Albania, the last of the hard-line communist states to shed Marxism, is tearing down its statues of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and buying American.
The government of that tiny Balkan country, which over the years had isolated itself from the Soviet Union and China because their brands of communism were not pure enough, inquired last week about buying 50,000 tons of wheat from the United States.
"Please, it is urgent that you concern yourself with and send us an offer for 50,000 tons of wheat," the Albanian government's head of food purchases said in a letter sent by facsimile machine to the Baldwin, N.Y., office of Dr. Agim Leka, a first-generation Albanian-American who with his Washington-based son, Donald, has opened a business exporting products to his homeland.
Albania, the size of Maryland with a population of 3.2 million, had been self-sufficient in food grains until it suffered from a drought last year. There were riots in four cities earlier this month, and U.S. officials said that the government there most likely wants to ensure a ready supply of food through the winter.
A 50,000-ton order of wheat is not a major one -- the Soviet Union buys 300,000 tons at a time -- but Agriculture Department officials said it could be important for American farmers.
The inquiry about wheat sales was part of a letter thanking the Lekas' export firm, Sirius Systems Inc., for supplying information about a large refrigeration system for a big food market the government wants to establish.
Earlier this year Donald Leka, a 27-year-old graduate of American University, engineered sales to Albania of medical equipment and a reconditioned telephone system -- a sharp turn for a country whose entire trade with the United States previously had consisted of buying modest amounts of coal and selling herbs.
The first deal, which will be completed in January, consisted of two reconditioned CAT scanners -- computerized machines that in the past decade have become one of the most important diagnostic tools for doctors -- to the Ministry of Health. Along with selling the equipment, the $400,000 deal includes three months of training here for two engineers in how to repair and operate the sensitive devices and for two doctors in how to read and analyze the results.
Donald Leka, whose father left Albania 50 years ago, made the deal during a visit to the country this summer. His father, a Long Island physician, paved the way during conversations with Ministry of Health officials who had bemoaned Albania's lack of CAT scanners.
The purchase of the CAT scanners is part of a gradual opening up by Albania, which for decades has been one of the most isolated countries in the world. The poorest country in Europe, Albania has not had diplomatic relations with the United States since before World War II.
Recently, however, Albanian officials told a congressional delegation headed by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) -- the first official U.S. group to visit Albania since 1939 -- that it wants to establish full diplomatic relations with Washington as soon as possible. Earlier, a senior State Department official met with an Albania diplomat at the United Nations, the first official diplomatic contact between the two countries in 50 years.
And in October, Albanian President Ramiz Alia attended the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in New York -- the first such visit by an Albanian head of state in about 30 years -- and addressed an Albanian-American group in Boston.
Since his original sale of CAT scanners, Donald Leka has sold two reconditioned telephone systems, capable together of handling 1,680 extensions, to the Ministry of Health. He also has signed a contract to supply 50 cardiac pacemakers, with deliveries beginning in January.
He is working with blueprints of a hospital and has been told to spend $13 million to equip it, including the purchase of 10 ambulances and a helicopter. The funds won't buy all the equipment the Albanians want, but Donald Leka said it will provide a big start.
He is planning a trade mission to Albania next month and says he has a major textile firm and drug manufacturer interested in going along.
"Albania cut itself off, but I sense a strong desire to open relations with the United States," he said after visiting the country.
Albania's trade with America has been minuscule over the years -- amounting to $8.1 million last year. Albania buys coal from the United States and sells this country thyme, sage, oregano and other herbs for cooking and medicinal purposes.
That was it, except for a sudden surge in 1988 when the United States imported about $1.3 million worth of chromium, a strategic metal available only from South Africa, the Soviet Union and Albania. Last year, though, the United States bought no chromium from Albania.
The CAT scanner deal originated in a plea to Donald Leka's father from one of his sisters, who remained in Albania after he left in 1940 at age 17. The sister was ill and needed a CAT scan to diagnose her ailment. Leka arranged with Albanian health officials to allow his sister to go to Turkey, where CAT scans are available. In the process, Leka developed a long-distance relationship with health officials in Albania, who complained about the lack of modern medical equipment.
Donald Leka decided to see if his firm, Sirius Systems Inc., could fill the void. He traveled to Albania this summer, where he was greeted at the airport at Tirana by about 200 relatives.
He also was given access to Albanian manufacturing facilities, including the laboratories in which the government produces vaccines and pharmaceuticals. Leka said the manufacturing facilities suffered from a lack of spare parts, a result of Albania's isolation, which left the country with a hodgepodge of equipment from the Soviet Union, China and other East European nations whose purchase was dictated more by political concerns than the quality of the goods.
This was a fertile field for Leka, who arranged to sell Albania two of the six CAT scanners it feels it needs. He said he got 20 percent of the money up front, enough to set a reconditioning firm to work, and has contacted the State Department about visas for the engineers and doctors to receive training here. Under new rules set this summer by the United States and its allies, CAT scanners can be exported to Eastern Europe.