WHEN Communist Europe began breaking up last year under pressure for reform, Ramiz Alia declared confidently ``nothing similar can happen here.'' The Albanian leader said it again recently, after Eastern Europe had broken up. This time, however, he accompanied his remarks with an outline of striking changes for his own country.
His plan for ``democratization of socioeconomic life'' is hardly radical. But it does reflect the country's concern not to be left behind by the wave of progressive change sweeping Europe.
Hence Mr. Alia's proposals to involve Albania's economy in some way with the European Community and to join the 35-member Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
In the context of a tiny country that has stuck strictly to orthodox communist practices for the past 45 years, the possibility for change is considerable.
Though there will be no departure from basic state ownership in the economy, there will be a broad devolution of decisionmaking powers from the center to local authorities.
``Social'' democratization will not include a multiparty system. But broad expansion of grass-roots and nonparty participation in government is planned at all levels.
Alia's plan seems to include gradual change carefully controlled from the top, with greater regard for the consumer in economic development and new tolerance in political life. He has valid arguments for this neither ``too far nor too fast'' approach.
Backward Albania's stability has always compared favorably with the uncertainties disturbing Eastern Europe since the 1950s. Albania felt none of the ferment culminating in the Prague Spring revolt of 1968. In fact, Soviet intervention against Czechoslovakia strengthened Albania's inherent native unity, rekindled in the country's break from Moscow eight years before.
It can be argued that dissent could never surface anyway because of the severely Stalinist nature of the late Enver Hoxha's regime. But earlier history must also be taken into account.
For centuries, Albania knew only invasion and foreign exploitation. In 1912, it became an independent state, but remained fragile until World War II.
Unlike other East European parties, which owed everything to Moscow, Hoxha's wartime Communist Party was homespun. So it was not surprising that he stressed that the unified state look to its own independence and pretty well trust no one else.
The stability would still seem to hold good, as does a sense of popular national unity behind the leadership, including Alia.
Alia has disclosed that a big turnover is afoot among party and government apparatchiks to make way for ``younger and more efficient people.'' Youth is undoubtedly the key to modern Albania's future. Since the war, Alia said, an 85 percent illiteracy rate has been virtually eradicated. Seventy-five percent of the country's children are today in secondary schools.
Sixty percent of Albanians, in fact, are under 26 years old. That does not strike one, as has been suggested, as a potential source of unrest on the East European scale.
The writer has seen the painfully slow growth of consumerism on periodic visits since the early 1970s. Yet in many informal encounters with students in Tirana, the capital, and around the country, he has heard no demands for political change or desire for a full-blown Western consumer society.
They know life is brighter outside. They see it on Italian TV. They have leather jackets and jeans - but little else - and they are as interested in Western pop culture as youth anywhere.
These young people know that few of their compatriots are better off than they are. One has always had a strong impression of a certain equality in poverty.
``We're a poor country,'' they say. ``But first comes our independence.''
This kind of egalitarianism seems unlikely to be affected by the changes ahead.