KUCOVA, Albania (AP) _ Oil workers in what once was Stalin City, a showpiece of communist industry, loiter in the shadows of nearly empty overhead pipelines that twist among dusty palm trees and crumbling apartment blocks.

Like many other state-run enterprises in this tiny Balkan nation, the Qyteti-Stalin refinery runs only sporadically for lack of supplies.

Whether the employees work or not, the communist government makes sure they are paid. It wants their support next month in the first free election since the party took over in 1944.

Officials acknowledge economic problems undermined public faith and led to strikes in January, but say stocks of food and raw materials are sufficient to last until the election March 31.

''The economic situation at present is very dangerous and that has been reflected in a crisis of belief,'' said Spiro Dede, a Central Committee secretary.

Thousands of Albanians released decades of pent-up wrath against communist rule on Wednesday, toppling huge statues of Enver Hoxha in Tirana, the capital; Durres on the Adriatic, and Korca in southeastern Albania. Hoxha, a Stalinist, founded communist Albania and ruled it with stern isolationism until his death in 1985.

After the disturbances Wednesday, President Ramiz Alia urged all political forces to ensure calm. He announced that he would take power into his own hands and form a new presidential council to govern.

It was too little, too late. An exchange of gunfire Friday at Tirana's military academy, apparently between anti-Communists outside and conservative officers inside, killed four people and wounded 80, official media said.

Josif Velo, a 29-year-old oil worker in Kucova, supports the new Democratic Party even though the government pays him for idleness.

Velo spends four to six weeks on the job three or four times a year. He has been at home since January, collecting 80 percent of his regular pay.

Only a few rigs and wells are operating in the jungle of rusting derricks around Kucova. The communists renamed the town for the Soviet dictator, but its original name was restored in January, after popular pressure forced the government to dismantle the Stalin personality cult.

Worn drill bits have hit rock in the oil fields. Deeper drilling depends on the arrival of Western money and technology.

Velo and his wife Mimoza, who teaches English, share a tiny two-room apartment with his mother and live on a combined monthly income of 1,200 lek, about $120.

Democratic Party support comes mainly from younger people in urban centers like Tirana; the port of Durres; Shkodra in the north, and Elbasan, a central city. Older people and villagers appear more likely to back the communists, whose official name is the Party of Labor.

About 65 percent of Albania's 3.2 million people live in rural areas, but the average age, 27, is Europe's lowest.

''My friends are very interested in the Democratic Party and very pleased about pluralism, but people are in doubt'' about the unknown experience of elections, Velo said.

The party was born after student protests in December caused President Ramiz Alia to reverse 46 years of Stalinist practice and legalize non- communist politics.

Three other opposition groups have been formed - the Republican, Peasant and Ecology parties - but the main contest for the 250-seat People's Assembly will be between the Democrats and Communists.

''Young people are for the Democrats,'' said Mimoza Velo. ''Our parents' generation will probably vote for the Party of Labor. They're still proud of Enver Hoxha and socialist Albania.''

''We love Enver; it was the Communist Party that started all the democratic reforms here,'' Luan Hajli, an elderly worker, said at a rally in Burrel, a town 35 miles northeast of Tirana.

Even some Democratic Party supporters praise Alia for allowing pluralism, freeing about 400 political prisoners and promising freer travel abroad. He also has legalized small-scale private enterprise.

Fruit, vegetables, meat and clothing imported from neighboring Yugoslavia or Italy are the most popular products under the blue-and-white striped canopies of Tirana's bustling private bazaar.

At the state-run food market and other nearby official stores, people line up for hours, often in vain, for such rationed staples as milk, cheese and butter.

Prices are high at the private stalls: $3, as an example, for a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of meat, the weekly allotment for a family at state stores. That equals three-quarters of the Velo family's daily income.

Reform has been too slow and modest for many young Albanians. Thousands have left the country since December.

In Durres on Feb. 9, crowds of youths fought with police who turned them away from quays where boats were rumored to be leaving for Italy. Police also battled in vain Wednesday with crowds that pulled down the bronze statue of Hoxha that towered over Skanderbeg Square in Tirana.

Opposition leaders say Alia is not inclined to democracy and made concessions only under pressure.

''The economy is near catastrophe, and the reason is that this communist system has created power on one side and poverty on the other,'' said Gramoz Pashko of the Democratic Party.

Alia's government has promised to stabilize supplies of consumer goods.

Mehmet Bogdani, head of the Economics Directorate, said hard-currency earnings declined by one-third in 1990.

He said the main reason was lower hydroelectric power exports caused by a severe drought that also drastically reduced the harvest.

An official at a state trading firm, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said warehouses were nearly empty and Albania was ''living from hand to mouth.''

Albania has applied for membership in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Dede, the Central Committee secretary, said Albania needs foreign credits but claimed the West had imposed a ''financial blockade.''

Greece and Turkey recently provided a total of $40 million in loans, but Dede said Albania is $200 million behind in payments to foreign banks and companies.

Pashko, the Democratic Party official, said a free market could be established by investing as little as $2 billion because of Albania's smallness and mineral wealth, and the interest of Albanians living abroad.

He said he understands the hesitancy of Western investors ''after decades of no free-market economics, no human rights.''