US, Albania Restore Ties As Opposition Watches

Newly formed Democratic Party says most people will support it in first free elections March 31

FORMAL United States-Albanian diplomatic relations were restored on Friday, during a State Department ceremony here. Albanian Foreign Minister Muhamet Kapllani, who represented his government, spoke of the country's great economic and political problems and assured his audience that "Albania will march ahead on the road of democracy and in the interests of its own people."

Albania, now in turmoil, is Europe's poorest nation and last remaining hard-line Communist regime. President Ramiz Alia, who heads the ruling communist Party of Labor, has largely resisted liberalization of the economy and political reforms, opponents say. In a superficial demonstration of his interest in democracy, they say, he has been anxious to renew links with Washington, which have been severed for 52 years.

In an unusual arrangement solicited by US State Department officials, leaders of Albanian opposition groups were invited to attend the ceremony.

Albanian opposition groups are only three months old. Before December 1990, "they didn't exist," says Grammoz Pashko, a leader of the newly formed Democratic Party, who flew to Washington for the event. Speaking out against the communist government was forbidden by law, punishable by up to 10 years to life in jail, says Mr. Pashko, a former economics professor who is confident he will soon be a government leader.

Pashko says at least half the country's 3.2 million population support the opposition. "We will win the elections in two weeks," he says.

The first free elections in Albania are scheduled March 31. "We are pleased that Americans will be among those to observe them," Assistant US Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs Raymond Seitz said at the ceremony. "We understand the great social and economic hardships now confronting Albania. We believe that these 201> can be overcome if all Albanian political parties and citizens pursue their goals through peaceful, democratic dialogue."

But domestic chaos threatens to disrupt planned elections. Some 20,000 Albanians have fled the small Balkan country due to what Pashko calls an economic catastrophe. Basic services have collapsed, he says.

"Belief in the Communist Party is gone," says Sejfi Protopapa, an Albanian-American from Wayland, Mass., who is an unofficial US representative of the Albanian Democratic Party. "And this has generated a sense of despair within their own party. The economy is now counter-productive," he says. Worker absenteeism and pilfering from state-owned firms is rampant. "The economy is a shambles because the government is unable to feed its people. It may become the new cause celebre for world hunger."

Albania is seeking humanitarian aid from the US to cope with starvation. Italy, now besieged by thousands of Albanian boat refugees, is sending humanitarian assistance to its neighbor to help stem the tide. Italy made the assistance contingent upon President Alia's agreement to share distribution of the aid with the democratic parties.

Mr. Protopapa says other Western countries can help force the government to yield to democratic reforms by exacting concessions like Italy's. "After a vitriolic attack on the US for 45 years, the communist government has been trying for the last two years for a rapprochement. It's an expression of the government's plan to join the Western world. The Democratic Party was invited because the US wanted to soften the blow of the Communist claim," he says.

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