Albania's move to establish diplomatic ties with West Germany is potentially its biggest step yet in making new openings to the world. The move came Sept. 15, after three years of tough argument between Bonn and Tirana.
A few years ago such a rapprochement for the isolationist East European nation appeared to be unthinkable.
Although former leader Enver Hoxha had begun cautious openings to noncommunist and neutral West Europeans, he balked at West Germany because of its refusal to meet bills for damage caused by World War II and the Axis occupation. Bonn's attitude was that it could not accept reparation liabilities without a peace treaty involving Germany as a whole.
Ramiz Alia, Albania's leader since Hoxha's death in 1985, has not budged from Hoxha's unequivocal stand on absolute independence from the superpowers and their alliances. But so far as major Western capitalist states other than the United States are concerned, Mr. Alia has shown a more pragmatic front.
Economic and cultural links with France and Italy have been expanded (in the latter case, despite the prolonged embarrassing presence in the Italian legation in Tirana of four Albanian asylum seekers). Diplomatic relations with Canada were recently restored. And the friendship with Greece, initiated by Hoxha, has been given a further boost by Greece's formal ending of its longstanding ``state of war'' with Albania. With that decision, Athens also put an end to old Greek right-wing claims on Albanian territory.
West Germany was the last important door to continental Europe still to be opened. Now, growing pragmatism in Tirana has left the reparations issue to the future. Details of the protocol signed in Tirana have yet to emerge.
Indeed, Alia is candid in saying that the old ``go it alone'' attitude, without support from the Soviet Union, China, or anyone else, cannot cope with modern needs.
And there are signs of moves away from orthodox economic centralization in favor of what Alia calls ``initiative'' and ``self-motivation.'' Measures are already in force to encourage labor discipline, and there are now pay incentives in most industries, especially in mining and oil.
Alia has openly complained of poor performance in the oil fields. And in recent years, he has said, the country's chrome mines have fallen short of their target by tens of thousands of tons, with serious losses in hard-currency exports. Mining was highly profitable, but too little of the profit, he said, is plowed back into the industry to acquire new technology.
Now that the reparations issue has been set aside, West Germany will give Albania modern technology for industries that are the mainstay of its export relations with other countries. And under a major trade agreement last year, communist East Germany is providing large-scale help in industrial technology and agricultural mechanization - in return for chrome ore to be used in its own metallurgical industries.
The tie with Bonn virtually completes Albania's linkage with Europe. Only Britain is left. The mutual soundings of recent years have stalled over London's refusal to surrender Albania's prewar gold reserve (worth $70 million at current prices). It was taken by Italy in the 1940 invasion and has been in British hands since the war. Also, Albania refuses to pay modest damages awarded Britain by the World Court for mine damage to a British warship in the Corfu Straits in 1946. Albania has always disclaimed responsibility.