State capture - The National Theatre
According to the left wing Rama government, the plans to demolish the old National Theatre came to life upon the sudden concession proposal send by a private developer, Fusha shpk.
The company, who already held the title to a small patch of land in the area, offered to build a new theatre amidst a slew of commercial buildings on the condition that he should receive in exchange the public land upon which the theatre stood and its surroundings, majorly owned by the Municipality of Tirana and a couple of other institutions.
It was an unrequested proposal “prompted”- as would Mr. Fusha would put it - “by the miserable state in which the building was reduced”. There is more.
The Mayor of Tirana, Mr. Erjon Veliaj, admitted that "A concrete proposal was sent by the potential investor Fusha sh.pk also asking for the regulation of this relationship through a special law adopted by the Parliament of the Republic of Albania".
And how convenient that custom made law was, since the majority of the coveted land belonged to the Municipality and it needed a 3/5 majority vote on the Municipal Council to transfer it to the hands of a private developer, a vote the mayor didn’t have.
To rectify such thing, the property rights to the Theatre were transferred to the Ministry of Culture and from there, the land expropriation procedure was to pass in the Parliament.
In a very rare case of efficiency, in the course of few weeks, a group of institutions produced several documents and reports, aiming to validate the project idea sent to them.
It took one week only to the Municipality to send the project idea to the Council of Ministers.
The Construction Institute - a state institution, took 14 days to assess the situation and their conclusion was very drastic. They came to the conclusion that the theater is in a very serious condition, and the cost of repairing it is "several times higher than the minimum fiscal cost."
It took the Ministry of Culture exactly one day to put together a team to evaluate if such idea was worth it and that same day the same team produced what they called “ a memo” deeming the project an excellent idea and a new draft law was to be send as quickly as possible in the Parliament, so it could pass on a short procedure.
It took the Ministry of Culture one week to decide that they could not afford to restore or build a new theatre and a public – private partnership was necessary.
"Repairing the facility and bringing it to today's technical conditions is difficult," reads the inspection report. "Its a high cost investment”.
The said draft law was ready to be discussed in a matter of weeks.
That’s when strong opposition to the demolition of the theatre rose from artists, activists and citizens that saw this coming all along.
They meet with an aggressive campaign of personal insults, distortion of information, denigration, strategies of division and offers to buy their silence.
The man who was appointed to handle such situation was the mayor of Tirana, Mr. Erion Veliaj.
He played very hard with a debatable report issued by the State Construction Institute, that grossly exaggerated the risk that the building was going to crumple and emitted asbestos, so the life of the artists was in danger.
He also cited the diploma thesis of two Italian students of architecture as “a report” he had obtained, implzing that the theatre was never meant to last so much, as it was intended only as a “dopolavoro” for Italian soldiers, a place for them to relax and have fun.
In what became a daily public show to manipulate the public opinion for their support, the Mayor engaged several PR strategies, starting with:
- publishing pictures of the amortized theatre, especially fissures that has been there for decades to support her claims;
- rallying help of partisan actors;
- going as far as to unsuccessfully falsify artists names in a petition countering another petition that rejected the project;
- opening the small theatre ArtTurbina with much opulence, as a showcase of what the government intended to do for “the actors”;
- attempted to bribe popular actors by inviting them in private meeting, according to some of this popular actors;
- in a highly publicized case, the Mayor of Tirana staged a meeting with 3 actors that had been vocal against the demolition and tried to pass a picture taken as an agreement that was reached between the parties, with Mr. Veliaj being the patient benevolent Samaritan who took it upon himself to personally explain the new project to the misunderstood and mislead artist’s community.
Labeling the protests as “Artist’s rallies” was a containment strategy meaning that whoever was not an actor, was not recognized as a stakeholder and shouldn’t have an opinion or a say in the matter, even though this is the national theatre, a building of importance to the whole country.
It was even implied that if you were not at least a regular attendant of the theatre then you should be ashamed to be involved in such debate.
Architects, lawyers and activists were openly forbidden to speak in a so called “hearing” organized by the Municipality at the country’s most expensive hotel, because Mr. Veliaj said the hearing were going to be separated for each group.
Let us clarify that this meetings didn’t qualify as hearings according to our “Law on Public Consultations” as there are time constraints that have to be respected, everyone can participate, citizen’s proposals need to be collected and evaluated, and the institution holding the hearings needs to answer in writing to proposals they can’t take into account, explaining why.
The very few meetings that took place either were made public few days prior or not at all.
In the meanwhile actors, citizens, architects, activists and few journalists had formed The Alliance for the Protection of the Theatre, who has since March 2018, when Prime Minister Rama declared point blank that “The theatre is going to be demolished!”, been protesting non stop to this day, everyday.
After the initial focus on weather was best to demolish or restore the old theatre, what the government feared started to happen as the attention moved to what was called The Draft Law "On the Determining the Special Negotiation Procedure and the Contract with the Object "Designing and Construction of the Urban Project and the New Building of the National Theater" that specifically named the company " Fusha "shpk, known for obtaining numerous tenders from socialist government and the municipality of Tirana, will obtain without a race an undetermined amount of public property "in exchange for the building of the new National Theater ", without so much of an economic analysis of the cost and profitability of the public.
Public property in Albania is subject to existing legal procedures in the case of privatization or "public private partnership", procedures that impose at least the need for a competition among the various interested entities.
Not in the case of the National Theater.
The government, taking advantage of the fact that Albania temporarily lacks a Constitutional Court, decided to bypass existing laws to propose an “extraordinary” law, as requested by a favorite private developer, that raised questions about clientelism and predetermining the winner out of the normal legal process.
Although the government refused to make public any data regarding the ownership of the land on which the National Theater rests, the Alliance for the Protection of the Theater (AMT) published a map of the plot in question, and exposed the government’s claim that the private part of the project would “not infringe on National Theater land” was false.
According to information gathered by the AMT, over 90% of the area in question is public property, while the private company Fusha shpk was to build for her own profit 6 towers. The trace of the redevelopment plan of this towers showed that the company was to profit all of the public land surrounding the National Theatre, not only the one it stood upon.
The government tried, at this point, to channel the increased attention away from such facts by making public an image of what was to be the new theatre, riding again upon the name of world famous starchitect, Bjarke Ingels, that had designed the project.
This move came to bite the government, for a lot of reasons, starting with the fact that an article was published by Exit.al that noted that BIC, the architecture firm, in several public announcements, had claimed to have won a “competition for the Tirana National Theater and Master Plan,” , in an article in Spanish architecture magazine Metalocus.
On the other hand, in the said project they did not list the Municipality of Tirana or Albanian government as the client, but rather Fusha shpk.
In a stroke of luck, it also proved that Fusha was taking over the whole public land, recklessly cited as 9300 square meters by BIC.
Questions of Exit.al for more information on the supposed competition were redirected to the Municipality of Tirana, having seemingly signed an non-disclosure agreement.
This confirmed that the client of BIC was the Municipality, not Fusha Shpk, which begged the question why did a public institution that had a legal obligation to hold hearings with citizens for projects of this magnitude, as imposed by the Aarhus Convention, had blocked all means for transparency.
Another blow came when the Alliance for the Protection of the Theatre discovered that the project itself was a rip off of a disqualified project of Ukranian firm, Forma, that had competed to build a theatre in Busan, South Korea years priors.
Following such developments, the European Commission send 15 questions to the Albanian government regarding this “special” law, that allowed the government to appoint without a race a private company for the realization of a public project.
The European Commission's questionnaire tried to disclose if said law complied with the obligation sanctioned in the Stabilization and Association Agreement on competition in public contracts.
Apparently, the answers provided were not satisfactory, for while the Commission stated that it could not decide upon the compliance of the “Fusha law” to demolish the old theatre with the Albanian constitution, it did expect the government to amend such law by introducing an open call for the implementation of the theater development project, so that any private company could submit a project proposal.
At the same time, the Commission emphasized the importance of clear, transparent and non-discriminatory setting of criteria for selection of successful bidders for the implementation of the Special Law.
But, if the “extraordinary law”, originally designed to accommodate the unrequested proposal bz Fusha Shpak, was opened to bids, then why was it necessary at all?
The answer came when the amended draft project was passed in the Parliament with an accelerated procedure, amid ongoing protests.
The only real amendment made was that the name of the private company, Fusha shpk, was removed and replaced with the words “private developer”.
And although it is written in the paper that the changes made open the call for bids and guarantee competition, the proposed definitions seems to hide the intention to develop a fictitious and controlled "competition" process, likely to contract exactly the predecessor company, Fusha shpk.
This becomes clear in the clause that stipulates that any appeal to the tendering procedure will not pass through the legal and ordinary channels established by the Albanian Public Procurement Law, but directly by the Mayor Erion Veliaj, who has the right to veto the selection of the winning company. And of course the company will be Fusha shpk.
However, it still didn’t went as smoothly as expected because the President refused to decree the law twice, citing several breaches of the Constitution, including the law stipulating local autonomy and decentralization, part of the Stabilization and Association Agreement with EU; the missing assessment of public profit from the expropriation of the land; the lack of verifiable assessment of the real estate involved in the property transaction and because “it created among citizens feelings of insecurity about their rights to property”.
As the situation stands today, after defying the President and decreeing the law with a majority vote they hold in the Parliament, the government hasn’t moved forward with the plans to demolish the theatre fearing public reaction.
The Alliance for the Protection of the Theatre has become a movement open to all citizens, has held countless meetings with different social groups, has supported student’s month long protests in December or other social movements, continuing to hold meetings everyday until the project has been formally cancelled.
Bjarke Ingels has abandoned the project seemingly over disagreements about the quality of the building materials, with Fusha shpk opting for weak materials that further cut building costs for a bigger profit.
In the end, no other project could depict state capture in more ironic way: a duplicate project (in apparent violation of copyrights) to be built in apparent violation of urban planning and laws protecting competition and public land, with a non transparent financial operation, at the site of the old, but original, National Theatre.