Albania's Farmers Get a Taste Of Free-Market System

`HEY, you charged me 27 lek the kilo, and over there'' - the speaker gestures to another meat stall - ``it's only 25!'' ``Well, it cost me more - and it's also better quality,'' was the rejoinder. It was an unlikely dispute in an Albanian shop. It would have been quite unthinkable a year ago, when the customer could ``take it or leave it,'' not ask awkward questions.

The change seems to be a sign of the times, typical of much that is happening under Albania's first diffident steps toward a market-oriented economy.

Members of the state farming cooperatives may now openly bring what they grow on their tiny cottage plots to town markets. Previously, peasants caught doing this, however small the quantity, were fined on the spot and their wares confiscated.

The discussion described above took place at a marketplace not far from this city's central square.

An older part of the market included the usual state shops and stands, with untidy displays of foodstuffs.

The other section was something new - a series of stalls under a plaque announcing that members of a cooperative in the Tirana region were selling food from their garden plots. (Profits, it seems, would be shared back at the cooperative.)

Both sections had quite plentiful amounts of food, on a scale hard to find last year.

There was an abundance of seasonal fruit, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, and so on, and a good choice of meat.

Prices varied a little between the two sections. Quality on the peasant side was on the whole superior and most prices tended to be higher.

For Albania, this is a unique concession to private enterprise. It accompanied other, bigger changes in agricultural organization which are part of the wide-ranging reform package disclosed by President Ramiz Alia in January.

In the package were various incentives to industry and farming, and allowance for price fluctuations according to market conditions. The reforms also create an unprecedented degree of privatization in low-level retail trades and the licensing of independent craftsmen to ply their trades in the service sector, which has long been grossly inadequate.

After a 40 year ban, an Albanian may now open his own small business, though he may employ only members of his family. Here in the capital, 120 small enterprises were registered by July. Similar things were happening in major towns like Shkoder, the northern ``capital,'' and Korce and Vlore in the south. For the moment, the most visible gains are in agriculture. Oversized, inefficient state farms have been cut down in size. This year, 100 of them will become self-managing and largely self-financing, following trial runs at several farms. This is openly described as a flexible ``new economic mechanism.'' It will be applied, more gradually, to industry.

At the same time, private farming has been encouraged by two further measures:

Doubling of the permitted cottage plot to a half-acre. Owners may raise stock and crops as they choose and sell any surpluses on the open market. (This may seem a small step, but anyone who has seen what an Albanian peasant can squeeze into quarter-acre patches will appreciate its potential.)

Distribution to cooperative members of 125,000 head of cattle and well over half a million sheep from the herds and flocks that previously were poorly managed by the state. This step is even more popular than cottage plots. Each family got one or two cows and 10 sheep. They may sell surpluses of meat and butter on the free market.

Today 60 to 65 percent of Albanians make their living on agriculture. The state aims at a 50/50 balance with industry by the year 2000.

``We think,'' says Shyqyri Haxhia, the Agriculture Ministry's top expert, ``that will be about right. We do not wish to depopulate our countryside.''

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