After 3 1/2 decades of extreme isolation, Albania, strategically situated at the mouth of the Adriatic, is under economic and political pressure to emerge from its shell. But its longtime ruler, Enver Hoxha, and his hard-line disciples are determined to control the process as best they can.
The harsh repression that for many years was the hallmark of Hoxha's rule has been relaxed for some time now, but the Albanian leader still identifies his own peculiar brand of communism with the cause of Albanian independence. The Western-educated son of a middle-class Moslem landowner, he appears to believe that Albania can survive as an independent nation only by cutting itself off from the rest of the world. a
His dilemma -- and a problem that his successors will face even more acutely -- is that Albania needs the outside world in order to develop.
Since the communist takeover of Albania following World War II, a rudimentary industrial structure has been built from virtually nothing. But labor productivity is desperately low and Albania needs foreign partners if it is to modernize its industry or transform itself into a consumer society.
During a rare week-long visit to Albania, I found these random indications of the country's ambivalent mood toward the outside world at a crucial moment in its postwar history:
At Girokaster, Hoxha's birthplace, a huge sign dominates the main square. In big red letters it proclaims: "Albania is not isolated and can never be isolated."
In a carpet factory in southern Albania, workers are entertained not with piped music but with readings from Hoxha's latest political tract, "The Kruschevites." Couched in his customary invective, it is designed to prove that all other "communist" states are revisionist and that Albania is the sole genuine Marxist-Leninist country in the world.
The curator of a museum devoted to Scanderbeg, Albania's national hero who fought persistently against the Turks in the 15th century, complains bitterly about the Chinese. "They promised us a lot, but left us in a mess," he grumbles, referring to the collapse two years ago of Albania's lopsided "eternal alliance" with China.
On a hill above Tirana, the Albanian capital, a suitably grandiose burial place has been reserved for Hoxha in "the martyrs' graveyard." Dominated by an ugly 50-foot statue of an Albanian resistance fighter, the site is a reminder that the world's sole surviving Stalinist ruler is 72 and in poor health.
Since its break with China, Albania has turned to Western Europe and its neighbor Yugoslavia for badly needed machinery and technological expertise. Trade, cultural and sporting contacts have expanded enormously.
Several years ago, Chinese experts were to be seen all over Albania. During my visit, I met hard-nosed Scandinavian businessmen, Yugoslav folksingers and soccer players, French diplomats and a family of ethnic Albanians from Hartford, Conn., who had come in search of their roots. But not a single Chinese.
Nevertheless, there are strict limits to this opening up. Albanians are not allowed to travel abroad except as members of an official delegation. Diplomatic relations with both the United States and the Soviet Union -- both classified by Tirana as "imperialist superpowers" -- have been ruled out. And part from the occasional ethnic Albanian, no U.S. citizen may enter the country.
Neither are journalists. As a British citizen, I was able to enter Albania only by describing myself as an economist (my university qualification) and joining a tour group. We were able to travel extensively, but were accompanied throughout by tourist guides and taciturn young men whom we assumed were secret police. We were the only tourists in Albania at the time.
Albania is like no other nation in Europe. The visitor is struck immediately by the fact that the countryside is covered by row after row of concrete pillboxes. Built over the last five years, these form the mainstay of Albania's defense fortifications. Officials claim that the entire population of 2.6 million can be mobilized within a couple of hours.
Whether the pillboxes would hold up a determined invader for long is dubious. They have certainly helped create a fortress mentality among the population, which has been taught to expect an attack at any moment. A favorite government slogan is, "We Albanians must fight with a rifle in one hand and a pickax in the other."
One of the prinicples enshrined in its constitution is that Albania will not accept financial credits from capitalist or revisionist Marxist countries. nThis means that, since the break with China, virtually all foreign trade is on a barter basis. Although the Albanians desperately need Western machinery, they insist on paying for it with merchandise or other materials.
At Tirana's Hotel Dajti, Western businessmen sit around discussing what they can take in return. The possibilities are limited: carpets, textiles, furniture or chrome ore. Most settle for the chrome, but complain about its quality.
"The last shipment we got was excellent for filling up roads with," commented a Swedish businessman.
Some Westerners in Tirana, echoing the complaints of the Chinese before them, say the Albanians lack the technical knowledge to use the new machinery properly. A Danish expert helping install a margarine plant grumbled that because the Albanians refused to appreciate the need for a regrigeration system, all the margarine was rapidly going bad.
According to Western estimates, the Chinese provided Albania with around $800 million in exonomic assistance during the 17-year alliance. Western experts with knowledge of the Albanian economy believe that the sudden departure of the Chinese, leaving many projects unfinished, set back the country's development plans by a couple of years.
Particularly badly hit was a fully integrated steel mill -- the pride of the Albanian economy -- under construction in the central town of Elbasan. West German and Italian experts have now been called in to sort out the problems.
The Chinese influence is still discernible. It is evident in police and Army uniforms, with their flat caps and red insignia; in the Chinese-made jeeps and tractors, and above all in the government's slogans. Hoxha greatly admired the Cultural Revolution -- now officially discredited in Peking -- and has attempted to use the same combination of mass enthusiasm and terror to mobilize his own people.
Education is based on the principle of "the revolutionary triangle," with students required to devote several months each year to physical labor and military service in addition to their academic work. The Albanian rail network, soon to be extended into Yugoslavia, has been built almost entirely by 150,000 student "volunteers."