Economic strides help Albania meet people's rising expectations

Some 30 miles along the River Drin from this old trading capital of the Albanian north, the country's most notable achievement in industrial ``self-reliance'' has been built. It is the big hydroelectric power plant at Koman in the rugged approaches to the Albanian Alps. Begun in 1981 under Enver Hoxha, then Albania's leader, it completes a trio of power stations harnessing the waters of the Drin.

Between them, the three will have a generating power of around 1 million kilowatts when Koman (800,000 kw.) is fully operational later this year.

Koman, however, unlike the first two built with Soviet and later Chinese assistance, was constructed without any foreign aid as such. Some of the equipment was imported, including its four giant French turbines. Three are already working and when this reporter visited in December, installation of the fourth was well advanced. It will be switched on in June.

``French engineers worked here putting in the first turbine,'' says Viktor Collaku, the plant's electrical engineer. ``But since then we have been on our own.''

About 8,000 Albanians bored the long deep underground tunnels through solid rock terrain to carry waters to the turbines and built the 100-meter broad dam. The plant is managed by slightly more than 100 people, most of them in administration.

There are only 16 engineers and technicians. Controls are fully computerized. Soon, says Mr. Collaku, Koman will be linked to a computer system in Tirana, which will operate a countrywide energy grid. It is, without doubt, the most outstanding venture into industrialization undertaken by a country that had no industry before World War II and was illiterate and backward in every respect.

Until 1945, none of its villages, where two-thirds of its population then lived, had electric light. By 1970, however, the current had been switched on in the last of its remote rural and mountain villages. Since then, Albania has become a substantial exporter of energy to all its Balkan neighbors and even further afield to Austria.

It was the first of the regime's entirely Albania-planned economic establishments to be opened to a Western journalist, one of many modest signs that point to more-open attitudes toward the outside world.

The current Soviet reforms win no accolades from the Albanians. To them, perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) are nothing more than easy palliatives to minimize, as they see it, the failure inherent in the Soviet Union's departure from the Stalinist path still closely followed here.

Still, for the past two years, Ramiz Alia, Albania's leader since 1985, has shown openness of his own in discussing the country's problems. He admits to previously concealed lags in management and working efficiency, as well as the technological gap that must be closed before Albania can hope to move ahead.

Such considerations are the driving force in the bid to develop relations with Western Europe, highlighted most recently by new ties with West Germany.

Last summer, Albania had a bad drought. Domestic electrical needs were met, but the greatly reduced water levels seriously cut the volume of hard-currency-earning electricity left for export.

It was not the only blow. Mr. Alia revealed that other key exports had serious setbacks: minerals - Albania is the world's third-largest chrome producer - and petroleum, normally a surplus industry for hard-currency sales. Both badly need new technology.

``Without export, there is no import,'' say Alia's slogans at the roadsides. Many stress his priority of ``meeting the needs of the people'' in everyday consumption.

There is, in fact, no visible suggestion that any open public dissatisfaction or unrest is behind this new emphasis. But Alia does seem to be mollifying incipient feeling by pointing out that the differences with consumption ``across our borders'' are not so great as might seem, since Albania excludes the kind of disparities existing abroad between one social group and another.

By law, for example, the pay ratio here between workers and managers is limited to 1 to 1.7, with few exceptions. Rents are but 2 percent of income, medicare is virtually wholly free, and there are no taxes. ``We consume without running up debts with anyone,'' says Alia, obviously with debt-ridden Yugoslavia's higher living standard in mind, as well as his own country's experience with the Soviet Union and China.

Nonetheless, he acknowledges ``rising expectations'' and shows awareness that, though not yet acute, the meat and dairy shortages of the past year can spark stronger feeling if they are not eliminated.

Besides his calls for ``vital'' management, and improved organization and work discipline in key sectors, he recognizes the need for incentives. It is all on a tentative scale, compared with reform inducements offered by East European states like Hungary or Poland.

Peasants are exhorted to produce more in their minuscule garden plots and the state-farm cooperatives, for which they work as ordinary wage earners, are told to help them. But the results must be sold to the cooperatives, not on an open market, which does not exist here. The cooperatives buy the garden ``surpluses'' and sell to the state. Because the state is promising better prices, the ``gardeners'' may earn a little more.

In industry, there are hints of more freedom of action for management, with bonuses in monthly pay when the plan is exceeded, and with some latitude for foreign-trade enterprises to deal directly with foreign firms.

There is, however, no slackening of the ideology of overall centralized economic controls, nor concessions to a potential private sector. But, given the present apparently pragmatic trends (a term Albanians reject), further limited moves along these lines could come in time.

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