By Benet Koleka
TIRANA (Reuters) - The United States has warned leaders in NATO ally Albania in no uncertain terms to stop stoking nationalism in the run-up to an election because they risk destabilizing the region.
Facing a close contest in the parliamentary election in June, Prime Minister Sali Berisha has been ruffling feathers in neighboring states that are home to millions of ethnic Albanians with his increasingly nationalist statements.
Last November, the foreign minister of neighboring Greece boycotted Albanian centenary festivities in Tirana after Berisha hailed a town over the border as "Albanian lands". The president of Macedonia, where a quarter of the population are ethnic Albanians, also stayed away.
In a memo to the Albanian Foreign Ministry reported on Friday by a number of newspapers, the U.S. State Department said Albania's leaders were wading into "potentially dangerous" territory, given the history of ethnic conflicts in the Balkans.
Such remarks "not only promote more inflammatory behavior and distract from this region's priorities, but also potentially incite violence, erode peace and stability, and impact our relationship", it said.
Even more bluntly, it told Albanian politicians to "stay out of the affairs of Serbia", which is in delicate European Union-mediated talks aimed at normalizing ties with Kosovo, whose mostly ethnic Albanian population broke away from Serbia in 1999.
A U.S. embassy spokesman declined to comment on the memo.
HISTORY OF CONFLICTS
Berisha has repeatedly complained of foreign "Albanophobia", and raised eyebrows in Serbia last month when he referred to ethnic Albanian former guerrillas there as "heroes of the Albanian nation".
Ethnic Albanians waged insurgencies in both southern Serbia and Macedonia in 2000 and 2001. Those conflicts were a spillover of the 1998-99 war in Kosovo, which broke away from Serbia after a U.S.-led NATO air campaign halted a brutal Serbian offensive to quell separatism.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008. But poverty, unemployment and a lack of integration continue to fuel discontent among ethnic Albanians across the region.
Washington was the driving force behind Albania's accession to NATO in 2009, and is pressing Tirana to ensure that its election is free of the violence and fraud allegations of previous votes, so that its bid to join the EU can move ahead.
Analysts say Berisha may be responding to the emergence of a new nationalist party called the Black and Red Alliance, a name taken from the colors of the Albanian national flag.
"Berisha is wrong if he wants to build himself a flak jacket made of nationalism to protect him should the elections go wrong," opposition lawmaker and former prime minister Pandeli Majko told Albanian television.
But Berisha defended his approach.
"This nationalism does not have territorial claims," he told a session of parliament on Friday marking Kosovo's fifth year of statehood. "This nationalism is not based on doctrines of extermination, like the nationalisms around us."
(Editing by Matt Robinson and Kevin Liffey)