BALKAN BLOG: National Theatre demolition adds fuel to Albania’s fiery politics

BALKAN BLOG: National Theatre demolition adds fuel to Albania’s fiery politics
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow May 28, 2020

The demolition of a historic theatre in downtown Tirana has become an emotive political issue in Albania. The dawn demolition of the Italian-built theatre outraged actors and NGOs who had been campaigning to preserve the building, and was quickly seized upon by opposition leaders. 

Police officers moved in to surround the building at 4.30am on Sunday, May 17. They quickly dispersed artists and opposition activists who were spending the night in the building to protect it, then went ahead with the demolition. 

The municipal council, controlled by the ruling Socialists, plans to start construction of a brand new theatre this year, to mark the 100th anniversary of Tirana being declared the capital of Albania, as it pushes ahead with the modernisation of the downtown area around central Skanderbeg Square, the huge pedestrian area at the heart of city life. 

Yet the project has met with opposition from the outset, as actors and architects joined a campaign to preserve the old National Theatre that was built in 1939 under the Italian occupation of Albania. It started out as a cinema but the screen was replaced with a stage after the Second World War. 

The Albanian Union of Architects and Urban Planners (AUA) argued for the theatre’s Rationalist architecture to be preserved, and pan-European heritage organisation Europa Nostra added the building to its list of the seven most endangered European heritage sites for 2020. 

For their part, the Tirana authorities argue the building deviated significantly from the original plans of architect Giulio Berte and was built from inferior materials. By the time the new theatre was planned, the old one was dilapidated and safety standards could not be guaranteed. 

It is due to be replaced by a new theatre designed by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), which unveiled its bow-tie shaped vision for the new theatre in 2018.

This was originally planned to be built under a public-private partnership (PPP) — a form of contract that has attracted strong criticism in Albania not least because of the advantage given to firms that propose a PPP project. However, the municipality of Tirana decided in January to build the theatre with state money instead. 

There have been several waves of protests about the plans to demolish the theatre, starting in 2018 when the project was announced, and continuing last year when police tried to evict protesters from the area. 

Opinion on the theatre project is split on party lines, adding to the deep rift between the ruling Socialists and the main opposition parties, the centre right Democratic Party and Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI). 

Plans for the renovation of Tirana have repeatedly been revised over the last few years as the city has changed hands. Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama is a former Tirana mayor who initiated plans to turn Skanderbeg into a modern European centre for the city. He was replaced by Lulzim Basha of the rival Democratic Party, who replaced Rama’s vision with his own, only to be replaced in turn by the Socialists’ Erion Veliaj, who returned to the 2010 plan. 

Rama’s former allies in the LSI, led by Ilir Meta until he became president of Albania in 2017, are now his bitter rivals. Last year, Meta filed a case in the Constitutional Court in an attempt to block the demolition of the theatre. He called the actions of May 17 an "unpardonable crime” and claimed the “mafia ordered the destruction.” Among those detained by police in the ensuing protests, in which two police officers were injured, was Meta’s wide Monika Kryemadhi, who took over from him as leader of the LSI. Footage from the protest shows Kryemadhi being led away by masked police officers. Democratic Party leader Basha spoke of "barbaric violence" and lawlessness. 

Those who campaigned for the theatre to stay standing have not given up, and say they want it to be rebuilt exactly as it was before. Without the theatre, argues the AUA, Tirana will be a poorer and less European city. Actors and NGOs have called for nationwide civil disobedience against the ruling Socialists.

Anti-government protests, sometimes violent ones, are not uncommon in Albania. Today Rama has little reason to take the opposition’s demands into account, since his Socialists were re-elected with a landslide in June 2017, giving them a majority in Parliament that allowed them to dispense with the LSI as their coalition partner. The opposition responded with protests and a boycott of Parliament. Rama remains popular, not least because he can take the credit for significant milestones towards EU integration: Albania’s acceptance as a candidate country in 2014 and the go-ahead for the start of accession negotiations. Meanwhile, the violence at several protests in recent years has eroded international sympathy for the opposition. 

However, where the theatre demolition is concerned, it is the authorities who have come in for international criticism on top of the expected broadsides from their domestic rivals. Among the critics were diplomats at the EU and US embassies in Tirana, both of which condemned the lack of dialogue on the issue. President of the European People’s Party (EPP) and former president of the European Council Donald Tusk criticised the demolition of the theatre in a Facebook post, saying it opposes the European values of cultural heritage, the rule of law and transparent dialogue.

Tirana’s mayor Veliaj has sought to repair this damage with a media and social media offensive since the demolition. “Now it’s time to reconcile and work together as we prepare to break ground this year for the capital's future architectural jewel!” he tweeted optimistically. 

Yet experience in neighbouring countries has shown that protest movements born out of campaigns over urban heritage can have sticking power. 

There are clear parallels between the National Theatre’s demolition and the 2016 demolition of buildings in Belgrade’s Savamala district — a run-down area of the city that had recently become an edgy cultural hub — to make way for the €3.2bn Belgrade Waterfront project. 

This point was made by Srdan Cvijic, senior analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute, who criticised Tusk for speaking out against the Tirana National Theatre demolition but not that of the Savamala buildings, and linked it to the Serbian ruling party’s membership of the EPP. “Very good to condemn the demolition of the theatre in #Albania but where were you … when #Serbia of your @EPP party comrade [President Aleksandar] Vucic was destroying an entire district of Belgrade #Savamala then it was silence!” Cvijic tweeted on May 18. 

As in Albania, the Savamala demolitions were deliberately arranged for a time when few people were out on the streets — the middle of the night immediately after Serbia’s April general election. Citizens who witnessed the demolition claim they were treated violently by masked men and that the police did not respond to their calls for help. The vast development had already met with resistance from local residents and questions about its transparency. 

It sparked a series of thousand-strong protests spread throughout most of 2016, organised by the Don’t Drown Belgrade initiative set up to give residents a bigger say in the development of their city. 

While most of those taking part in the protests were focussed on the Savamala demolitions, opponents of Serbia’s then prime minister (now President) Vucic were seen as trying to use the popular outrage for their own ends. By June 11, 2016, in addition to the yellow ducks that were the symbol of the protests, demonstrators were turning up with banners with slogans including “Resignation”, “Vucic kaput” (finished) and “Vucic - pederu” (a derogatory term for a homosexual). This raised fears among the Serbian authorities that the protests could escalate and pose a serous problem for Vucic and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). 

The protests eventually petered out, construction of Belgrade Waterfront continued and while Vucic announced that Belgrade mayor Sinisa Mali would be leaving his post — Mali’s ex-wife revealed to the press he had boasted about taking part in the demolitions — Mali has since made a comeback as finance minister. 

Romania’s architectural heritage is at risk as well, despite legislation which says old buildings deemed to be of historic interest cannot be knocked down. Instead, owners who want to develop valuable land in Bucharest and elsewhere leave them to deteriorate — in some cases speeding their demise by setting fire to them or letting squatters in. 

This disregard for historic buildings led to the creation of the Save Bucharest Association, an NGO dedicated to preserving the architectural heritage and green spaces in the Romanian capital. It was later transformed into the Save Bucharest Union (USB), which challenged the established parties in the 2016 Bucharest local elections. After an unexpectedly strong performance, its then leader Nicusur Dan announced that the party would change its name to the centre-right reformist Save Romania Union (USR), go national and compete in the general election. Campaigning on an anti-corruption platform, it is now the third-largest party in the Romanian parliament. 

In an interview with bne IntelliNews in 2016, Roxana Wring, a member of the USR’s national executive, said that after years of being fobbed off and dismissed by officials, the leaders of the NGO decided to form a party “to become part of the decision process.When you write people off, don’t treat them with respect, you have to expect a backlash,” she said.

In Tirana, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has kept many people who might otherwise have been out on the streets at home for the last few weeks. But now the lockdown is being lifted. In addition to the protest over the theatre demolition, recent days have seen protests by workers in the public transport and clothing manufacturing sectors who say they are not receiving compensation for lost income during the pandemic. As restrictions on public gatherings are eased and fear of infection recedes — Albania has managed to keep its official tally of infections to just over 1,000 — Albanian politics are likely to return to their turbulent normal.