TIRANA, Albania(Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stopped off in Albania on Sunday to encourage its leaders to complete anti-corruption measures that could improve its chances of joining the European Union.
His visit, planned to last four hours, was shown live on television and crowds lined his route through the capital.
Kerry met Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama as well as opposition leaders. The Balkan country is a close NATO ally, but has struggled to halt the intertwining of political and criminal power a generation after the end of Communism.
The parliament in Tirana is weighing reforms, backed by the West, that include a new anti-corruption unit modeled after the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.
"The evidence is absolutely clear, and Albanians should be very pleased with the fact that your country is moving in the right direction. You're on the right track," Kerry said at an appearance with Rama after their meeting.
"I know that it's tough to take on those who have become happy with a process of avoiding their shared responsibility," Kerry said, referring to corrupt individuals.
The secretary of state's aides said he would push Albania's leaders to quickly complete the legislative reform package.
Rama noted this year's 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Washington and told reporters: "Our joint goal, bearing in mind the direct implications the reform has for joining the European Union, is to vote the package of constitutional changes in parliament in March ... I'm fully confident that we shall succeed."
In December, Albania's parliament voted to kick anyone with a criminal record out of politics and the state administration.
Albania has received sustained U.S. economic assistance, including $20 million thus far to reform its judiciary and law enforcement. Tirana, in return, has frequently helped Washington with its foreign policy goals.
Albania has given 15,000 tons of excess, Soviet-era ammunition to Kurdish fighters and Iraqi Security Forces battling Islamic State, a senior State Department official said.
It has also contributed a small number of troops to Afghanistan, where Rama said they would remain "as long as it is deemed necessary."
Kerry and Rama also planned to discuss efforts to deter people from leaving the Balkans to join Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. U.S. officials said Albania has cracked down on the flow, reporting 140 citizens who left to fight in the Middle East in 2013-2014, compared with none in recent months.
(This version of the story corrects the length of the stay in paragraph two.)
Editing by Tom Heneghan