Albania's Rocky Road to Market

Despite high unemployment, Europe's poorest country seems to accept hardships born of reform

THE road out of this city's central square to the coast presents a stark symbol of Albania's paramount needs as it struggles to make itself a market democracy.

A long stretch has been dug up to lay sewer pipes, with an untidy mound of wet earth and broken rock on either side of a deep trench.

No mechanical shovels or earth removers are on hand - only hand tools and the strength of sunburned arms, male and female. And no planks bridge the chasm for pedestrians crossing the road. The agile jump across; the older must walk 100 yards to round the end of the trench.

As the people in Europe's poorest country are roused from their long, enforced ideological hibernation, they are finding their infrastructure needs urgent attention.

Some recent travelers have said nothing really has changed here. That is a superficial verdict based on the apparent inevitable chaos as a primitive nation embarks on such change.

To be sure, many younger males still want to emigrate, as thousands did the first year after communism's eclipse. At least 230,000 remain jobless. Antiquated state enterprises are shut. But new technology has yet to be obtained from reluctant foreign investors, thus leaving Albania's export potentials unexplored.

Most Albanians are still fed by the European Community. Few can afford to shop in a lush supermarket just opened by Greek entrepreneurs, who seem more concerned with the consumer-hungry promise of a new market than tiffs between Tirana and Athens over Albania's Greek minority in the south.

Local businesses are still exemplified by a sidewalk box from which bananas are offered at 100 lek (US$1) to 400 lek apiece, depending on how gullible a foreigner looks.

Nonetheless, there are big changes, some visible and some less so, such as a stable lek, halted inflation, and the beginnings of a working macroeconomy.

Not long ago Albanians still gawked at a rare Western auto on otherwise deserted streets. Today those streets are choked with a jungle of used cars, motorcycles, and trucks imported from all over Europe and driven in unnerving abandon.

But behind all this confusion lies just about the most uncompromising acceptance of economic realities the erstwhile communist area has seen. The International Monetary Fund has found no stricter followers of its ``shock'' prescriptions for bringing an economy to life than Albania and its president, Sali Berisha.

He brushes aside criticisms of his undoubted authoritarianism and political talk about the Greek minority - ``They have all the rights,'' he insists. For him, the economic transformation comes first.

In a Monitor interview, he talked of ``success so far demonstrating what freedom can bring a small country.''

``Small and medium private enterprises have absorbed 100,000 unemployed. We have just raised wheat prices to market levels.... It causes problems, but it must be done.''

Mr. Berisha believes people understand. (In fact, a recent EC survey suggested more Albanians have faith in reform and fewer said things were ``better under communism'' than in any of 12 other once-communist states.)

Eighty percent of once-collectivized land has gone to private farmers, who already begin to cover needs met so far by food aid.

Four thousand tractors being imported this year will make agriculture the showpiece of the revolution-reform package.

``We are never going back to the old structure of economic autarchy,'' Berisha adds. Somehow, one is persuaded.

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