TO predict a year ago that Albania would be voting this Sunday in a virtually free, multiparty election would have seemed over-optimistic. True, the attitudes of four rigidly Stalinist decades were thawing. But the situation was far from the democratization occurring elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
Officials had begun talking of adjusting to contemporary European economic thinking and to admit it must mean political change, too.
Nonetheless, it was startling to hear Fatos Nano, a young, previously unknown economics lecturer, tell me (in summer 1989) that if Albania didn't "wake up," it would find itself outside the single European market visualized for 1992, with very damaging consequences.
Mr. Nano, however, has just made prime minister, a move capping a quite remarkable reform speedup in recent months. But as polling day neared, Albanians still seem unimpressed.
Like last year, when the government started freeing political prisoners and outlining specific economic changes, it was "just talk" to most Albanians. A new right-to-a-passport law merely sparked an immediate stampede to Western embassies in Tirana for emigration visas.
Through winter, strikes over pay and food scarcity led to vociferous political demands for ending the power monopoly of the Party of Labor, as Albania's Communists call themselves.
Concession after concession was won from a beleaguered leadership, itself committed to reform, but still with its internal hard-line problems. And when, in response to democratic pressures, it removed memorials to Joseph Stalin, people took to the streets to topple statues of Albania's own arch-Stalinist, Enver Hoxha, put up after his death in 1985.
At Sunday's polls, Ramiz Alia, Hoxha's successor, is likely to fare better in terms of public approval. But the opposition will at the very least do well enough to keep him to his promises. Probably it will do even better.
Despite official New Year pleas for confidence, unrest continued. In February, 15,000 asylum-seekers flocked to the coast and hijacked boats to cross the Adriatic to Italy in pursuit of the dolce vita glimpsed in their own drab homes ever since television came to Albania 20 years earlier.
"People lost patience and felt they could no longer wait for reform," says Sali Berisha, a co-leader of the Democratic Party, the Communists' principal election challenger.
That impatience, in fact, forced Mr. Alia to sack a core of unpopular ministers in February and to name Nano head of government. He at once halted meat exports to ease ever-worsening hardship at home.
THIS election, unprecedented in every way, has been lively. Opposition groups demanded, and got, offices and transportation and even government funds to finance campaigning. The Democrats, the biggest and best organized party - the one that counts - launched a biweekly newspaper of 60,000 copies. Its leaders have been been able to travel widely in Europe and in the United States to encourage international goodwill.
They and the Communists have broadly similar programs based on a market economy. The Democrats, however, have radical privatization plans for agriculture. Support at their rallies suggests that they have substantial urban backing. But in the countryside (65 percent of the population) the peasants in the big farm cooperatives seem to prefer the Communists' more modest plans for land distribution.
The Communists' party, it must be remembered, still commands standing as a homespun, indigenous, and independent one owing nothing to the Soviet Army. Alia himself is popular.
The aim of the Democrats, says Mr. Berisha, is "an Albania looking like the rest of Europe." Alia has similar plans. He has established a first link with the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, just resumed relations with the US, and formally requested a tie with the European Community.
If voting Sunday goes as expected, it could well lead to consensus, even coalition, in a new government for a long-overdue new Albania.