TIRANA, Albania – President Bush, getting a hero's welcome as the first American president to visit this Balkan nation, said Sunday that there cannot be endless dialogue about achieving independence for neighboring Kosovo.
"Sooner rather than later you've got to say 'Enough's enough. Kosovo's independent,"' Bush said during a news conference with the prime minister of this tiny, impoverished country.
Bush's press for statehood was aimed at Russia and others that object to Kosovo's independence. Standing alongside Prime Minister Sali Berisha, Bush said any extension of talks on Kosovo must have "certain independence" as the goal.
In response to Albania's push for NATO membership, Bush said additional political and military reforms were needed before that could be considered — something the country's leaders said they understood.
"We are determined to take any decision, pass any law and undertake any reform to make Albania appropriate to receive the invitation" to join the western military alliance, Berisha said.
When Bush arrived to begin his brief visit, the hills overlooking the capital boomed as military cannons fired a 21-gun salute, and thousands gathered in a downtown square on a brilliantly sunny day to see him and first lady Laura Bush.
Huge banners proclaimed "Proud to be Partners" and billboards said "President Bush in Albania Making History." Red-white-and-blue paper top hats with stars on top were passed out to well-wishers.
"It is a bright day today when in our land there came the greatest and most distinguished friend we have had in all our times, the president of the U.S.A., leader of the free world," Berisha said.
Albania also issued three postage stamps with Bush's picture and the Statue of Liberty, and renamed a street in front of parliament in his honor.
Bush said he was proud to be the first sitting American president to visit. "I love to come to countries that are working hard to establish institutions necessary for democracies to survive," he said.
The issue of independence for the Serbian province of Kosovo is another issue on which the U.S. and Russia disagree.
Russia, an ally of Serbia, contends independence for Kosovo would set a dangerous precedent for the world's other breakaway regions. Serbia also opposes statehood for Kosovo, which it sees as the heart of its historic homeland.
The U.S. and key European countries that support Kosovo independence are trying to narrow differences with Russia over the future of Kosovo, which has been administered by the U.N. since a 1999 war between Serb forces and ethnic Albanian rebels. The U.N. Security Council is divided over the issue.
Last month, the U.S. and European nations introduced a revised U.N. resolution supporting independence for Kosovo under international supervision, but it was immediately rejected by Russia — which hinted it would veto the measure.
The new draft addressed Russia's concern that Kosovo's multiethnic character is preserved, but left out Russia's main proposal for new negotiations between the province's majority ethnic Albanians, who demand independence, and its minority Serbs, who want to remain part of Serbia.
"I happen to believe it's important to push the process along," Bush said. "The time is now. ... Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice will be moving hard to see if we can't reach an agreement. If not, we're going to have to move. Independence is the goal."
Russia also opposes NATO's spread into eastern Europe, and is concerned about the prospect that its neighbors Ukraine and Georgia may be brought into the western military alliance.
Berisha said 93 percent of his country's people support NATO membership for Albania.
Bush said he commended Berisha on Albania's progress on reforming its defense forces and meeting performance-based standards required for membership. "I look forward to welcoming you sometime into NATO," he said.
But he said additional political and military reforms were needed, along with more progress in fighting organized crime and corruption. Berisha said he understood and is committed to making the changes.
"I said, 'We're committed to help you,"' Bush said.
In saluting Albania's democracy, Bush praised it as a country that has "cast off the shackles of a very oppressive society and is now showing the world what's possible."
During the visit, Bush met with Albanian President Alfred Moisiu and greeted troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Albania recently decided to triple its deployment in Afghanistan to 140 troops. It also has about 120 troops in Iraq — a presence that Moisiu says will not end as long as Americans are engaged there.
Bush also had lunch with the prime ministers of Albania, Macedonia and Croatia, which hope to join NATO next year.