "'If you would have told me years ago that I would have been sitting at a U.S. military base, eating and talking to an Albanian military officer, I wouldn't have believed you,'" the officer U.S. officer said, Balliu recalled with a smile.

Since the end of the Cold War, many former foes are now allies, coalition officials said. Now some of these former Soviet Bloc nations are globally united and aligned with organizations like CENTCOM's coalition, NATO and the European Union. And as part of the coalition, these fledgling democracies are helping nations like Iraq and Afghanistan rebuild with a democratic foundation, even as they themselves continue to build their nations with democratic rule.

Former Soviet Bloc and other formerly communist nations now supporting coalition operations are: Russia, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, East Germany (now part of Germany), Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Moldova, Tajikistan, Slovenia, Slovakia, Macedonia, Lithuania, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Estonia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

"We're supporting the reconstruction of these countries," Romanian navy Capt. Sorin Nicolaescu said. "All these guys in theater are there voluntarily. They are there because they wanted to go."

Nicolaescu is Romania's senior national representative at CENTCOM, where he leads a small contingent of officers who help their country coordinate its military involvement in the war on terror. Romania became a NATO member in March 2004. They are a democratic republic and parted from their Soviet alliance in 1989.

Currently, Romania has approximately 1,400 military personnel deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. In southern Iraq, Romanians are patrolling and securing routes used by the coalition. "They're doing force protection, engineering missions, training Iraqi forces -- the full range of missions," Nicolaescu said. Romanians are also protecting Iraqi infrastructure and providing medical care for insurgent detainees in theater, he said.

Other nations new to democracy are committing troops to the cause of democracy in CENTCOM's area of responsibility. Azerbaijan is an emerging democracy and also a member of the coalition. The country is a member of the Council of Europe and also participates in NATO's Partnership for Peace program, a project created in 1994 to build trust between NATO and European states and the former Soviet Union. Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, all former members of the Partnership for Peace, have sinced joined NATO.

Azerbaijan gained independence in 1991 and first deployed forces to support coalition operations in Kosovo. It currently has 170 personnel serving in operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. In Afghanistan, an Azerbaijani platoon is under the command of a Turkish battalion, patrolling and providing force protection. In Iraq, he unit is guarding the Haditha Dam and power grids in the often-violent Anbar province, Azerbaijani army Lt. Col. Akbarov Ilham said. He serves as a coalition liaison officer for his country.

Azerbaijan, like Iraq and Afghanistan, is a mostly Muslim nation, according to the U.S. State Department. Albania, another former Soviet Bloc country, is also mostly Muslim and leaders have chosen to develop their country using Western methods.

Balliu, the Albanian officer, said his nation was embraced by the free world when it chose democracy in its post-Soviet Union development, so he and other military personnel feel a sincere and deep calling to serve in the war on terror. He is one of a two-person team sent to this Tampa, Fla., base by his country. Currently Albania has about 150 troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan providing force protection in Iraq, and medical personnel to a Greek hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan.

"We want to give them our experience in democracy, ... in emancipation," Balliu said. He adds that Albania's connection to the Islamic culture has provided a critical cultural bridge for Albanian forces that facilitates interactions between Albanian soldiers and citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq. "We are Muslims, Orthodox (Christians) and Catholics," Balliu said. "We know the traditions. Discussions with these people are easy for those who know the customs. When our troops are in the field they're sensitive and explain the benefits of democracy."

These days, Balliu said, Albanian troops are well-received where they're deployed. "(Locals) know our troops now, and they greet us using our language," he said.

Due to the small size of Albania's military, many personnel are now participating in their second deployments to Iraq, Balliu said. "Going for the second time shows that we're a member of this coalition until we finish in Iraq," Balliu said. "We will be in this coalition until we win."

Balliu insists that a nation's geographic and geopolitical size should not discourage it from pursuing democracy. Democracy is not just something reserved for nations like the United States. "Even the smallest birds want to fly," he said.