THE Balkan countries' foreign ministers are meeting in Tirana, Albania, today and tomorrow. That in itself is a sign of the times. Never before has Albania extended hospitality of this sort to neighbors with whom relations were historically quarrelsome rather than cooperative.
In another way, however, this meeting is no exception. It takes place after a year of painful resuscitation of ancient feuds that often made the Balkans a tinder box for wider European conflict.
The Albanians seem to be approaching their role as host for a minisummit of six southeast European nations with hope for a different pattern. They say they don't want the meeting to get into divisive issues - for example, the plight of ethnic Albanians in Yugoslavia's Kosovo province. They want to concentrate on common interest, such as regional economic cooperation.
This is, of course, in line with the past year's drive for wider and better international relations, as exemplified by Albanian President Ramiz Alia's presence at this year's United Nations General Assembly - another first. His predecessor, Enver Hoxha, who ruled the country for 40 years, never made an appearance.
Conflict in Kosovo, bloody as it is, or in Transylvania (over the big Magyar minority that the Romanians discriminate against), or between ethnic Bulgarians and their Muslim compatriots seems unlikely in this era to spill outside the respective countries' borders. But all the conflicts are gravely discordant notes at a time of growing European integration. The Balkan region presents a dark spot indeed in this development, as Mr. Alia told the UN.
What was occurring elsewhere in Europe, he said, should spur the Balkans to do likewise. He said, rightly enough, that national minorities have been the source of all 20th century conflicts and hatreds. It was time, he added, for these ``to be not apples of discord but bridges for communication and cooperation.''
How far such advice may be heeded remains to be seen during these two days of talks in Tirana.
Today's ``apples of discord'' may not be sour enough to affect a whole region, let alone a continent. But a danger of sorts is always there. In Kosovo, Serbian behavior this year has several times made it look as though the province was one step away from open civil war. Even ``peaceful resistance'' of the Gandhian kind in Kosovo has lately hardened Serbia's already tough line.
The problem extends to Yugoslavia as a whole. Serbia has assumed confrontational positions against fellow republics, Slovenia and Croatia, which have already replaced communist single-party rule with freely elected, multiparty parliaments. And it is also exerting pressure on the republics of the ``poor south'' - Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Macedonia - which are headed on the same course through elections next month.
Serbia's leadership is still communist - and very conservative at that. Its view of party plurality is highly ambivalent. Increasingly, its critics, including more democratically minded Serbs, regard its real motivation to be creation not just of a dominant Serbia inside Yugoslavia but of a powerful Serbian ``state'' within the Balkans.
By contrast, Albania is turning to domestic democracy. It wants to be a full member of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) - and, Alia told the UN, to participate in the coming Paris summit. That would put the former outsider on a par with neighbors belonging to CSCE, including Greece, which also belongs to the European Commission with whom Albania is pressing for some initial link.
Its reasons are primarily economic. (Whose are not?) But Tirana also seems to realize that the more it democratizes the more it encourages Western economic support.
The more, too, might it be seen giving a lead in burying the old tinder box to bring the Balkans into line in the new Europe.