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To the Moon by Rail

August 17, 1986

The governments of most small countries spend a hefty proportion of their time and energy complaining that the world doesn't pay them enough attention. Not so the Albanians, whose obsession with keeping the outside world at arm's length makes the Soviet Union look like a fishbowl society in comparison.

Imagine our surprise, then, at the announcement that Albania has opened its first railway link with the rest of Europe. Henceforth one train a day will run in each direction on a new 40-mile rail section connecting the Albanian town of Shkoder with Titograd, Yugoslavia.

An Albanian official, sipping a ceremonial goblet of local brandy, hastened to tell reporters that the trains won't carry passengers, only freight. But, he added, "Albania will continue to greet further steps such as this one in search of rapprochement" between Yugoslavia and Albania.

That's pretty heady stuff, considering.

Albanians have a long history of distaste for foreigners, and with reason. The small, mountainous country on the Adriatic has been occupied by Turks, Italians and Germans--among others. The Albanians also don't much like the Russians or the neighboring Yusoslavs--both of whom they have accused of meddling in their affairs. More recently they became disenchanted with the Chinese. And of course they can't find anybody in the West to like.

Thus Albania's post-World War II communist government broke with Belgrade in 1948, Moscow in 1961 and Peking in 1978. Over the years some hardy tourists and business entrepreneurs have made their way into Albania, where they have endured police surveillance of unbelievable intensity. For Westerners, the country has for practical purposes been as remote as the moon.

Lately the Albanians have cautiously expanded trade and cultural relations with some European countries. Now they have actually agreed to regular railway freight service with Yugoslavia, the neighbor whom they most love to hate. We're not sure what the moral is, unless it's reaffirmation of the old saw that no man--and no country--is an island. Not even xenophobic Albania.

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