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Changing Lifestyles : Let the Driver Beware on Albanian Roads : Banned by the Communists, privately owned cars are now the ultimate status symbols. Unfortunately, few people know how to drive them.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the poorest country in Europe, there sure are a lot of Mercedes-Benzes here. They glide down the dirt-encrusted streets, nosing aside donkey carts and scattering pedestrians who leap for high ground like spry Albanian goats.

It wasn’t always so. Private cars were banned under the long, brutal, Stalinist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, who shut his country off from the rest of the world and believed that all good Albanians should walk or take public transport. For the lucky ones, there were also bicycles.

It wasn’t until 1991, when Communist rule collapsed, that privately owned cars--many of them dented and smoke-belching Benzes--began appearing on Tirana’s wide, tree-lined avenues. They since have become the ultimate consumer icon for an impoverished nation of 3.2 million people who are starved for Western goods.

From only 5,300 cars in Communist times, the number of private cars soared to 120,000 by the end of 1993, with thousands more imported each month, according to the Ministry of Public Order.

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And therein lies a problem.

Roads built more than 60 years ago are inadequate for today’s traffic. Drivers lack basic skills. They speed recklessly along roads clogged with peasants, cows, carts, tractors and Russian-made Stalin trucks from the 1950s. Many drive without lights at night to spare their batteries. And pedestrians--who grew up on empty streets--possess none of the survival instincts that are second nature to urban dwellers elsewhere.

For many Albanians, this has proved fatal. In the first nine months of 1993, there were 300 deaths because of auto accidents and 111 injuries, the Ministry of Public Order reported. It recorded 563 accidents, but that figure is believed to be low.

The anarchy on the roads is an apt metaphor for Albania today, as two generations of totalitarian control and repression give way to chaos. The disintegrating highway system also creates a concrete impediment to trade and tourism.

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Conditions are so bad that many taxis refuse to use the steep coastal road, which offers breathtaking vistas of the unspoiled Adriatic coastline. At least two-thirds of the 85-mile-long Albanian road, which runs east-to-west from the Macedonian border to the Adriatic port of Durres, is potholed, narrow, mountainous or unpaved. Millions of dollars are needed to realize the first leg of a wider Balkan dream to rebuild the ancient Via Egnatia of the Roman Empire, a corridor from the Adriatic to the Black Sea.

“It’s absolutely necessary that Albania put priority on reconstructing roads,” said Nasi Lesku, director of the Albanian-American Trade Assn. “They can’t hope to get tourists or trade otherwise.”

After declining by 40% to 50% in 1991 and 1992, the Albanian economy grew by 11% in 1993, the International Monetary Fund says. But at least 60% of Albanians are unemployed. Most of the country’s factories are abandoned steel skeletons.

Running water is only a memory for most in Tirana, and power outages are common. Albania survives on international aid and the $350 million in remittance payments from its citizens working abroad.

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In such an environment, sliding inside a car and punching the accelerator offers Albanians a visceral surge of power, one that can be lethal to those in the way.

“We Albanians like big cars, luxury cars,” says Rafael Feogi, who works for the Albanian Telegraphic Agency. “But we have no habit of driving because there’s no history of cars in Albania, and the streets are narrow.

“They’re from the time of King Zog,” Feogi adds, referring to the country’s onetime monarch, who fled Albania in 1939 as the Italians marched into his country.

Carmelo Campillo, a visiting Madrid businessman who carries plastic containers of gasoline in his sport utility vehicle because he never knows whether he will be able to find fuel, puts it more bluntly, saying: “Albanians are the worst drivers in the world.”

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It is common in all Albanian cities to see cars barreling the wrong way down one-ways, speeding along the sidewalk or literally cutting corners. In the countryside, farmers get around on their government-provided tractors, which have no lights and chug along at 5 to 8 m.p.h., says Lesku.

To make matters worse, Tirana, a capital city of 300,000, has only a dozen traffic lights; they are often on the blink because of sporadic power outages.

A Western diplomat last fall explained that Tirana was safer than most U.S. cities because the occasional robbers rarely hurt people who surrender their wallets.

“However, there is another kind of Albanian who does pose a grave threat to your life and limb,” the diplomat continued, “and that is the Albanian behind the wheel of a car.”

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Last fall, an Albanian secretary for the Peace Corps was hit and killed by a car as she stood on the sidewalk between the Tirana Hotel and the National Museum. An American lawyer doing consulting work for Albania’s Ministry of Labor was run over and killed by a motorcycle in Tirana last May. A clerical worker with the U.S. Information Office had her leg amputated at the hip last year after being hit by a car as she walked along the seafront in Sarande in southern Albania.

By law, Albanians who want a license must prove they have graduated from driving school, which costs about $100--more than twice the average monthly wage. Thirty-five such schools have sprung up to meet the demand, and it is not unusual to see 50-year-old men squeezed into wheezing Fiats, hands gripped tightly around the wheel, attempting a tricky mountain curve as their instructor gesticulates wildly.

But in a country where corruption is endemic, residents say it is equally common to bribe the school for a certificate of completion. Bribery is also a way of life on highways, where buses and cars are subjected to an Albanian mordida from police officers who set up roadblocks and charge from $5 to $50.

Women drivers are still rare sights in this male-dominated society, where even those women who work go directly home when their shift ends.

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Today, Albanians in villages still gape when a Western vehicle whizzes by. Some line up at the side of the road and wave. Sometimes, children beg or throw rocks.

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The anger and awe revolve around the knowledge that cars remain beyond the reach of most people, since the average Albanian makes about $29 per month, according to state statistics.

Despite the grim realities of life today, a recent poll by Eurobarometer found that 46% of Albanians believe that the economy has improved. The International Monetary Fund says there are now 50,000 private shops in Albania--many tiny kiosks plunked down on Tirana’s sidewalks. The IMF and the World Bank recently approved loans to Albania totaling $79 million.

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Albania’s thriving merchant class--including black marketeers--shop at Benetton’s Tirana and carry cellular phones into the fancy restaurants that are sprouting throughout the capital. They favor new Mercedes-Benzes and American-style four-wheel-drives.

There is one Corvette in Tirana, famous for its New Jersey license plates, and people drop what they are doing to watch the muscle car power down the dusty streets. Others must settle for more anonymous models, stolen in Western Europe and sold here for as little as $3,000. Many more are dumped on the Albanian market because they do not meet strict emission standards enforced in the West.

Albania even has its own Autogate scandal, in which government ministries were discovered to have spent more than $1 million of credit from the World Bank to buy cars for official institutions.

Meanwhile, Albania struggles under a foreign debt of more than $600 million.

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