A Pivotal Time in Albania

IN just over a year, Albania has undergone a dramatic political transformation. From the most doctrinaire Marxist and isolated state in Europe, Albania has established a parliamentary system with the largest democratic majority in Eastern Europe. But poverty stricken Albania needs Western help. Its extraordinary political achievements must be quickly rewarded with economic assistance.

The recent elections, in which the Democratic Party gained over 62 percent of National Assembly seats, were the outcome of a popular desire to dislodge the discredited Socialists from power. Despite handicaps, the Democrats expanded their base of support from the cities into the countryside where most people live. Party leader Sali Berisha, just appointed as Albania's first non-communist president, proved himself charismatic and popular. But the economic rebuilding task he faces is very challenging. The problems the Democrats face are formidable, even by East European standards.

Albania is the poorest country in Europe. The economy has collapsed. State factories and collective farms have severe shortages of raw materials, equipment, and parts. Unemployment is soaring. Half the population had been laid off last year. Rural areas are reduced to subsistence levels. The infrastructure is shot - with a dilapidated road system, rail network, and distribution system that cannot supply even enough basic products. Humanitarian aid from the European Community (EC) has helped in recent mon ths and the people will not starve. But Albania needs to begin to utilize its bountiful resources.

The first phase in Albania's transformation is complete since the political battle has been won. The die-hard communists are marginalized and their Socialist cousins have pledged to operate as a "constructive opposition." The political scene in the next Parliament will not be as splintered as in other East European states. A clear Democratic Party majority will assure consensus and needed legislation will ensue.

A new constitution must be passed to expunge Stalinist modes. Government bureaucracy needs to reflect new priorities. The Democrats must capitalize on their overwhelming public mandate to push through reforms and avoid fractures that have plagued other East European coalitions. This must be accompanied by an economic breakthrough.

Traveling through the countryside, Albania's contradictions seem stark: a largely inactive populace milling around crumbling streets and buildings; plentiful agricultural and mineral resources whose extraction is poorly organized; a beautiful topography where few tourists have ever ventured. The government needs a public works program that confronts the problems of unemployment and infrastructure.

The ousted Socialists squandered a year after their fraudulent election victory in March 1991. State-controlled enterprises and farms fell apart and little was done to establish a real industrial or agricultural base. Parliament must now push through laws on ownership, privatization, and investment to attract foreign capital.

Law and order must be reestablished. Albania's malaise has led to widespread lawlessness with desperate crowds ransacking stores and warehouses. The police have remained indifferent or unprepared, possibly influenced by the old regime. Public trust in police must be restored, and the Interior Ministry cleansed of communist influence. Obviously, a legal system needs to be established with impartial courts and an independent judiciary.

In all these areas, Western advice and participation will be crucial.

Although Albania faces profound difficulties, the government can succeed. Through its own resolve, the country has pulled itself from a political morass. Its people embrace foreigners and cry out for United States involvement. The West's intentions must be matched by deeds. Bold Western-assisted reconstruction projects must provide Tirana with direction and funds. International Monetary Fund (IMF) membership and most-favored-nation status are needed. But they must be tied to a program of development in s pecific economic sectors - communications, construction, energy, and agriculture.

Albania's problems are immense but may be more quickly surmountable than those of Russia or post-Soviet republics. The population is small (about 3 million) and pro-Western. Albania does not have the ethnic and regional fractures of the former Soviet Union, and holds a relatively small foreign debt. But Albanians must see improvements soon in areas of supplies, services, and employment to weather the coming storms. The most repressed and isolated people in Europe cannot be allowed to fail. If the poorest

country succeeds in quickly emerging from under the rubble of communism, all Eastern Europe will take heart.

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