As the communist nations of Eastern Europe fell like dominoes this past year, the tiny state of Albania resisted the sweep of democracy. But economic realities are shaking this last bastion of Stalin-like rule and signs of democracy are appearing.

Every other country in Europe, including the Soviet Union, now allows multiparty political activity. Now the indications are that Albania finally will follow suit - a move that surely will lead to defeat of hard-line communist rule as it has elsewhere.After several days of student protest, President Ramiz Alia fired five members of the ruling Politburo last week and promised to allow competing political parties. He described his country as being on the edge of economic disaster.

Under the rule of the late Enver Hoxha, the 3.1 million Albanians had been locked into decades of deep isolation and the harshest totalitarian rule of any communist country. Even the tightest control exercised by the Soviet Union did not match that practiced in Albania. The country severed ties with both the Kremlin and China. They were too "moderate" for Hoxha.

Hoxha died five years ago, but hard-liners, led by Hoxha's widow, have tried to maintain a totalitarian state, with varying success. Border controls were relaxed ever so slightly this year.

In the wake of changes in the East Bloc, students and other protesters clashed with police last summer and thousands of people took refuge in foreign embassies. They later were allowed to leave the country, probably on the theory that Albania would be getting rid of troublemakers.

Yet, as the latest riots show, the thirst for freedom runs deep. The government has threatened serious action if students don't return to classes. But it also promised political reform. Big losers in the Politburo shake-up were the hardliners. And political participation was promised for Feb. 10 "elections," although that may not allow enough time for opposition parties to be formed.

The lessons of the past year are clear. Totalitarian states can willingly throw open the doors to political freedom or be forced into it through bloody violence as happened in Romania. In many ways, Romania was more like Albania than its other Balkan neighbors.

For the sake of the long-suffering people of Albania, let's hope the government of that country has enough sense to take the peaceful way instead of the violent one. Either way, change and greater freedom are coming.