THE FIRST Communist regime to be established in postwar Europe, Albania, is just starting to loosen up, becoming the last to do so. In the lost decades, this impoverished mountain fastness fronting on the Adriatic became a metaphor -- comic but for the grimness of it all -- for Balkan eccentricity, self-inflicted isolation and Stalinist barrenness. In recent months, the Albanian leadership has seen the handwriting on the East European wall, and now it turns up offering to adopt the principles of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, join the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and resume diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and the United States -- the works.

Asked if Albania would recognize political pluralism and run free elections, an Albanian official said there was no opposition in the country because everybody supported the government. Don't laugh. Albania has no pluralist tradition to revive, and the late dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled by terror until he died in 1985, killed everyone he imagined had the slightest independent impulse. The current leader Ramiz Alia, who came to the Communist Party from the Fascist youth, is his prote'ge'. Europe is becoming a democratic club. Albania has further to go than any other East European government to show that it is ready to join. Fortunately, there is no strategic reason for the West to lower its standards of membership, and good political and humanitarian reason not to.

Albania's legendary hedgehog pose in foreign policy arises from a primitive historical prudence: its bitter experience with five centuries of Ottoman occupation, its World War II travails first with and then against the Axis armies, its vain postwar effort to secure the reliable patronage of distant powers against enemies closer by. As Albania now experiments with opening up, however, its Balkan focus is sure to be sharpened. The old Stalinism could yield not so much to parliamentary democracy as to renewed and more vigorous nationalistic struggle againstYugoslavia's Serbs, increasingly depicted as repressors of ethnic Albanians living in Yugoslavia's Kosovo province. Can this be the new Europe?