A HEAVY Mediterranean air hangs over the Albanian capital on summer afternoons.
What passes for commerce in Europe's poorest country comes to a virtual halt. Drowned in sunlight, run-down buildings seem still more dreary. The dust-choked streets are largely devoid of traffic. People doze away the sweltering heat under palm trees around central Skanderbeg Square.
The siesta scenery makes it hard to believe that Albania is a powderkeg of ethnic tension. Yet many foreign experts describe the country in such terms. At the edge of the Balkan war, Albania seems to be the country most likely to be consumed by hostility if fighting can't be contained to the former Yugoslavia.
As elsewhere in the Balkans, ethnicity is the pretext for Albania's potential conflict, yet the problem stems not so much from the country proper as the situation of ethnic Albanians abroad.
Tirana in recent years has tangled with all its neighbors - Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece - over ethnic issues. With Serbia and Macedonia, the source of Tirana's discontent has been discrimination against ethnic Albanians. The clash with Greece focused on the loyalty of the Greek minority in southern Albania.
So far, sparring among the Balkan neighbors has mostly been limited to rhetoric. Yet observers say it's a constant struggle to keep belligerence at bay.
''Albania is a very poor country, and it may feel at one point that it can't take it any longer,'' said Michael Shafir, a political scientist at the Open Media Research Institute in Prague. ''Albanians are persecuted everywhere.''
Tension is most acute in the Serb-dominated province of Kosovo, where Albanians make up about 90 percent of the 2 million population, but Serbs control all levers of power. Using paramilitary police squads, Serb authorities enforce Albanian acquiescence by relying on arbitrary arrests and beatings. Most ethnic Albanian professionals have been dismissed from their jobs, and official Albanian-language schools have been shuttered.
The human rights group Human Rights Watch/Helsinki described the Kosovo situation in a 1993 report as ''a society run by brute force and intimidation, where the rule of law has completely disintegrated.'' Since then, conditions have only deteriorated, according to leaders of the Albanian community in Kosovo.
''Kosovo today is pure dynamite,'' said Marijan Tunaj, a spokesman in Aachen, Germany, for the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), the leading ethnic Albanian political force in the province.
Tolerated, for now
The LDK dominates the self-styled Kosovo shadow government, led by the self-styled president of ''independent'' Kosovo, Ibrahim Rugova. Formed in 1992 to represent the interests of the Albanian community in the region, the quasi-cabinet isn't recognized by Serb leaders yet is nonetheless tolerated. Most of the so-called Kosovo government ministers live in exile.
Though lacking political clout, LDK leaders have helped Albanians circumvent some of the discrimination. A semiclandestine network of classrooms, for example, educates hundreds of thousands of Albanian youths in their native language.
In their dealings with Serbs, the Kosovo Albanian leadership follows a policy of nonviolent resistance, which has helped keep a tense peace in the province. But maintaining equilibrium may be more difficult since Croatia's recent blitzkrieg of the Krajina region, which made refugees out of tens of thousands of local Serbs.
Serbia has begun resettling some of them in Kosovo, action certain to further squeeze Albanians in the competition for scarce resources that include land and housing.
The Albanian government in Tirana immediately protested the Serb resettlement plan, and Kosovo's ''president,'' Mr. Rugova, called the move a ''most serious and risky provocation.''
The United States also expressed its concern. ''Any effort to settle significant numbers of Serb refugees from Croatia in Kosovo would be extremely unhelpful,'' State Department spokesman David Johnson said Aug. 12 in Washington, talking about attempts to prevent a spread of the Balkan imbroglio.
Such statements on Kosovo have helped the US play a key role in moderating Tirana's stance on ethnic issues. The US has encouraged Albanian restraint by offering military cooperation. Joint exercises and other forms of cooperation are designed to improve the effectiveness of the ill-prepared Albanian Army.
The American presence also has made it easier for Albanian President Sali Berisha to defuse crises with both Macedonia and Greece, local officials say.
In the case of Macedonia, where roughly 30 percent of the 2 million population is ethnic Albanian, autonomy rumblings have sometimes led to confrontation, such as the November 1992 clash between police and Albanian demonstrators in the Macedonian capital Skopje. Four people died in the conflict, which started when rumors spread that an Albanian teenager had been beaten to death by police.
But in the last year, President Berisha has thrown his support behind moderate Albanian political leaders in Macedonia, while strengthening his relationship with his Macedonian counterpart Kiro Gligorov. Tension, as a result, has dissipated.
Tirana and Athens also seemed on a collision course in April 1994 following a border shootout that left two Albanian soldiers dead. Albania responded by jailing ethnic Greek political leaders on charges of fomenting separatist sentiment in southern Albania. Tit-for-tat expulsions of Albanian and Greek diplomats followed. But since the border incident, relations have been repaired, says Genc Pollo, a top adviser to Berisha.
When it comes to Kosovo, however, future developments may prove highly resistant to US diplomatic influence. The prevention of large-scale clashes will likely depend more on the popular mood in Albania.
At present, there appears to be little appetite in either civilian or government circles for the use of arms in pursuit of the ethnic Albanian cause. Albania's 3 million population is preoccupied with the titanic challenge of recovering from more than 40 years of rule by what many see as the most backward and paranoid communist regime in Central and Eastern Europe.
Opinions expressed in the northern city of Shkodra, the country's fourth-largest urban center, illustrate how nationalism may not fuel ethnic violence. Rump Yugoslavia can be seen from the mountains around Shkodra, yet city residents talk mostly about their difficult economic situation, not the plight of Kosovo.
''I do not want to fight for Kosovo. I only fight for myself,'' said Arben Duci, a teenager who will soon become eligible for military conscription.
Government officials, at the same time, are aware that conflict would put a brake on the nation's recovery and threaten their grip on power, because Albania is too poor to fight. The government pursues ''a peaceful approach, trying to raise awareness ... about the plight of Albanians,'' said Mr. Pollo, the presidential adviser.
Yet Albanian restraint doesn't guarantee peace. Pollo and others say Tirana could still get sucked into a conflict against Serbia.
''That's because [Balkan politics] is a mix of calculation and irrationality,'' Pollo said.
There are several possible scenarios. Something like the Krajina Serb relocation seems sure to ratchet up tension in Kosovo. Conflict could follow if Serbs try to close the underground-school network, Mr. Tunaj of the LDK said. Such a move could indicate to ethnic Albanians in Kosovo that they had nothing to lose by turning to violence, he added.
Since Serbs enjoy a virtual monopoly on weapons, an Albanian uprising in Kosovo would likely be doomed. But it could drag Albania proper, followed by Macedonia, into a conflict neither wants. Macedonian participation then could prompt Greece and Bulgaria to join the fray.
Albanian officials acknowledge that Tirana ''would find it difficult to remain idle if violence flares in Kosovo.'' And Kosovo leaders expect their kin to come to their defense. ''All Albanians are intertwined,'' Tunaj claimed. ''They will stand together and fight together.''
Kosovo is especially volatile because it is seen by both Albanians and Serbs to be a cradle of national identity, said Ana Lalaj, an academician at the Albanian Institute of History. The region is also mineral-rich and strategically vital to Serbia, now under United Nations economic sanctions.
Yet Kosovo's fate doesn't entirely depend on the principals involved. ''A lot depends on how Europe develops. So far, Europe has been mostly indifferent to Serb aggression. So, I am worried,'' Ms. Lalaj said.
Even if Albania and Serbia avoid a Kosovo catastrophe for now, Albanians there need full civil rights, Pollo said. ''Even if they patch up Bosnia, if a solution to Kosovo isn't found there will be no peace in the Balkans,'' he said.
* Part 2 of a five-part series on minorities in Europe. Part 1 ran Aug. 17. Part 3 runs Aug. 24.