ALBANIA, the tiny, last outpost of orthodox communism, which shunned reform until a few years ago, seems to be coming of age. The new year has already seen a quickening of change on a scale unthinkable not long ago. The country edged toward the new era of European integration with a U-turn in its isolationist foreign policy. Then last year Albania saw wide-ranging economic reforms and the first steps to normal democratic forms and human rights. A new penal code:
Establishes unprecedented rights for an accused person.
Recognizes citizens' rights to passports and free travel.
Confers freedom of religious conscience that enabled Roman Catholic and Orthodox believers to celebrate Christmas for the first time since Enver Hoxha, the former dictator, shut down churches in 1967.
This year, a draft revised Constitution enshrines these new rights as well as a multiparty political system.
The government granted amnesty to about 200 of its political prisoners and said the rest - apparently the more serious offenders - were under review.
In recent years, economic failure was often aggravated by natural causes. Primarily, however, the problem was the system, as in Eastern Europe. The experience there left Tirana's leaders no option but to think about change.
Albanian economic reforms fall short of the more radical East European ones. Officials concede this. In a talk last year, a leading reform economist insisted that centralization was justified to get development started after the destruction of World War II.
``We were and are still a backward nation, so must proceed slowly compared with relatively advanced countries,'' he said.
But as of Jan. 1, a ``new economic mechanism'' removed many old controls to make way for industrial self-management and limited private enterprise. Even more significantly, it terminated a constitutional ban on foreign credit which for 40 years thwarted proper exploitation of rich oil and mineral resources.
A strong state sector remains. So do subsidies for unprofitable, run-down plants - at least until obsolete technology left over from soured alliances with the Soviet Union and China is replaced with Western technology. Such hopes are mirrored in increasing contacts with potential Western investors, such as those from the United States and Germany (for oil exploration and mining) or from Austria (for tourist hotels on Albania's attractive Adriatic littoral).
Domestic pressures are pushing Tirana toward quicker reform as next month's first pluralist elections draw near.
In theory, the Party of Labor (the Communist Party) is still Marxist-Leninist. But it is modifying its old power monopoly. The symbolic removal of statues of Joseph Stalin, predicted during this writer's visit to Tirana last summer, is well under way.
Albanian diplomats show great disappointment that their year of reform is not more fully acknowledged in the West, particularly in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The bid for full CSCE membership (instead of observer status) and for some association with the European Community are key elements in the move to bring Albania ``into Europe.''
``We expected more understanding,'' a diplomat said. As it is, the US, for example, is still withholding diplomatic recognition, pending genuine multiparty elections.
But Albania is not Bulgaria, which is also a backward Balkan country but which nonetheless has an old democratic tradition that spawned numerous opposition parties before last year's polls.
Albania has no such tradition. But, as this is written, they do have two large groups openly campaigning for the Feb. 10 vote. Democratic Renewal, the first opposition newspaper, appeared Jan. 5 and reportedly sold 50,000 copies. Since the government controls newsprint, that says something.
The leadership obviously wants to see its party hold its own in the election. It most probably will. In Bulgaria, however, the Communists were forced into coalition with the main opposition. It is not impossible that Albania's voting pattern could present Ramiz Alia, Albania's pragmatic president, with a similar option.