By Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei
Cellphone Comment Puts Spotlight Back on Rama’s Villa

What started with as a trolling comment from Prime Minister Edi Rama during one of his televised attempts to placate protesting students throughout the country with a curated propaganda show has now put back the spotlight on the Prime Minister’s private villa, built in Surrel. The exchange, which was reported in several media, started with Rama asking a student about the size of his iPhone, perhaps in an attempt to suggest that he is working rather than studying. The student, however, is quick to return the question, asking the Prime Minister: “Now that you asked, may I also ask out of curiosity about your house in Surrel? I justify my [iPhone], but you how do you justify it when you declared that you have [only] €2,000?”

Rama’s villa in Surrel during construction (2012).

In recent days, the student’s comment has fueled an attack by the opposition on the Prime Minister about the origin of the funds for his villa, which was built in 2012. During a comedy show by court jester Ermal Mamaqi, last week, Rama tried with ashen face to diffuse the scandal by claiming it was in fact a very simple house, even providing Mamaqi with “secret” photographs of the “disarray” in his villa, only then to downplay their significance. It was, even by the terribly low standards of Mamaqi (full disclosure: I once had to spend 5 hours with him in a car from Tirana to Skopje), utterly cringeworthy.

Proof of Rama’s “simplicity.”

Rama also claimed in Mamaqi’s show that the entire villa project was made possible because of Linda Rama. Indeed it appears to be true that at least nominally she bought the land on which it is built. But Rama failed to provide any clue as to where the money to build it came from.

By law, all holders of political office are required to file asset declarations, which are public. And based on Edi Rama’s declarations from 2003 onward, and his wife Linda Rama from 2011 (they got married in 2010), we can draw the following graph:

As is clearly visible from this graph, there is a large difference between the declaration of Edi and Linda Rama from 2011, when he left office as Mayor of Tirana, and 2013, when he started his first mandate as Prime Minister of Albania.

This increase can be explained to a certain extent. In 2003, Rama declared the value of a 59 sq.m. apartment in Tirana, inherited from his father, to be 16,690 lekë. This value was never adjusted, until 2012, when it was officially revalued at 5,000,000 lekë.

Second, it appears that Linda Rama did not fully comply with the legal asset declaration demands in 2011, which did not mention the possession of any real estate, even though it does mention income from renting out an apartment in the center of Tirana. This is corrected in the 2013 declaration, in which she lists the apartment, as well as two pieces of land in Surrel: 2,528 sq.m., acquired for 1,086,650 lekë on October 13, 2005 1,955.5 sq.m., acquired for 500,000 lekë on July 14, 2008. To this plot, she would later add 886.5 sq.m., acquired for 400,000 lekë on February 6, 2015 and in 2017 an olive garden of 2,240 sq.m., acquired for 6,930,000 lekë, which seems to have ben largely paid by Edi Rama’s sale of his apartment that same year.

The main issue, however, is the value of the house built on the Linda Rama’s land in Surrel.

Edi and Linda’s asset declaration from 2013 lists the new villa in Surrel as being valued at 39,607,741 lekë (€282,912 – I will use a conversion rate of €1 = 140 ALL to keep it simple). The declaration further lists a sum of 12,056,241 lekë (€86,116) owed to the construction company, for which Rama receives a loan of €80,000 from Intesa San Paolo Bank on October 22, 2013. The question, repeatedly asked by the opposition, is: where did the other €200,000 come from? Neither the asset declarations of Edi Rama since 2003, nor Linda Rama’s declaration from 2011 show any such amount of money present on any of their bank accounts. This necessarily implies that either or both have lied on their previous asset declarations.

However, the asset declarations are not the only problem. The house in Surrel has been designed by the Belgian architecture firm 51N4E, which has never publicly acknowledged the design of Rama’s villa on their website, although it features in one of their catalogs. In this publication, the villa is misleadingly described as a “mountain villa” in Amorgos (Greece). However, the topographical sketch perfectly matches the location of Rama’s villa.

The 565 sq.m. project is dated to 2008, which implies that already four years before the villa was actually built, and two year before the couple got married, the plan was already extant. This also implies that the Linda’s acquisition of land in Surrel in 2008 was made for that purpose. It also suggests that the construction date of the villa was carefully planned: precisely in the year, 2012, in which Rama did not have to file any publicly available asset declaration. At the same time, the land was illegally hidden from Linda’s 2011 asset declaration.

51N4E catalog showing design for Rama’s villa.

 

Rama’s villa on Google Maps.

One of the founders of 51N4E, Peter Swinnen, was fired from a governmental post in Belgium after he was proven to be involved in an Albanian corruption scandal with the tenders of Skënderbeg Square, which was designed by 51N4E and artist Anri Sala, and whose construction by Fusha is easily one of the most fraudulent (and costly) in the history of Albanian infrastructural projects.

51N4E was also involved in several other of Edi Rama’s pet projects, including the TID Tower, the memorial for the victims of January 21 (without public procurement), the interior of the Center for Openness and Dialogue (unacknowledged and without public procurement), and even more absurdistic, the grave of Dritan Hoxha, later owner of Top Channel and faithful Rama propagandist.

In other words, not only the source of the money for Rama’s villa is suspect, its design and construction process is too. By failing to publicly disclose the designers and construction companies involved with his villa, Rama has raised the suspicion that it was a “favor,” for which other favors, such as lucrative design projects, were to be expected. Rama’s private house therefore shows in miniature what he does to Albanian public space and funds on a large scale: corruption, nepotism, and untraceable flows of money.