TIRANA, Albania — It was nearly midnight, and rain fell as an Albanian stood under an umbrella and talked to a stranger, an American, about forbidden things. All at once, he stopped.
"Policia!" he whispered. Then he turned and walked off.
Two policemen strode past and caught up with him, escorting him into the shadows of an alley.
A few days later, by chance, he saw the American again. The police had held him for more than an hour, he said. But he had been lucky: They only slapped him in the face a few times before letting him go.
He was not an obvious dissident, but the dissidents who do walk Tirana's streets at night are more careful. They avoid the two foreign tourist hotels where the police keep watch. And in their tiny apartments, when they talk about their hatred for the government, they first close their windows.
This is a nation still caught in the icy grip of Stalinism. It is a country whose Communist regime has been softened hardly at all by the thaw in repression across the rest of Eastern Europe.
There have been a few changes this year: For the first time, Albanians can telephone outside the country, and those wishing to visit other nations can do so, the government says. But it is still hard for outsiders to come here. Albania, which has 3.3 million people, allowed in only about 14,000 foreigners last year. Of that total, probably no more than 1,000 were Americans, and nearly all those had relatives to see.
The government talks about change, but there is still suspicion in the streets. The countryside remains dotted with cement bunkers shaped like mushroom caps, with moss and grass growing over them as camouflage--mementos from the 1960s, when Albania feared a Soviet invasion.
Albania wants to resume diplomatic relations with the United States and with the Soviet Union. After years of antagonism toward both, what the Tirana regime now wants is money. Soviet buyers, a Western diplomat says, might sop up some low-quality Albanian goods, and the Americans might offer economic aid.
Albania is the poorest country in Europe, with a per capita income of $930 a year, and life here is a daily battle of coping with shortages. Only a few of the shops with \o7 Mish \f7 over the door have meat for sale. The meat is delivered frozen, packed in boxes and stacked on the floor. Some stores have frozen chickens, some have nothing.
At the \o7 Fruta \f7 shops, there are vegetables, but the only fruit is inside the jars of marmalade. At kerosene shops, dozens stand in line with cans and plastic bottles to buy gas for their tiny cooking stoves.
Cut off even from its onetime close ally China, which it denounced for its rapprochement with the United States, Albania has courted West Germany, France, Italy, Greece, Austria and Scandinavia, with only some success.
For all the light that has crept into the dark corners of Europe, Albania remains a shadowy part of the world--particularly to its dissident minority, hoping for a miracle.
The dissidents worry every day about the internal security police, called the Sigurimi. One Western diplomat says there are 40,000 Sigurimi in Albania, which proportionally makes them one of Europe's largest secret police forces. Dressed in suits, the Sigurimi guard some of the government buildings, but they also keep all of Albanian society under steely, one-party control. The man who got his face slapped was not the only wary Albanian to try to hide a conversation.
One evening a few days later, three men, all in their 30s, stepped in front of the American stranger. None knew he happened to be a reporter.
One spoke in English:
"I have an important letter about the human rights abuses in Albania. Can you mail this to a newspaper when you get back to America?"
The three were delighted to find a reporter. They walked past a statue of Stalin where the Albanians said a bomb had exploded one night a few months earlier. The statue wasn't damaged, but the English speaker made a karate-chop motion to indicate that eventually it must go.
The speaker, an Albanian factory worker, looked over his shoulder before handing his letter to the American. He kept talking.
"In the next two years, the people will attack the government," he said, "and (will) stand up as a solidarity, like in Romania."
This country's history has long been one of domination by others. For nearly 500 years the Turks ruled what is now Albania, except for a short time in the 15th Century, when an Albanian warrior named Skanderbeg pushed out the Turks by fighting from mountainside castles.
Iron-fisted control has been exercised from the inside by fellow Albanians, ever since a group of Communist rebels led by Enver Hoxha chased the Nazis out of Albania in 1944. A strict admirer of Stalin, Hoxha was Albania's dictator until his death in 1985, when Ramiz Alia, Hoxha's protege, took control.
"The people do not have guns, only their hands," the secretive Albanian said. Then he zipped his fist across his mouth for silence.