On Sunday morning, 17 May, at 4.30 a.m. the city begins with the demolition of the Albanian National Theatre in Tirana. Police officers storm the building that had been occupied by activists since July last year. Using teargas, they arrest twenty persons. Shortly afterwards, an excavator shovel hits the facade of the building. Theatre professionals and civil society actors had fought for two years for the preservation of the building, which lies in ruins now. The events testify to an authoritarian governance practice – against which protest is emerging.
Resistance against the construction project
The demolition was first announced in early 2018 by Prime Minister Edi Rama. A building complex with residential and office units, as well as a shopping mall, is supposed to be built in the place of the theatre. The new theatre is placed between them, designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. Less than half of the original surface is foreseen for that.
But the plan encountered resistance, because a large area of the inner city was supposed to be privatised. Originally, full funding through a public private partnership (PPP) was intended. Allegedly because the city does not possess sufficient funds in order to undertake the necessary renovation works. Rama and Mayor Erion Veliaj repeatedly stressed that it was “impossible“ to renovate the old building. However, earlier this year the government decided to secure public funding after all. The city is now supposed to carry out the construction of the new building and to take out a loan amounting to more than 30 million euros.
That the construction company Fusha Sh.p.k was commissioned of all things, likewise caused resentment. Because by now, the company has almost become the exclusive contractor of the Tirana municipality. This often involves direct contracts, which have repeatedly been suspected of fictitious competition – in this case as well. Local newspapers keep reporting on the “favourite company“ of the city, which is supplied with lucrative orders regularly. Corruption has been mentioned repeatedly. The media portal JOQ published an invoice in summer 2018, showing that the owner of the construction company Shkëlqim Fusha paid two overnight hotel stays in Barcelona worth 1.816 euros for the Deputy Mayor of Tirana Arbjan Mazniku. Mazniku later claimed to have paid back the amount to Fusha in cash. Meanwhile, the Public Prosecutor´s Office has discontinued the investigations proceedings initiated because of passive bribery and the abuse of authority.[i]
It almost seemed marginal that together with the demolition, a piece of Albanian history is also disappearing. The building ensemble was built during the 1930ies by the Italian occupying forces and survived the socialist dictatorship. It accommodated a movie theatre in the beginning, and became the National Theatre in 1947. Since then, it has been the cultural centre of the city. Besides that, this is also where the first show trials against “enemies of the state“ took place under the communist dictator Enver Hoxha.
The affected actors founded the “Alliance for the Protection of the Theatre“ (Aleanca për Mbrojtjen e Teatrit). It soon found supporters. Among them were proven activists who have been engaged fighting against different construction projects and criticising the neoliberal urban development policy for some time. Recurring themes were the authoritarian decision making, non-transparent procurement procedures, the privatisation of public resources, and repression. For the activists, this concerned much more than designing the urban space; for them, it was about the participation in political decision-making processes. From the Alliance, something arose that indeed could be described as a “right to the city“-movement.
But, time after time Prime Minister Rama prevailed against the activists. Any means were acceptable in order to achieve this. The government passed a special law in September 2018, which suspended the standard procedures for awarding public contracts and sold the theatre premises directly to the private investor. Legal experts considered the procedure to be unconstitutional. As the Constitutional Court did not have a quorum at that time, the law could not be reviewed.
Closing of ranks with the opposition
The theatre activists fraternised with the opposition in July 2019. The Alliance signed a contract with PD leader Lulzim Basha, in which he assured his support and promised to put a preservation order on the building, in case that his party took office. From then on, he presented himself as the saviour of the theatre. That impression was occasionally created even in the international press coverage. The same applied to President Ilir Meta and his wife Monika Kryemadhi, head of the opposition party LSI, who likewise joined the protest.
Actually, those figures are no friends of responsible citizens. The PD was in power when in 2011 four persons were shot by the Republican Guard during a demonstration. And President Meta is the one who triggered the aforementioned demonstration with a corruption scandal.
Ever since the ruling party PS obtained the absolute majority in the parliamentary elections in 2017, Basha has been seeking to overturn the government. His MPs left the Parliament, boycotted local elections and organised nationwide (but largely ineffective) protests. A protest movement, opposing Rama, suited him quite well in that situation.
Observers could initially have considered the alliance with the opposition for an act of desperation. However, when Edmond Budina, actor and member of the Alliance, suddenly stood on the stage besides President Meta at a large demonstration in March 2020 and was cheered by opposition supporters, it seemed as if there had been party political ambitions after all.
Ultimately, the partnership with the opposition had to remain futile. Because with the emergence of one of the established parties, the popular support usually dwindles, as the population has long lost confidence in the political class.
The cross check of this phenomenon were the demonstrations of students who came out into the streets to protest for better conditions at universities in winter 2018/2019. As they rejected cooperation with the parties, they became the biggest movement of the last years. Tens of thousands of students protested in Tirana and six other cities in December. In the end, they interrupted the demonstrations, when the PD tried to use the mass gatherings for its purposes. Basha tried to make it look like the people present were supporters of his party.
Another problem of the partnership is the ongoing power struggle between Rama and Basha. If one of them appropriates a topic, it is ground down in the struggle between the party leaders. Because criticism of the topic is then interpreted only as criticism of the patron and his party. The dualism is widely spread and leads not few opinionators to walk right into a trap: those who express critical views of Rama, are considered Basha’s supporters – and vice versa. With the demolition of the theatre, Rama sent a clear message: there is only one who is allowed to develop here!
Demolition as demonstration of power
The situation came to a head in May. In a once again legally questionable process, the City Council first transferred the property from the Ministry of Culture to Tirana’s city administration and subsequently passed the decision on the demolition of the building. No date of the demolition was determined in the corresponding decision. EU Commissioner Mariya Gabriel warned against an “irreversible decision“ in those days and called for dialogue.[ii] Two months earlier, the European Federation for Cultural Heritage “Europa Nostra“ had added the theatre to the list of seven most endangered heritage sites in Europe. Therefore, Basha described the events as an “act against Europe“.[iii]
Albania´s ombudswoman initiated an administrative investigation of the transfer of ownership, in order to establish whether the procedure had violated the rights of citizens. However, before that question could be clarified, the building was demolished.
The events are remarkable from another perspective as well: The man who demolished the cultural heart of the city is celebrated as an artist elsewhere. Rama is famous for colourful documents, which he paints during negotiations or telephone conversations. While he was exhibiting his artwork in Berlin, the activists were defending the theatre in Tirana. That seemed paradoxical to many. In an open letter, several hundred signers appealed to the international art scene with the demand to stop the “artwashing“ – meaning his image improvement as a politician through his art.[iv]
It is hard to believe today that Rama won sympathy as Mayor of Tirana with colourful façade designs in the 2000s. His message at that time: the city is supposed to appear to people as a place of possibilities, not of fate.[v] Today Rama is playing fate.
The demonstration of power was not over yet with the demolition of the building. Few hours later, Rama posted a video on Facebook deriding the activists and revealing his self-perception. It shows footage of protests against the latest construction projects along with current pictures after their realisation, and thereby to some extent documents the triumph of an autocrat over the project opponents. At the end of the video a text is displayed: “The same ones. They oppose every project in Tirana! They do not wish any development! But: Tirana cannot be stopped.“[vi] Apparently, the Prime Minister has fallen victim to a misunderstanding: He believes to be Tirana.
Reactions and protests
The theatre activists and media that are critical of the government interpret the demolition as the starting signal for the implementation of a dictatorship. The Alliance posted a picture from the night of the demolition showing a masked police officer with a submachine gun. Above, the following question was displayed: “Still not convinced that we are under a dictatorship?!“[vii]
International actors reprimanded the demolition and called for a dialogue. The German ambassador also reacted via Facebook: “The hurried demolition of the National Theatre in Tirana today at the crack of dawn is difficult to comprehend to me in the form that we have witnessed. Especially during the current state of emergency, dialogue between the government and the civil society and transparent governance are particularly important (…) I am calling all actors to engage in dialogue and show restraint.“[viii]
Despite the strict curfew for the containment of the coronavirus[ix], on the day following the demolition numerous citizens gathered on the square in front of the theatre. Among them were also people who had not been involved in the movement before. The cloak-and-dagger operation felt like a scam to many. Now they wanted to express their disappointment.
The protest for the preservation of the theatre developed into a protest against the “dictatorship“, as could be read on the posters of the demonstrators. Again, there were many arrests. Police officers forcibly dragged the protesters off the street. What ultimately ended the protest was the appearance of the followers of the opposition. When they entered the square, numerous others left. Such developments show once more that political change is only possible far away from the established parties.
Although the fight for the theatre building has been lost, the protest was not a failure. Because the movement has revealed numerous drawbacks. The activists voiced their desire for political participation and tried out resistance. It now remains to be seen whether the movement will persist without the theatre building.
[i] reporter.al: Hoteli me 5 yje në Barcelonë u pagua 2 herë (…), 20.03.2020, URL: https://www.reporter.al/hoteli-me-5-yje-ne-barcelone-u-pagua-2-here-nga-fusha-dhe-bashkia-e-tiranes/.
[ii] Mariya Gabriel [Twitter], 15.05.2020, URL: https://twitter.com/GabrielMariya/status/1261227201845919744.
[iii] Lulzim Basha [A2 CNN, YouTube]: 09.05.2020, URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=22&v=XzSjVX-2xQc&feature=emb_logo.
[iv] Open Letter: An Open Letter to the International Art Community: Stop Artwashing Edi Rama's Politics, XX.05.2020, URL: https://docs.google.com/document/u/0/d/1gOD6TJ9YMBrqiL-tRTOmScaUnd9XwVfG3vO-3nbfbpg/mobilebasic.
[v] Edi Rama, in: Anri Sala: Dammi i Colori [Give me the Colors], 2003.
[vi] Edi Rama [Facebook], 17.05.2020, URL: https://www.facebook.com/edirama.al/videos/738655056961658/.
[vii] Aleanca për Mbrojtjen e Teatrit [Facebook], 17.05.2020, URL: https://www.facebook.com/mbroteatrin/photos/a.241202919772408/670973313462031/.
[viii] Peter Zingraf [Facebook], 17.05.2020, URL: https://www.facebook.com/AmbasadaGjermaneTirana/posts/10156849790066353.
[ix] Marion Kraske [HBS]: SARS-CoV-2 in Albanien: Drohgebärden und Verräter-Rhetorik, 29.04.2020, URL: https://www.boell.de/de/2020/04/29/SARS-CoV-2-in-Albanien-Drohgebaerden-und-Verraeter-Rhetorik.