A BIZARRE PLACE, Albania: a Balkan backwater that became under Enver Hoxha, dead at 76, something of a metaphor for national irrelevancy. There it was, tucked up against the Adriatic, sealing itself off utterly from the rest of the world, dismissing its available patrons one after another, indulging a particularly brutal and dated form of Stalinism way past the time when the other communist states -- all of which it scorned -- had moved on to somewhat more moderate and modern conduct.

And yet to hear Enver Hoxha talk -- and the dicta it recorded in tens of volumes -- was to realize that he was more than a Stalinist. He drew on tradition as well as terror to maintain his rule. "You were never afraid to fight against the enemy and slavery," he reminded his people last November, "never intimidated by occupation despite the treachery, the burning and killings which the enemy engaged in, you never bent the knee to foreigners or accepted betrayal, but always stood proudly and fought back. In your belt you carried silver-chased pistols, on your shoulders rifles, in your hands the drawn sword, and you fought furiously. . . . It is hard to find in the world another small country like our Albania. . . ."

In short, Enver Hoxha was not simply the henchman of Josef Stalin. He was an old-fashioned Balkan capo, a tribal leader who came to prominence in the fight against Albania's latest occupiers, Italians and Germans, in World War II. In his Soviet idol's terror and paranoia this Western-educated son of a middle-class Moslem landowner found an easily adaptable model for holding power in a backward country historically prey to menacing foes.

Mr. Hoxha's hand-picked heir, a man named Ramiz Alia, 59, now takes over, at least for a while. Will Albania start relaxing and opening up a bit? There were a few tentative signs of this at the end of the Hoxha years. The Albanian fear of great- power conspiracies has meant that neither the Soviet Union nor the United States has ties with Tirana. (Typically, the Albanians rejected Moscow's condolences.) Both Moscow and Washington, however, will be looking for an opening -- if only to make sure the other does not go one up.

In a sense, the irrelevancy of Albania on the international scene marks the success of the Hoxha policy: He preserved his country's independence. His successors must determine whether the immense costs were necessary and need still to be paid.