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Albania Stuck in Poverty--and the Past


TIRANA, Albania — On the road to the capital, farmers carry hoes and herd flocks of goats and sheep. A horse-drawn plow slices the red clay. Carts are dragged by horses, donkeys and oxen.

There are few cars or trucks, and virtually all of them are government-owned. Albanians walk so much, almost no one gets fat.

In smaller cities some of the streets are cobblestone, and at night it's nearly silent. There are no cars, no planes overhead, no sounds of horns, radios or stereos. Street lamps are about 100 yards apart, the bulbs no stronger than a pocket flashlight, and it's possible to hear the whoosh of an occasional bicycle.

To come to Albania is to step back into the 19th Century and into the most longstanding poverty on the European Continent. Albania is the last of the rigid Stalinist governments, but whether the leadership will stay in control is anything but certain. In the past two weeks, about 5,000 Albanians have vaulted over the fences at foreign embassies in Tirana, and the government has allowed the first wave of refugees to leave the country under diplomatic escort.

Even if Albanian President Ramiz Alia's regime survives, he will face the twin worries of mushrooming political dissent and the task of modernizing his creaking Communist economy.

Many Albanians who left said they had wanted to escape not only political repression but also grinding poverty. After 10,000 pro-democracy demonstrators filled Tirana's streets recently, four government ministers in charge of food, light industry, internal trade and public services were sacked, apparently in hopes of speeding up Alia's economic reforms.

Albania was the poorest country in Europe when Enver Hoxha and his Communist rebels chased Nazi occupiers out in 1944. Under Hoxha's dictatorship (he died in 1985), and his protege Alia, the country has been wrenched into better times. No one is starving, but Albania is still Europe's poorest nation, and there isn't enough meat, cheese or fruit to go around.

The sweep of other revolutions in Europe has upset Albania's old bartering system with its East Bloc neighbors. Now those countries are gearing up for free-market trade and want hard currencies, not Albanian leks. "That puts Albania in absolute economic isolation," said a Western diplomat posted in Tirana. "Albania needs several billion dollars to revitalize their factories. You cannot pay for that in cucumbers and tomatoes."

To try to build up Albania's exports to generate hard currency, Alia has even pushed through some capitalist-style worker incentives. But overhauling the lagging economy is a huge task, and the backwardness is visible in the streets. In Tirana, there are only a few stoplights, and the handful of cars and trucks--too few to provide more than essential transport--are all imports, snapshots of Hoxha's xenophobic policies.

There are Soviet Volgas dating back to Moscow's economic aid of the 1950s; green Chinese jeeps from the 1960s, when Hoxha turned to China after cutting off the Soviets; and newer Zugs from Poland, Aros from Romania, Skodas from Czechoslovakia and IFAs from East Germany, all imported after Albania's alliance with the Chinese fell apart.

Distrustful of outsiders, repressive against their own people, Hoxha and Alia made progress, nevertheless, in some important areas. Under their regimes, life expectancy nearly doubled, they virtually wiped out illiteracy, founded the first university, and built the first railroad and the first television stations. They constructed factories, excavated medieval castles, built museums.

The Communists set up hydroelectric stations, and even during a recent drought, 75% of their electricity came from river water. Marshes were drained, arable land has nearly doubled, and hillsides and mountains are carved with rows of trees and plants. Farmers grow tomatoes, corn, olives, cherries, sugar beets, tobacco, hops.

It's still not enough. Albania's population has tripled since World War II, and the nature of the land itself makes farming difficult; three-quarters of the country is hills and mountains. Getting produce to market is hard on the narrow, winding, unlit roads. The drive from Tirana to Korce in the east--75 miles as the birds fly--takes four hours.

"Fifty years ago we came out of the darkness," said Bashkim Pitarka, Albania's ambassador to the United Nations. "We had illiteracy, hunger, disease. We began almost from scratch. You cannot compare us to your country."

A married couple and their two school-age children live in a four-story apartment house in Tirana. The grounds have no grass or trees--only rocks, broken concrete, dirt and weeds. There is no light in the stairwell. The sharp smell of kerosene for cooking fills the hallways.

The building is identical to many others except for the number painted next to a white letter P . The P is for pallati , or palace. An American would call this palace low-income housing.

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