Albania Trades Leninism for Pleasure Principle

TIRANA, Albania -- Lenin was ousted by a neon-lit gambling arcade and Stalin displaced by a glitzy cafe.

Albania has thrown off 45 gray years of rigid communist rule with a vengeance and is embracing the free market with more enthusiasm than other young democracies in the Balkans.

Bronze statues of Lenin and Stalin who stood opposite each other like guardians of the creed across Tirana's main Deshmoret e Kombit, or Martyrs of the Nation, boulevard were hauled down in 1991, just months after communism fell.

Now, in their place, crop-haired youths clad in baggy plaid shirts and denim jeans hang out at the Kumanova cafe guzzling Coca-Cola while their friends shuffle into the Admiral arcade across the road to try their luck at the slot machines.

Foreign drinks and gambling were banned by "The Great Teacher," the "affectionate" name given to Albania's postwar Stalinist strongman Enver Hoxha.

A huge stone figure of Hoxha was also wrenched from its pedestal in the main Skanderbeg Square. Whoops and screams no longer come from the party faithful but from children enjoying fun fair rides on the very spot where it stood.

The capital, Tirana, is where it's at. The city, home to 300,000 people, is noisy, bustling and brash.

The days of queuing outside monochrome shops selling shoddy Chinese-made goods or sitting over a raki, or local brandy, and thin coffee in one of the few dimly-lit cafes are over.

Kiosk and stall owners sell a range of goods from live chickens to second-hand television sets. Bicycles crowd the streets. Spruce shops containing pricey Western-made consumer goods rub shoulders with new marble-fronted offices, such as branches of foreign banks, the licenses for which Albania's conservative government appears only too happy to issue.

In a pro-Western drive, President Sali Berisha opened Albania's first stock exchange last week, a month before the country's third free elections May 26. Downtown, the central bazaar spills over with a cornucopia of fruit and vegetables, olives, sacks of paprika, lentils and beans in a riot of color.

Nearly 3,000 privately-owned bars and restaurants have opened since 1991. Some are modest, others, boasting awnings and terraces, could grace any European capital.

At rush hour, the city center can become clogged with traffic in a country where six years ago owning a car was a pipe-dream or a privilege of the communist elite.

But a visitor who confines a foray to the main streets will leave the city with the wrong impression.

A look beyond reveals that by European standards Albania is still very poor. Meters away from the Opera House, a baby, no more than 1 year old, shrieks pitifully in a cardboard box lying in the scorching sun.

Passersby drop money in the box while its mother looks on from across the street.

Expectations have risen, making life more of a struggle for those who can look but cannot afford the goods on offer. Eriketa, a mother of two strolling in the shadow of Tirana's 100-year-old stone mosque, said the biggest change had been the taste of freedom and new contacts with the outside world.

"We now have lots of new shops and an open way of life but things are getting very expensive. Life on the salary of a civil servant is very hard," she said, with her Italian sunglasses propped on her stylishly-coiffured hair.

Even in the capital, life is still difficult.

Power is now more reliable but running water is only available three times a day for two hours at time. The average wage is $60 a month, but in Tirana the figure is artificial as thousands supplement their income by working in the black economy.

They have to if they want to buy sports shoes at $25, Turkish-made Levi jeans at $27, a British washing machine at $650 or a Japanese color television at $1,260.

The enterprise culture is alive outside Tirana. Ironically, some of the 300,000 concrete, igloo-like bunkers, testimony to Hoxha's isolationist paranoia, are being turned to profit.

In Durres on the Adriatic coast, 40 kilometers west of Tirana, three large bunkers on the beach are now restaurants -- the gun emplacement making an ideal site for the kitchen. One even has a terrace built on top, shaded by a canopy of terracota roof tiles and hanging baskets of flowers.

But travel for just 10 minutes in any direction outside Tirana on the narrow roads, rutted with potholes, and the contrasts with the capital are stark.

Traffic becomes sparser and cars give way to carts pulled by horses or oxen with many of their younger drivers standing astride their charges as if leading a chariot race.

Hold-ups are more likely to be caused by drowsy donkeys sitting in the road or flocks of sheep shepherded by weather-beaten youngsters as young as 10 years old.

"The government would like the children to go to school but the families are too poor. You have to grow up quickly in the countryside here," one local said.

Most countryfolk walk or hitch, among them young conscripts incongruously dressed in green Chinese-style uniforms with peaked caps, first supplied by the Red Army after Hoxha befriended Beijing in 1961 after falling out with the Kremlin.

There is also a downside to Albania's free market. In the small town of Lac, 45 kilometers north of Tirana, hundreds were laid off when the grimy Chinese-built phosphate factory closed most of its operation.

Just after breakfast, scores of jobless men crowd outside Albania's latest craze -- the bingo hall. While they spend their time hoping to win the big one, their women, swathed in long skirts, scarves and shawls scurry around carrying firewood on their backs or tending animals in the fields.

One trend, however, has permeated both town and country -- the satellite dish. One setting sums up modern Albania -- the almost-Biblical sight of a woman draped in a long dress and white head-wrap sitting on a hillock spinning wool by hand.

Behind her in the distance, a satellite dish propped on a peasant's cottage.