There is little more traffic on Tirana's broad mid-city Skanderbeg Square than on my last visit to Albania 15 years ago. Though there are a few more public buses, taxis, and trucks, cars remain conspicuously absent. Motorization, private or otherwise, has yet to come to this unique orthodox communist state, which mistrusts Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms just as much as it did previous liberalizations in Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslavia or Nikita Khrushchev's Soviet Union.
``We don't want to start private ownership of cars,'' an official says. ``We cannot afford it, and it would create too big social differences.''
His remark points up the contrasts between socialism here and socialism in the Soviet bloc and next-door Yugoslavia.
For example, almost half the adult Yugoslav population has a car. Moreover, the Yugoslav press recently revealed that the country maintains no fewer than 170,000 chauffeur-driven official cars which, in effect, become the personal property of a horde of ministers and bureaucrats.
In Albania, no such perks of office exist. Only the highest officials have cars always on call. The rest must draw on a pool. Personal use, one is told, is severely prohibited. And so it seems, judging by how rarely cars are encountered on the open road.
The automobile typifies the overall austerity of life at all levels here. Albania, it must be remembered, was the most backward country in Europe, even in the eastern and Balkan regions that fell under communist rule after World War II. Much more even than Yugoslavia, it started from poverty-ridden scratch.
Yugoslavia's later reforms prompted some East Europeans to follow suit, making considerable concessions to consumerism. The price of those concessions is evident in the mountainous foreign debts that Poland and Hungary, as well as Yugoslavia, face today.
Albania chose - and, apparently, still chooses - to have nothing to do with reform. It opposed Yugoslav ``revisionism'' from the day Belgrade broke with Joseph Stalin. The late Soviet dictator still commands respect here, along with Vladimir Lenin, modern communism's founding father.
The ``pure'' Albanian view of Marxism-Leninism is still the strict order of the day. Western speculation of change since longtime ruler Enver Hoxha died in 1985 is denounced by his successor, Ramiz Alia.
But there surely is greater interest in more open relations with the outside world, notably Western Europe. Mr. Alia concedes the increasingly urgent need for modernization and new technology. He acknowledges serious weaknesses in his country's economic management and production quality. It is in this context that he says ``cooperation'' with Western countries is necessary - and welcome, so long as it does not mean diluting independence or ``falling into debt.''
There is a much-enhanced emphasis on ``meeting the people's needs.'' ``It is our priority'' officials say. But foreign loans or credits as a means of pushing the process along are still unconstitutional.
Albania calls itself a ``do it ourselves''country. But it does not allow private home building or private enterprise in even the most modest consumer services. A private economy is fostered by the Yugoslavs and at least tolerated by most of the other East Europeans. But Yugoslavia has enormous hard-currency debts, 1 million jobless, and runaway triple-digit inflation.
``Albania,'' one is reminded here, ``has no foreign debts, no unemployed, and no inflation. We know it is not paradise and we still have many shortages [of goods]. But prices and wages are stable.''
Little Albania, however, has done much to industrialize itself in the past 25 years.
An impressive buildup of education has eliminated prewar nationwide illiteracy. Electrification of the entire country is complete. One was vividly reminded of this when crossing the brilliantly lit Skanderbeg Square on a mid-December night. What a contrast with the darkened cities and cold homes of Romania, a much bigger country with much bigger resources, but a country whose energy industry is mismanaged. Last summer, drought dangerously lowered the river levels on which Albania's energy industry depend. But domestic power cuts were avoided and the export program to Balkan and near European neighbors was maintained.
It is conventional Soviet-bloc wisdom today that each state has its ``own road to socialism,'' to which Mr. Gorbachev says amen. Which road is proving the better one?
The Yugoslavs won a big slice of personal liberty - which most would say is their largest gain - and many of the good things of life. But the bills for these are coming home, with worker unrest included.
The Romanians, who belatedly resolved to stop borrowing, are trying to pay their debts, but only by repressing the most elementary consumer needs. This, too, is bringing unrest and instability.
Looking around here, there appears to be some justification for the Albanians' belief that their smaller steps, taken in a way consistent with their means, could be a bit more ``socialist'' than the others.