ALBANIA, in the heart of Europe, may be on the edge of a severe hunger crisis and may soon run out of foreign aid.For some time Tirana, the capital, with a population of 200,000 people, has had no milk. "I waited five hours," says Eqerem Mete, who got out of bed at 1 a.m. to buy milk. "And milk arrived - but only for families with children and old, sick folk - a liter per family." There was the same chronic shortage of eggs and meat, even on the expensive free market. Most families in Tirana are lucky to eat meat once a week. There is never enough flour or cooking oil. The biggest food store has only a few cans of fish or dried goods on the shelves. The markets lack even seasonal native fruit and vegetables. There are few chickens, no olives, no lemons - the list of "no is endless. There is a constant shortage of bread, and in mid-July only a week's supply of grain remained in the country, officials said. Prime Minister Ylli Bufi says the economy is perilously close to collapse. And collapse, he adds quietly, will mean "a complete social crisis" unless outside nations help - and do so quickly. "To the end of the year we need a minimum of $200 million in imported food. At this moment we have $50 million," Mr. Bufi says. Promises of emergency, humanitarian aid for Albania, one of Europe's smallest and poorest countries, have come from Italy, Greece, and other West Europeans, and the United States, but little has begun to flow. Yet Albania seems to be tackling the formidable problems of radical economic reform as boldly as any of the former Communist states in Eastern Europe. When US Secretary of State James Baker III visited Albania in June, he told Bufi: "It will be easier for America to help your country economically when Albania adheres to [the rules of] the various international financial organizations such as the Group of 24, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank." But that, says Bufi, is precisely what Albania is trying to do. "In August, we expect to be admitted to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. In September, we may join the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and then the World Bank," he says. "But so far, we have not found concrete help in this from the European countries." As a full-fledged member of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the government recently pardoned its last political prisoners, and allowed greater religious freedoms to meet in full the human-rights requirements of the Helsinki agreement. After being in control for 45 years, the communists have been forced to share power. They have abandoned the pretense to a "leading role," and with it, most of their Marxist-Leninist doctrine. Under the new Constitution due to be adopted this year, Albania will cease to be a socialist or "people state, created in the Stalinist mold by Enver Hoxha in 1946, and become a republic with a constitutional commitment to multiparty democracy. Foreign policy and the judiciary have been depoliticized. The first step means normal relations with the West, including the US, as well as Albania's first-ever relations with the Vatican. An independent judiciary is being established. And the hitherto all-powerful state security apparatus is being replaced by a controlling committee strictly answerable to Parliament. Albania is suffering the same breakdown in law and order as the other newly free Eastern European countries. "In place of the relative calm of dictatorship, we have turmoil and lawlessness," says the President of the Supreme Court, Koci Kleanthi. "A major task now is to create a new judicial culture in Albania in which citizens will learn that law is for them, and [will] respect it." When the government gave peasant cooperative farmers a little land and livestock of their own this summer, it prompted a free-for-all in which peasants grabbed land and animals, and stopped working for the cooperatives, so depleting their work forces and livestock, that some cooperatives ceased to function at all. Mid-year figures showed corn production down two-thirds from last year, milk yields halved, and vast tracts of cotton and tobacco unplanted. Individual peasant households had done well for themselves, but it did not bring food to the towns. As the urban populations' poverty and frustrations grow, Bufi's coalition government, formed in June, is faced with an economic collapse that each day seems more likely. The government is equally balanced between former communists and four democratic opposition parties. All dropped political affiliations and labels in a bid to establish a national consensus and accept joint responsibility. Earlier in the year, the communists accepted the opposition's economic program. Vice premier in charge of the economy, Gramoz Pashko, of the Democratic Party, must shape a reform package covering land distribution, privatization, (of half of all sizeable enterprises this year) and foreign investment. Foreign investment may be Albania's salvation, as the tiny country sits atop of one of Europe's richest oil reserves, valuable minerals, and other resources. The Hoxha regime refused outside help to explore these untapped resources or to bring in modern technology to halt the rapid decline in oil and mining industries. According to some estimates there are "several billion barrels" awaiting exploitation both off-shore and inland. "Oil and chrome," says Prime Minister Bufi, "should occupy the premier plac e in our economy." Party politics and the March election certainly look increasingly irrelevant on the brink of economic disaster. Every day the free press (including the Communists') debates the guilt of the old regime with varying degrees of intensity. The coalition partners seem to have a shared view that what is happening is irreversible. "The mistakes are linked with the system Enver Hoxha imposed," says Bufi. "But rummaging in the past is the easiest thing to do. Our need is to look to the future. "We must, as soon as possible, replace the totalitarianism with a democratic system and a market economy." The question always returns to the urgent need for outside help. "We are a small country," Albanians often say. "We don't need billions like Russia and China - just a slice of the cake will see us through."