Despite years of ideological antagonism between Albania and Yugoslavia, freight is now rolling over northern Albania's first-ever rail link with continental Europe. Goods trains began operating both ways Sept. 1 between two provincial capitals -- Shkoder in Albania and Titograd in Yugoslavia.
At the formal inauguration, ideology was briefly laid aside as railroad officials at each end regaled each other with wine, fruit, and coffee.
That has not happened often -- if at all -- since the Soviet-Yugoslav split of 1948, when Albania sided with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin against Yugoslav leader Joseph Broz Tito.
Albania continues to be staunchly Stalinist. Frictions between the two neighbors were refueled in recent years in polemics over the large Albanian community in the southern Yugoslav region of Kosovo. Albania claims the community has an inferior status in relation to the rest of Yugoslavia. Belgrade counters that Albania encourages militant ethnic Albanians to agitate for a republic of Kosovo or even for union of Kosovo with Albania.
But ideology is also being laid aside in Albania's quest for further economic ties with Western Europe, in which the new rail link plays an important part. There is a courting of Eastern Europe, demonstrated by an unexpected substantial trade accord with East Germany, signed in the Albanian capital of Tirana in June. East Germany is the only Soviet-bloc country with which Albania has shown any interest in normal ties, despite frequent overtures from Moscow and elsewhere.
It is not surprising. East German industry functions better than any in the whole bloc.
The Albanians say their new rail link will carry up to 1 million tons of their exports annually. For the most part, these will be large quantities of chrome ore and other rare minerals, of which Albania is one of the richest sources in Europe and, in some instances, in the world.
Another and larger section of railroad is being built to connect the principal chrome mining region of Bulqize, north of Tirana, with the Yugoslav-European railways as well as with Durres, Albania's biggest Adriatic port.
Two years after the close of the 40-year Enver Hoxha regime, speculation is rife that various trends indicate that major changes are ahead for Albania.
But it is not likely. Various new economic ties with the West are increasingly necessary because of the country's recent downturn in economic growth, due mainly to the ever more obsolescent equipment with which the country's most important industrial branches must operate.
The ties do not indicate a fundamental shift in Albania's foreign policy, and Albanian officials dismiss such speculation.
``Of course there are some changes. That is inevitable with any new generation leadership,'' an official observed to this writer. ``But the changes you might see now are small and on the surface, questions of style and nuances. There are no changes in basic ideology, nor will there be.
``That remains constant, regardless of our wish and readiness for normal relations and trade ties with Western countries and others with different political systems.''
Some ``human'' changes are evident, nonetheless.
There is a notable difference between the public performance of Hoxha and his successor, Ramiz Alia.
Hoxha's speeches usually focused almost entirely on international affairs. He had, after all, broken relations with Yugoslavia, later with the Soviet Union, and finally, in the 1970s, with China. His emphasis was always on the ``go it alone'' struggle against the ``revisionists.''
By contrast, Mr. Alia regularly concentrates on essential domestic concerns, above all the standard of living and the urgent need for more efficient industries to advance it. He condemns embryonic signs of private enterprise to ``capitalize'' on deficiencies in social services. But he calls for incentives to encourage better work and for a measure of flexibility in management.
The average age of the 2.75 million Albanians is just over 25 years. Twice recently, Alia used national occasions to extol youth and acknowledge its needs. He tells party officials to be less bossy and to let young people use more of their own initiative.
They still are expected to put in ``volunteer'' time on public works. However, there is equal emphasis these days on recreational facilities. Construction of a vast sports complex of swimming pools and sports arenas is already under way in Tirana.
Domestic cultural ``mediocrity'' comes under fire, as well as ``alien'' varieties brought in by foreign radio and television. However, a lighter touch has been introduced to Albania's broadcasting. A main television channel carries Italy's evening news show.
So, although only freight is being carried on the new European rail link for now, it might not be too long before young Albanians get a travel itch to see something of the rest of the world.