WHAT'S this? Albania is changing? It's true. The mysterious, isolated, Rip van Winkle of nations is waking up. That's another precedent broken. Europe may have been in a cold war for 40 years - but Albania, under the Stalinist grip of dictator Enver Hoxha until 1985 - has been in a total deep freeze. Albanian President Ramez Alia, however, has broken rank with his party hardliners. Reforms are in the wind, starting with freer travel, religion, speech, and a more just legal and criminal-justice system. Normalized relations with the United States and the Soviet Union are on the table. Foreign correspondents visited Albania for the first time in decades last week - covering a visit there by United Nations Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar, which was itself a first.
By Albanian standards, these events are revolutionary. The atmosphere in Albania is lighter. Mr. Alia's popularity has soared.
Evidently, events in nearby Romania - the overnight fall of Nicolae Ceausescu - put Alia on notice. Even the most ironclad of dictatorships can't forever repress the people. Voice of America and BBC reporters last week reported that there have been two public demonstrations (in Kavaje and Tirana) and one strike (by 2,000 textile workers in Berat) in Albania since January.
To be sure, most of the changes are from above, not from below. Alia is managing a peaceful liberalization. He wants Bulgarian-style reform - working through established party channels, avoiding mass social unrest - rather than a Romanian cataclysm. He has made a number of correct moves so far: allowing more dissent, opening outside phone lines, backing away from the former police-state mentality.
Whether Alia can push these changes past the security police, the bureaucracy, and the Party of Labor hardliners, including President Hoxha's widow, Nexhmije Hoxha, is unknown. Nor is it known how soon reforms will be established in law, nor how comprehensive they will be. So far, the actual democratic ``reforms'' have been largely rhetorical. Albania is still a repressive land.
Perhaps the most important single step Alia can take, and he's already taking it, is to join CSCE - the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Albania, which has nearly cut old ties to North Korea and China, is now the only European nation not part of CSCE. Joining the group means Albania would have to commit to free elections and pluralism. Human rights standards would no longer be an internal matter. Freer trade and more openness would follow.
Such developments are needed if Europe's darkest nation is to come out into the light.