In turn a close ally of Yugoslavia (1945-1948), the Soviet Union (1948- 1961) and China (1961-1978), Communist Albania has isolated itself from its ideological brethren since the late 1970s. Under the ruthless leadership of Enver Hoxha, it endeavored to preserve a classical Stalinist system and thus remain a living museum of early post-war Eastern Europe. Relations with the West have been practically nonexistent for more than 30 years.

A series of diplomatic gestures in 1983 and 1984, however, indicated that possibly a game was being played out that would result in an "opening" of the only remaining Communist "monastery" in Europe. Since 1983 Albania has renewed economic relations with Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia, its ideological archenemy: The projected trade with Belgrade this year will increase to $120 million, a significant amount for the tiny Albanian economy.

Tirana's first approaches to the outside world have centered on Soviet allies and neutrals, while avoiding any contact with the Soviet Union itself. Similarly, Albania is rapidly renewing trade relations with Italy, Turkey, Greece and West Germany, while persisting in hostility toward the United States. There is perhaps some system in Albanian policy: First to renew contacts with small and middle powers and the allies of superpowers, and then probably to establish contacts with Moscow and Washington.

I am inclined to attribute this new Albanian foreign policy dynamism not to the long-ailing Hoxha, who died Thursday, but to his hand-picked heir, Ramiz Alia, 59. If Alia emerges as a final winner from the transition period, his political profile may demonstrate qualities similar to those of the new Soviet leader. And if Ramiz Alia really proves to be Albania's Gorbachev, he is a man his country has too long been denied.

Though Albania's relations with the Soviet Union have been severed for the last 20 years, Moscow has annually offered since 1964 to normalize relations. In turn, Albania has systematically rejected this offer and underlined its readiness to side with any Balkan country if threatened "by one or another superpower." But now, both Tirana and the Kremlin have an extraordinary chance to normalize relations without any humiliating "self- criticism" on either side.

The American government has also somewhat reluctantly but regularly repeated its readiness to improve relations with Albania. Now a transition problem in Albania has been added to the list of other live Balkan issues: The Greek-Turkish conflict, the controversial policies of the socialist government in Athens and increasing economic and political troubles in Yugoslavia have already disordered the hard-won balance of power in this region, historically known as the "powder keg of Europe."

It would be wise for American policymakers to watch out for "Albania's Gorbachev."

Albania has by now accomplished the tasks facing any developing economy: it has completed the import substitution phase of early industrialization, attained self-sufficiency in mineral and agricultural production and in energy and essential heavy and light industry. Today the Albanian economy faces two main challenges: radical structural transformation and development of export-oriented production. To this end, Ramiz Alia will inevitably have to open to the outside world. That does not necessarily mean renewing close friendship, not to mention satellite status, with the Soviet Union. But there is no question in my mind that were the West to keep the door ajar, the new Albanian leadership would not hesitate to slip a foot in.

Despite the awesome methods the Albanian Communists have applied to achieve national unity and modernization, the West should encourage Tirana's leaders to adapt their system to the outside world, to open their borders and, most important, to liberate their minds. Any sign of political and economic pressure or disdain toward the new leadership on the part of the United States could disrupt the possible normalization of relations with Tirana and upset the delicate balance that Albania will most probably continue to seek between the two blocs.