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Reform in Albania Begins to Take Hold


CHANGE and reform are stirring in this long-avowed Stalinist land. It is obvious on touchdown at the airport here. Previously, travelers were always kept on the aircraft while a security guard - checking faces against photos - collected passports. As this writer (a regular visitor for 20 years) found this summer, common airport practices have finally been adopted.

No security guard came on board. Instead, we left the plane without delay to file through a normal passport control in the arrival hall. It was an unsophisticated timber structure, but within 15 minutes, about 100 passports were processed - different indeed from the past.

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It is a trivial enough change, except in the context of postwar Albania. Here it became symbolic of some substantial moves away from the past that slowly got under way this year.

At the hotel, a West European consultants group is conducting a seminar in marketing and management for the local chamber of commerce - an unprecedented event in Albania.

The openings to the West began diffidently in the early 1980s. Now there is considerable quickening of the pace. For example, a link has just been established with the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe at the same time the regime is extending its ``democratization'' of internal social and economic institutions to bring in significant changes in the legal system and to create contested elections.

Some of this change has already been legislated in what seems to portend a thorough overhaul of the rigid structures of the past.

Reform, President Ramiz Alia explains, will spare what he describes as the essence of ``socialism'' from the fate of Stalinism in Albania's one-time allies, such as Poland.

But the leadership has clearly come to recognize the pressing need to move Albania into step with ``new times'' and to become more responsive to its people's needs.

The events of early July, when droves of Albanians ``occupied'' some Western embassies here in a clamor for visas, suggested the government needed to move faster. It later conceded that it was taken aback by this frenzied reaction to its announcement of an Albanian ``right to a passport'' and freedom of travel.

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In the end, the authorities made the best of the embarrassment, promising immunity for the ``squatters'' and shoveling out passports so quickly that 4,000 had left Albania for Western countries within a week. Then the whole furor subsided.

What seemed at issue was not a new travel policy per se. Students, the people most likely to want to travel, were not involved. Instead scores of very poor families, frustrated beyond limit by poor jobs, poor pay, and poor living conditions, grabbed at the opportunity out of fear it might not be real.

What lies ahead for Albania's gradual ``revolution from above'' - for that is what undoubtedly it is - remains to be seen.

Mr. Alia has no organized East European-style opposition to contend with - no dissidents in the accepted sense of the word. An Albanian Vaclav Havel, if there is one, would be found among the noted writers and other intellectuals urging deeper reform but strongly supporting, not challenging, Alia.

His opposition comes from the bureaucracy and the hard-line generation represented at the top. So far, Alia has either involved hard-liners in reform or shunted them aside. Contacts with ordinary Albanians remain difficult. But the few one could have, along with talks with reform-committed intellectuals and officials, suggest a broad measure of popular goodwill for Alia.

Predictably he rejects Western ideology, but he seems genuinely concerned to link Albania with the West both in economics and in democratic practices.

Any Western assessment of these reforms needs to take into account not only Albania's centuries under foreign occupation but also its less-than-happy experiences in Europe after independence in 1912 until the end of World War II. -30-{et

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