Slowly but surely this aloof little Marxist enclave on the Adriatic, for nearly 30 years dug in between Soviet-bloc Eastern Europe and the West, is emerging from its shell. Albania broke with the Soviets in 1961 and later with China, its new big brother, in the mid-1970s. From then on, it chose to rely exclusively on its own forces, highly suspicious of everyone, including the West, for reasons going back to its bland acceptance of Benito Mussolini's seizure of the country in April 1939.
The current scene is much changed. Albania has new ties, ranging from nominal to quite friendly - with all the nations of mainland Western Europe.
The Albanians insist, however, that it is a matter of changed Western attitudes toward them. Perhaps, in fact, the change is mutual.
They also flatly reject any suggestion that, in the process of building new friendships, they are veering toward the reforms of some of the East Europeans. Ramiz Alia, the country's leader, has set new criteria for economic efficiency, with curbs on central control and modest pay incentives for individual effort. Still, the changes have nothing in common, for example, with sweeping Hungarian decentralization, tight profit criteria, and a bright green light to private enterprise to meet even basic consumer needs. There is minor encouragement for the latter, but strictly under the purview of state agencies. In their ``go it alone'' years, the Albanians completed major projects that the Chinese left unfinished. This effort to build more on their own clearly gave a small, instinctively withdrawn nation - and what else could it have been, with such a record of invasion and occupation? - a strong fillip to confidence. The defensive mentality is now much less evident. Concomitantly, a much more empirical view is taken of relations with the outside.
Albania nonetheless remains woefully behind the mainstream of modern development. Undoubtedly, this fact prompted Mr. Alia, a younger leader, to continue the improvement of Balkan relations begun by this predecessor and to speed the bid for renewal of West European ties. The biggest breakthrough came last September with full diplomatic relations with West Germany.
Alia is aware that his is Europe's youngest nation: Those under 25 years of age constitute more than half the population, and a high birth rate is going to keep it that way.
Meeting them, one is impressed with their patriotism and their patience. But they also - as Alia concedes - have increasingly higher expectations that may confront him with demands for an even faster tempo of change.
Nonetheless, the visual changes since this correspondent's last visit 15 years ago are substantial. People look better in clothing and general bearing. There are considerable urban improvements, better roads, and increasing extension of railroads (which did not exist before World War II).
The rebuilding of Shkoder in the north, where nearly 10,000 housing units and numerous public buildings were leveled by an earthquake in 1979, is notable. In Tirana, the capital, improving housing is also visible. ``The '50s and '60s,'' my guide says, pointing to a rundown block. ``The 70's ... and the '80s,'' he adds, pointing to buildings that are of sophisticated design and clearly better built.
Trickle of tourists grows
In Tirana and a dozen other towns, new, adequately modern hotels are catering to a growing number of noncommunist visitors and tourists. There were nearly 10,000 last year, though Albania is uncertain how far it wishes to get into the modern tourist jamboree.
``But our doors are open,'' says Petraq Pojani, an experienced diplomat who runs the Committee for Cultural Exchanges with many countries. ``We ask only that people [journalists included, he puts in politely] try to understand our past and what we were, that they see what we have done and what we are trying to do.''
This conversation - and others with economists, historians, writers, movie directors, and magazine editors - all revealed more-open attitudes in a general atmosphere of change.
The nation's old defensive spirit is still to be seen in the myriad of small military posts supposedly protecting the approaches to every town, big or small, and out in the open country. Concrete pillboxes, targeted on bridges or road junctions, are sunk deep into the ground so that little more than their shallow domes is visible.
They symbolize the fear that swept Albania when the Soviets entered Czechoslovakia in 1968. Having done that, might they not feel free to settle accounts with heretic Yugoslavia? And after Yugoslavia, with Albania? So thought Enver Hoxha, who was then Albania's leader. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan gave the mood fresh impetus.
Such fears have now subsided. Many of the pillboxes are grown over with moss or submerged amid bushes or the ubiquitous flocks of grazing sheep. Why not remove them? My companion answers, ``Even if tensions seem less, who can be sure for the future ?''
The young pitch in
All Albanian youngsters must serve six months to two years with the armed forces. There is also the civilian ``all people's defense.'' ``Everyone over 18,'' says my friend, ``knows his or her place in an emergency.''
In the countryside, we frequently encounter parties of youngsters, armed not with rifles but with saplings for a national tree-planting drive. Albanians have been burning too much coal. And more is being mined now. So these youngsters are replanting denuded areas and creating windbreaks of trees in exposed flatlands. They seem both busy and cheerful.
So, too, students we met at Tirana's University or in chance encounters with groups visiting centers rich in the country's Illyrian, Roman, and Greek past. One group is around when we visited the impressive new museum at Kruje, the mountain stronghold in central Albania where the 15th century national hero Skanderbeg defied Turkish siege for 25 years.
They expressed themselves well in a second language. Seventeen-year-old Valbona Nushi says her favorite English authors are Charles Dickens and Graham Greene, and shows considerable knowledge of each. ``But I'm fond also of mathematics,'' she says, ``and I like Bach more than pop, and I want to be a doctor!''
Pop music: disapproved
Pop music is officially disapproved, though it can be heard on foreign radio or Italian television, which can be seen in most of western Albania. There is no effort to jam the broadcasts.
The students we met on this trip seem unperturbed about official disapproval of pop music. They seem both fun-loving and serious about their futures.
Religion does not figure in their lives. More than half of the 3 million population is under 23 years, that is, born just before, or as, Albania was proclaimed an atheist state in 1967.
However, there still to be firm moral guidelines for youth. The traditional Albanian sense of family and strong respect for family ties continues and is actively encouraged by the regime, however over-authoritarian or repressive its attitudes on social and political individual rights.
For years after World War II, village life included primitive tribal customs in which girls were virtually compelled to wed husbands chosen by parents. Women were not expected to work outside the home. Both concepts have passed. More than half the working population is women, paid equal rates with men; girls make up more than 50 percent of university and high school entrants; 30 percent of members in a 200-seat national assembly are women, and so on.
Interestingly, something of the old attitudes on marriage persist, inviting perhaps a contrast with the problems of marital and family life endemic in Western countries. Marriage is not lightly embarked upon by either sex. Parents still have a say, it seems.
Children discuss marriage and their choice with parents, says my companion, who is a journalist and diplomat with a daughter of 12.
``There is no question of dictating to them whom they shall marry,'' he says, ``but of trying to help them be sure their choice is a good one, that they have enough in common with a chosen partner.
``It reduces the risks of the early marriage breakdowns you have in the West. There is a tremendous amount of talking things out between parents and their children, which is probably why we have a very low divorce rate. It seems to work.''
No easy or quickie divorces are to be had in Albania. Before a legal separation is granted, even childless couples must go through intensive counseling to try to ``save'' the marriage.
National history remembered
The Kruje Museum is housed in a replica of Skanderbeg's spectacular rock castle. One wonders if the cost of such immense national exhibits set up around the country should not have been devoted to more immediate social needs.
But the interest of the steady arrival of visitors, old and young, is manifest. At the museum at Berat, another medieval mountain-fortress town, Prof. Myslim Hotova, the curator, explains gently, ``It is, you see, all part of our biography.''
Albanians are one of Europe's oldest people. To an outside observer, this bid to reaffirm their national identity seems relevant to the impulse for a more open look at the world around them.
First in a four-part series. Next: Relations with Western Europe.
Albania and the outside world 1912 Declared independent of Turkey. 1928 Becomes a monarchy under King Zog. 1939 Invaded and annexed by Italy. Nov. 24, 1944 Liberated from Axis powers. Jan. 11, 1946 Proclaimed a republic under communist rule. 1948 Breaks close ties with Yugoslavia after Belgrade broke with the Soviets. Albania close ally of the Soviet Union. 1961 Breaks with Soviet Union and becomes close ally of China. 1978 Criticizes China's foreign policy, which leads Peking to suspend all economic and military assistance. Though diplomatic relations with China continue, Albania adopts a fiercely isolationist foreign policy. April 1985 Names Ramiz Alia to party leadership after death of Enver Hoxha, country's leader since communist takeover. Momentum builds for better ties with West European nations.