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How soccer could kick off better ties for Albania and Britain. World Cup match seen as boost to Tirana's bid to resolve old disputes

By Eric BourneSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 28, 1988



Tirana, Albania

The Albanian Communist Party's staid daily gave the news unusual prominence. Officials connected with foreign affairs, historians, and editors inevitably mentioned it to this correspondent last month before getting down to political questions. And the news? It was that England and Albania, Europe's oldest and youngest hands at the game of soccer, would meet in the buildup to the World Cup final in 1990.

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The Albanians' gratification on hearing that they will, in fact, be battling out the ultimate places for the great finale in Italy was unmistakable.

Since World War II, there has been no contact of any kind (apart from meager trade) between Albania and Britain.

The diplomatic rift was spawned by the now almost-forgotten Corfu incident of October 1946. In that episode, four British warships decided to steam through the narrow strait between the Greek island of Corfu and the Albanian coast, despite the hostility already existing between Britain and Albania's new communist regime.

Though a recognized international seaway, the channel was in Albanian waters. Two of the ships struck mines and were badly damaged; 44 lives were lost.

Albania denied responsibility from the start, and refused to pay 840,000 damages awarded by the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The British were widely suspected of old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy and, thus, of bearing some responsibility themselves.

The court's split 11-to-5 judgment, in fact, left open the question of whose mines they were and blamed the Albanians only to the extent that they must have known of the mines' existence, even if they had not laid them. No one, however, has ever disputed the Albanians' assertion - which is repeated here today - that after a ruinous war they had neither means of laying or clearing mines. In short, they had no Navy.

The issue has remained a matter of mystery and controversy ever since.

Apart from Corfu, however, there is the question of the Albanian gold. Two metric tons of it, stolen first by the Italians and then the Nazi Germans and, as the war ended, falling into the Western Allies' hands. It has been in London's Bank of England ever since.

Britain, refusing Tirana's persistent demands for its return, claims that a joint decision by Britain, the United States, and France is required.

However, the French many years ago resumed what have since proved economically worthwhile relations with Albania. Washington subsequently several times indicated willingness to resume ties.

The US has claims of about $10 million for former business interests in Albania, but has long been disposed, along with France, to release the gold if Britain would agree.

In recent years, Albania has virtually completed the round of renewed relations with Western Europe initiated by its late leader Enver Hoxha. The process was accelerated by Ramiz Alia, his successor, and last September formal diplomatic ties were established with West Germany.

For some time the Albanians balked at relations with the former German foe because of Bonn's refusal to pay massive war reparations. Last year, however, Mr. Alia agreed to put this vexed issue aside in the interests of the practical advantage implicit in completing its links with Western Europe's industrial ``big three'' - West Germany, Italy, and France. Why, the Albanians ask, cannot the British be similarly flexible over Corfu?

Meanwhile, the West Germans are active here, building an embassy, an ambassadorial residence, and a 15-apartment bloc for personnel.

Talks here about Britain left no doubt on two points. One is the regime's serious interest in resuming ties as an essential part of an increasingly open policy to Western Europe.

The other is unequivocal insistence that restoration of the gold must come first.

There is so much unqualified emphasis on this second point that it seems clear that, once Britian agrees to renew relations on the basis of restoring the gold, an understanding is possible on some solution of the Corfu dispute.

Said Petraq Pojani, an experienced diplomat who manages the goverment's Committee for Cultural Relations with ``friendly'' countries: ``The gold belongs to Albania. It was stolen by the common enemy and Albania has a legal, unconditional right to its return. This question cannot be tied to or made conditional on other issues.

``With an agreement over the gold, we would be ready at once to establish relations with Britain. All other questions between us can then be subject to further negotiation.''

In a less formal exchange, it was even conceded that a settlement of the Corfu affair could be possible on the basis of Albania's willingness - without prejudicing its stand on the World Court ruling - to meet British compensation claims in part.

The value of the gold has risen, of course, since 1945. Now it is worth some 70 million (about $124 million), a useful sum to spend on the advanced technology that the Albanian economy badly needs.

One has an impression, however, that equally important to the leadership here today is the desire to complete a pattern of diplomacy that would establish Albania as an open part of Europe in keeping with both its geography and history and culture.

The football clash with England is not due until early 1989.

The politicians here really seem set for cooperation in making diplomacy work faster.

Second in a series. Next: Albania's economy.