Albania Tackles Reform, amid Fears of Famine Economic Crisis Threatens Bid to Break out of Isolation and Poverty

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ALBANIA, in the heart of Europe, may be on the edge of a severe hunger crisis and may soon run out of foreign aid.

For some time Tirana, the capital, with a population of 200,000 people, has had no milk.

"I waited five hours," says Eqerem Mete, who got out of bed at 1 a.m. to buy milk. "And milk arrived - but only for families with children and old, sick folk - a liter per family."

There was the same chronic shortage of eggs and meat, even on the expensive free market. Most families in Tirana are lucky to eat meat once a week.

There is never enough flour or cooking oil. The biggest food store has only a few cans of fish or dried goods on the shelves.

The markets lack even seasonal native fruit and vegetables. There are few chickens, no olives, no lemons - the list of "no is endless. There is a constant shortage of bread, and in mid-July only a week's supply of grain remained in the country, officials said.

Prime Minister Ylli Bufi says the economy is perilously close to collapse. And collapse, he adds quietly, will mean "a complete social crisis" unless outside nations help - and do so quickly. "To the end of the year we need a minimum of $200 million in imported food. At this moment we have $50 million," Mr. Bufi says.

Promises of emergency, humanitarian aid for Albania, one of Europe's smallest and poorest countries, have come from Italy, Greece, and other West Europeans, and the United States, but little has begun to flow.

Yet Albania seems to be tackling the formidable problems of radical economic reform as boldly as any of the former Communist states in Eastern Europe.

When US Secretary of State James Baker III visited Albania in June, he told Bufi: "It will be easier for America to help your country economically when Albania adheres to (the rules of) the various international financial organizations such as the Group of 24, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank."

But that, says Bufi, is precisely what Albania is trying to do. "In August, we expect to be admitted to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. In September, we may join the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and then the World Bank," he says. "But so far, we have not found concrete help in this from the European countries."

As a full-fledged member of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the government recently pardoned its last political prisoners, and allowed greater religious freedoms to meet in full the human-rights requirements of the Helsinki agreement.

After being in control for 45 years, the communists have been forced to share power. They have abandoned the pretense to a "leading role," and with it, most of their Marxist-Leninist doctrine.

Under the new Constitution due to be adopted this year, Albania will cease to be a socialist or "people state, created in the Stalinist mold by Enver Hoxha in 1946, and become a republic with a constitutional commitment to multiparty democracy. Foreign policy and the judiciary have been depoliticized.

The first step means normal relations with the West, including the US, as well as Albania's first-ever relations with the Vatican. …