VIENNA, JULY 22 -- The thousands of Albanians evacuated from embassies in Tirana nine days ago left behind them a question that remains unanswered: How long can Albania stay an island of Stalinism in a sea of democratic change?

The refugee crisis, in which 4,000 Albanians seeking asylum flocked to embassies and were evacuated to Italy, France, Greece and West Germany, invited inevitable comparisons to last year's exodus from East Germany, which dealt the fatal blow to that nation's Communist government.

But while the political effects of the Albanian refugee crisis are still being played out, few observers believe that a second or even a third wave of refugees could bring about the collapse of Albanian communism.

"It won't be as easy as in the other countries," said one longtime analyst of Albanian affairs. "In East Germany, they had West Germany to turn to. In Czechoslovakia, you had {Vaclav} Havel to replace Czechoslovak Communists. In Albania, who is there to replace Albanian communism?"

Despite recent tentative attempts by President Ramiz Alia to ease his nation's historic isolation, Albanian society is almost as rigidly controlled as in the coldest days of the Cold War.

The affairs of the Communist leadership are still so shrouded in secrecy that veteran Albania watchers cannot be sure whether the recent shuffle of the ruling Politburo was a victory for so-called "reformists" around Alia or the hard-liners who oppose him. The only thing outside observers seem to agree on is that there will be increasing discontent in Albania in the months ahead.

Albania has the youngest population in Europe -- half the population is under age 30 -- and the lowest average annual income, and unemployment is on the rise. Young Albanians are better educated than their parents and, through Western radio, are well informed about the democratic revolutions in the rest of Eastern Europe. There have been protest demonstrations in a half-dozen cities in the last six months as Albanians have become tired of the struggle in the last Stalinist outpost in Europe.

Attempts by the Communist leadership to dilute the discontent with cautious reforms appear to have backfired. A relaxation of police control and new freedom to criticize the government in private conversation seem to have made Albanians more restive, not less.

Whether the party can continue to control the pace of change is not known. But with four decades of repressive one-party rule and a long history of foreign occupation before that, Albania remains the East European country least equipped for a transition to multi-party democracy.

Mountainous and predominantly rural, Albania also is Europe's most poorly developed country. Although Albanians claim with pride their descent from the ancient Illyrians, their subsequent history of almost ceaseless foreign invasion and domination has left them well behind the rest of Europe in political and industrial development and with a keenly xenophobic view of peoples around them.

Today, Albania is a poor relation even to its Balkan neighbors, Bulgaria and Romania. More than half of the working population is employed at manual farm labor, and the Communist regime has long avoided mechanizing agriculture because it has no new jobs to offer those field hands who would be put out of work.

Political life before and since the ascendancy of the Communist Party, called the Albanian Party of Labor, has been tinged by ancient clan loyalties. Longtime dictator and party founder Enver Hoxha packed his governing Central Committee with relatives and clan members beholden to him. Blood feuds are still a part of political life, and centuries of foreign occupation -- most notably by the Ottoman Turks -- encouraged the habit of secrecy, often accompanied by bribery and corruption.

Albania gained independence from the Ottoman Turks in 1912 after nearly 450 years of subjugation, and there followed a few years of tenuous local sovereignty and a monarchy under king Zog from 1928 to 1939, when fascist Italy invaded.

The country has such scant experience with democratic ways that some historians regard the Communist Party, founded during World War II by Hoxha and other anti-fascist guerrilla fighters, as Albania's first genuine political grouping.

Hoxha held the party and the country together from 1944, when the Communists asserted national rule, until his death in 1985, using prison terms and murder to crush his opponents. His foreign policy of fierce isolationism in the name of independence was equally extreme.

Before this year, any criticism of the regime, even in private, was regarded as an act of violence against the state and was punishable by a jail sentence. So too was any attempt at religious worship in the officially atheist state, or even the display of a crucifix. The secret police, or Sigurimi, monitored every aspect of life, and at one time the country was said to hold as many as 35,000 political prisoners.

Under such conditions, Albania failed to develop anything resembling a viable political opposition. Unlike Poland, East Germany or Czechoslovakia, all of which had well-established, if circumspect, anti-Communist political groups, Albania has no independent group of workers, intellectuals or human-rights advocates to challenge government policy.

This year, several prominent artists and academics, including well-known writer Ismael Kadare, have begun to publish carefully worded criticism of the regime in government newspapers. But it is not clear that any of those figures would be able to lead a genuine opposition movement, even if they chose to. Young Albanian refugees arriving in Prague this month scoffed at the mention of Kadare's name, saying he once had dedicated books to the regime.

As in Romania and Bulgaria, most of the country's administrators and technocrats are members of the Communist Party, and at present, such pressure as there is for reform is limited to party members allied with President Alia. Alia, a Hoxha protege, has spoken of the need for reform since taking office five years ago. He has worked to mitigate the country's isolation, reestablishing ties with a dozen Western nations. This year, he startled Albania watchers by announcing that the country would seek diplomatic relations with the United States and the Soviet Union.

But it was only after the bloody revolution in Romania late last year that the pace of domestic reform accelerated. Alia continues to rule out any move to a multi-party system, and at least one Albania watcher, Nikolaos Stavrou of Washington's Howard University, considers that Alia is making only those reforms necessary to quiet public discontent without his having to surrender absolute power.

That strategy failed for Communist rulers in Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany as a trickle of change became a flood that swept them away. But it worked, to a degree, in the Balkans, where elections put former Communists in power in Bulgaria and Romania.

All that is clear for Albania so far is that the momentum of change, once begun, is difficult to control. Some of Alia's reforms are thought to have backfired or been undermined by hard-line factions within the party. His move to loosen the police grip has brought a wave of petty crime to Tirana. Bureaucratic delays in issuing the passports he promised to all citizens who wished to travel prompted a June 28 protest rally that led to the storming of foreign embassies by thousands of asylum seekers.

Even as the refugees were being evacuated, many more Albanians were said to be hiding in the forest darkness around Tirana, hoping their turn to get out would come, too.