U.S. Gives Albania’s Democrats a Helping Hand : Election: Americans, convinced Communist rule will hinder reforms, put their weight behind the opposition.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two spanking-new Jeep Cherokees parked outside the crumbling headquarters of the Democratic Party speak louder than any campaign speech about the American preference in Albania’s approaching election.

The vehicles were donated by American political activists who are making no secret of which party they believe can best arrest the country’s slide into devastation.

Albanians were largely left to decide their own political affairs last spring, when the last of Eastern Europe’s Stalinist dominoes toppled and a multi-party election was held for the first time.

The Communists easily won that election, but poverty and lawlessness have since mired the tiny Balkan country in chaos. The government fell in December, forcing a new election, set for March 22.

Convinced that continued rule by the Communists will deter crucial economic reforms, U.S. political strategists and diplomats are making their choice clear. Americans are accompanying Democratic Party candidates on their stumping tours and getting out the message that if the Communists win again, there will be no U.S. aid to ease Albania’s suffering.

“Quite frankly, with the limited amounts of aid to go around and the great interest in the former Soviet republics, if Albania votes for socialism in this election, a lot of Western investors and governments are going to direct their aid elsewhere,” said a U.S. diplomat in Tirana.

The rules of diplomacy dictate that envoys remain neutral in domestic affairs of the countries to which they are assigned. But with unmasked determination to oust one of Europe’s last ruling Communist parties--now called the Albanian Socialist Party--the Americans contend that they have a moral obligation to take sides.

“We’re trying to show people that we’re in favor of the changes and the policies of the opposition, and not of the Socialists,” said the U.S. envoy. “People tell us that, if the embassy remains neutral, that this favors the Socialists. We will remain neutral but, by our presence, show our support for the opposition.”

U.S. Ambassador William Rierson and his deputy, Christopher Hill, have appeared at Democratic Party campaign rallies in recent weeks and have said they will continue to do so.

The diplomats do not address the crowds who gather to hear opposition candidates, but they have fielded questions from Albanian voters inquiring about the prospects for U.S. aid.

Albanian Television quoted Rierson as saying at an early February rally in Korca that U.S. assistance would be cut off in the event of a Socialist victory. That prompted a Socialist protest alleging “illegitimate support” of the opposition.

State Department deputy spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters in Washington that there had been no impropriety in the campaign appearances, saying the diplomats’ presence at the rallies was to observe that the campaign is fair. “That’s what we do throughout the world,” Boucher said.

Democratic Party leaders say that the Socialists’ complaints have only intensified the helpful effects of U.S. favor because of the huge enthusiasm for anything American in the desperate Balkan country.

“They (the Socialists) don’t realize that this is the way of isolation . . . that resenting America is turning the people away from them,” said Sali Berisha, a 47-year-old cardiologist who heads the Democratic Party and is expected to become president if his party wins.

Berisha said that the Jeep Cherokees and other vehicles were gifts from the Washington-based National Republican Institute for International Affairs and that its U.S. Democratic Party counterpart is helping with technical advice on how to woo voters and draft reform legislation.

Socialist candidates have access to a fleet of vehicles because their party remains nominally in power, whereas few in the opposition have cars, which are neither produced nor imported in Albania. There are also reported inequities in the supplies of newsprint, gasoline and other materials needed for the campaign, all of which are woefully lacking in the impoverished country.

“We have received some aid and we are very grateful,” said Berisha, who claims that voter sentiments in the countryside have broadly turned toward the Democrats and that U.S. backing has been influential.

American political strategists have likely been encouraged to take a more visible role in Albania’s election because of their success in helping the non-Communist opposition in Bulgaria oust a strong Socialist Party last year in a similar effort.

But Albanians are more sharply divided and more prone to resort to violence than the placid, long-suffering Bulgarians. If Albanians in Socialist strongholds in the countryside are induced to vote for the Democrats by the lure of U.S. help, they could react angrily if their hunger and misery are not quickly relieved.

Democratic Party officials say they are aware of the risks of creating unrealistic expectations of a U.S. bailout. The Americans have made few firm promises of what will be forthcoming if the opposition wins. “We are telling people that we don’t have a golden key to change things overnight by command,” said Berisha.

Socialist politicians and supporters warn that Albanian voters will be spurred into angry outbursts if campaign promises are not fulfilled.

“The slogan of the Democratic Party is that ‘if we win, all the world will help, and if the Socialist Party wins, the world will abandon Albania.’ But this is not true,” said Sabaudin Kodra, a spokesman for the party that has ruled Albania for 47 years, until last year through brutal dictatorship.

Such suggestions by the Socialists that the West will help Albania in any case are the driving force behind the U.S. intervention on behalf of the Democrats.

“The Socialists have been saying, ‘It doesn’t matter who wins; Western investors and Western governments are very comfortable with us and will do business with us after the election,’ ” the American diplomat said. “We want to make clear that is not the case, that they have no basis for making these statements.”

The envoy noted that there have been no firm promises of assistance, even in the case of a Democratic Party triumph. “With the terrible economic situation at home and the needs of the former Soviet Union, I’m not sure what kind of assistance will be forthcoming,” he said.

What the Americans have said is that Western investors will feel more confident putting their money and expertise to work in a democratic country, and that foreign investment to create jobs and industry is the path to economic recovery in Albania.

“People have naive ideas about aid,” said Genc Rulli, an economist and Democratic Party candidate who served as finance minister during a brief attempt at coalition rule last year. “There are very high expectations (of aid after the election.) People may be disappointed with the reality.

“But one thing is sure,” Rulli concluded. “No one will help us if the Socialists win.”

Carol Williams, Times’ bureau chief in Vienna, recently visited Tirana.