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Albania's Rocky Road to Market

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

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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.

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