THE key question in Sunday's parliamentary election in Albania is not whether the former communists or the democratic opposition will win, but whether any pattern will emerge to turn the country back from the brink of chaos.
Prospects are bleak indeed. Three governments in a year have failed to stop the drift. It was scarcely surprising.
After World War II this poor country on the Adriatic Sea was taken over by the most rigidly Stalinist of the East bloc regimes. After ideological breaks with both Russia and China, it was plunged into two wasted decades of isolationism in which all international ties, even economic ones, were shunned.
When the anticommunist revolution swept Eastern Europe in 1989, most East Europeans had some lifelines to the West. But not Albania. When it moved toward democratization, it was unequipped for its social and political challenges, and it had no influence to encourage foreign support for its economic transition.
Like others, Albanians expected quick results. When these were not forthcoming, the country slipped into economic chaos and public confidence collapsed. Key export industries are idle, for want of raw materials or new equipment. The breakup of collective farms left land idle because members were not given the means to work it. Food production fell to zero in a tiny country which once fed itself and had a valuable margin for export. To make matters worse, food aid from abroad often falls into speculators'
Italy, the principal aid donor, ferries supplies across the Adriatic daily and carries them in Italian Army trucks to towns and rural centers. After that, Italian controls end, and shops and warehouses have been stormed and looted.
Recently, shops have had more food but at free market prices far beyond people's means. "The most shocking thing," says one Albanian, "is to see Italian goods intended for free, humanitarian distribution in new private shops at exorbitant prices."
Amid the material hardship, a demoralized public is the gravest problem for Albania. Crime has soared, and the government has been helpless. Unemployment stands at 50 percent.
"Italian aid has arrived regularly," says an economic minister of the former nonparty coalition. "Naturally, we stored some to create a reserve, but always someone spread rumors that we were hoarding it for ourselves and people believed it."
This election is mainly between a reformed communist party, now called Socialist, and the National Democrats. Neither has come up with realistic plans for managing the crisis.
Last year, the Democrats swept the towns but the rural vote kept the communists briefly in office. This time, the Socialists will not fare as well, the rural voters are so frustrated.
As for the Democrats, their leaders are badly split between those out to "finish off the communists" and those favoring a reconciliation and still bitter at the way the hard-liners wrecked the coalition by pulling the party's ministers out last year.
To outside observers, that coalition worked relatively well. Low voter turnout may produce a stalemate. If such a stalemate compels another joint party effort, it may be the best outcome.
This also may be the moment for other Western countries to join Italy in a coordinated "mini-mini Marshal Plan" to save Europe's poorest country from outright hunger and potential bloody anarchy in one of its politically most sensitive regions.