Even before Mikhail Gorbachev tried to introduce reforms into the Soviet Union, tiny Albania was a more hard-line communist state than the Soviets had known for some years. It resembled the worst of Stalinism. Until recently, there was a Stalin City in the country.

If even Albania can shake off its harsh repression, there's hope for people in China and other dictatorships, too. Consequently, much of the world has reason to watch current reform efforts in Albania. But it won't be easy to uproot an impulse to stifle individual initiative and freedom that runs as deep as it does in Albania.Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha came to power in the late days of World War II and ruled with utter ruthlessness, secret police and all. He was a loyal disciple of Stalin right up to his death in 1985. He kept Albania locked away from the rest of the world. After he died, his widow remained a powerful political figure and communists continued to rule the tiny, mountainous nation.

When the winds of freedom toppled communists regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990, Albania was shaken. Communists kept control, although they removed Hoxha's widow from power and tried to placate an increasingly restless population with some reforms. Political parties were allowed after riots broke out last December.

In January, more protest forced the government to get rid of the name Stalin City. It hasn't been enough. Riots erupted again in several Albanian cities this week and crowds toppled and smashed statues of Hoxha. People who had defaced monuments to Hoxha last December were arrested and given prison sentences up to 20 years. This time, police and soldiers made little attempt to interfere.

A free election is scheduled March 31 and some small-scale private enterprise has been allowed. Despite the changes, economic chaos threatens and many Albanians are trying to get out of the country. Borders remain closed.

If the elections next month are truly free, the last and harshest communist state in the old East bloc may fade into history. Its passing will not be mourned.