Opening Windows on the West


AFTER years of self-imposed isolation, Albania is opening up to new technology and new thinking. Before independence - finally gained in 1912 from Turkey - this was a primitive, tribal region, home of an ancient people who had to fight to preserve their language and culture. After independence, national identity still had a precarious existence amid Balkan and European wars as well as the rivalries of European powers greedy for Albania's underground mineral wealth.

The authoritarian communist regime established in 1944 eliminated ``bourgeois-liberal'' trends ruthlessly, along with ties with the Russians and the Chinese. In so doing, it rekindled an old fortress mentality in which the country struggled to continue industrialization with its own limited technical resources.

A few years ago, Albania's new leaders seem to have realized that time was running out on the country's ``go it alone'' policy. Since 1984 the country has opened its door wider to relations with all European countries except Britain in the West and the Soviet Union - still foreign suspect No. 1 - in the East.

New relations with the West are producing economic benefits. West German know-how is modernizing the mining of Albania's most exportable product for the West - chrome. A hydropower plant on the Drin River in the north, equipped with French turbines, is nearing completion. And attention is riveted on the fate of Europe after 1992, when the ``single market'' envisaged by the European Community (EC) takes shape.

Albania is not out to join the EC or to identify with a particular ideological grouping. But its leaders are acutely conscious of the difficulties such an integrated European market could create for Albania.

``We have to take reality into account,'' says Fatos Nano, an economist from Albania's Institute of Economic Studies. ``We must not fear feasible arrangements which might emerge indirectly or be adjusted to the `single market' so long as they are consistent with our conditions and law.''

Those conditions are primarily the ban that Albania's Constitution imposes on its government's acceptance of foreign loans or credits, or affiliations with mandatory economic or political groupings.

But 20 percent of Albania's exports - minerals, energy, agricultural products - already go to EC countries. Neutral countries, like Austria, are good customers as well.

``The single market,'' says Dr. Nano, ``can make problems for us. Austria's joining the community could disturb our present trade links. But we don't want to wake up in 1992 and find ourselves excluded. We have to face a reality and find our way of adjusting to it.''

It's too early to suggest how that adjustment will take place, Nano says. But Albania's present mood - and mounting economic necessity - could lead the country closer to neutral trading partners and their European Free Trade Association.

The mining of chrome and many other export ores in which Albania abounds has lost ground in recent years due to outdated equipment. Similar deficiencies have impeded agriculture.

A roadside placard in the mountains of the chrome-rich Kukes region proclaims, Kromi gan blokaden! - ``Chrome ore will break any blockade!''

It was a flashback to the years of Soviet economic blockade after former Albanian leader Enver Hoxha's break with Moscow in 1961.

``Agriculture - the key to progress,'' says another big poster. ``No import without export,'' warns another.

The Albanians' position is not as desperate as that of some of the East Europeans, particularly those with immense debt burdens. ``We have no foreign debts,'' says one Albanian official.

The country has set out to find more economically satisfying relationships with its Balkan neighbors - especially with its old adversary, Greece.

There is even a desire to restore diplomatic relations with Britain. Ties were severed after the 1946 incident in which two British warships were damaged by mines in the narrow strait between Albania and Corfu island. The Corfu incident and disposition of Albanian gold, plundered by Hitler's forces but still held by the British, remain obstacles to renewed ties.

``It is a question of principle,'' says Deputy Foreign Minister Sokrat Plaka. ``The gold was stolen from us. We have a rightful, legal title. If Britain acknowledges that, relations could be restored tomorrow and everything else negotiated.''

In a similar case, West Germany balked at Tirana's reparations claims as a prerequisite to diplomatic relations. But Albania put its claim aside to facilitate renewed ties in 1987. At the same time a formula was found for Bonn's economic ``assistance'' through trade which, in effect, meant much the same thing.

This formula for economic assistance sidestepped Albania's constitutional ban on foreign loans and helped bring in West German technology. It also indicates Albania's increasingly pragmatic, sophisticated approach to foreign policy.

This new flexibility has yet to extend to the Soviets. Numerous Soviet overtures have been brushed aside. The view here - spelled out in many interviews - is that the changes in the Soviet Union have yet to ``convince us that it has really become a peaceful nation,'' nor that professions of a new Soviet attitude toward Albania are more than words.

``Gorbachev is an improvement'' on former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, says an official. ``But we will be skeptical until he fully admits the wrong done us by Khrushchev.''

Khrushchev's behavior on his last visit is recalled with bitterness: The Soviet leader was taken to the coastal resort of Saranda. He had no time for the beauty of the place but gazed intently over its adjacent deep-water anchorage. Disregarding his hosts, he blurted out to then Soviet Defense Minister Rodion Malinovsky, ``Look, Malinovsky, from here we could control Greece and the whole Mediterranean!''

No more was needed to fuel the break in relations in 1960.

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