Yesterday in the centre of Tirana, battle lines were drawn in the grounds of the National Theatre. On one side, actors, writers, activists, artists, teachers, pensioners, journalists, and regular citizens, and on the other, an army of police and private security guards on orders of the State.
The crowd that gathered in that place yesterday were not divided by politics, class, age, or even nationality, but rather they united in a powerful display of solidarity and strength.
As I moved through the crowd during the course of the day, avoiding the scuffles and outbreaks of violence inflicted on my fellow protestors, I became overwhelmed by the vast array of emotions that surrounded me.
I saw tears of sadness running down the faces of grown men, rage from an elderly lady as she shouted in the face of a police inspector who clutched a baton almost the size of her. I saw fear in the eyes of those who witnessed abuse at the hands of the private security guards, and defiance as they pushed back the lines of police, allowing people to enter the side door of the theatre. I also saw pain on the face of the man who I witnessed falling backwards into an empty swimming pool following an altercation with the police.
I keep reliving parts of yesterday, second for second, frame by frame, and I can still feel some of the adrenaline, fear, and hope in my veins.
Those people who have dedicated their lives, and the last 18 months to enriching the culture and artistic heritage of this country are to be admired. Day after day, night after night they have guarded that theatre, coming together to create a community of resistance against the government that seeks to crush them and everything they stand for. Yesterday, in an incredible show of solidarity thousands more made their presence known and expressed their anger, not just for the potential destruction of the theatre, but for what it represents.
The corruption, dodgy deals and PPPs, the incredulous way that elected (some by as little as 15%) civil servants speak about the people that pay their wages, and the increasing authoritarianism is becoming too much to bear. This is a problem that transcends political loyalties because the precedent that the demolition of the theatre will create, will impact everyone.
This is about so much more than bricks, mortar, and history- it is about society’s ability to hold politicians accountable for their actions and it is about ensuring that the voices of the people are heard over the sounds of clinking coins that these politicians want to hear as the kickbacks land in their pockets.
If we allow this to happen, if they are allowed to get away with it, we can say goodbye to the last remaining shreds of the rule of law, we can say goodbye to people power, and we can say goodbye to the hope of ever having our voices heard.
We must resist this assault on democracy, human rights, and heritage and this government must know that their power is not and should never be absolute.
Today, after the dust settled and gas dispersed, I talked with Doris Pack- a long time supporter of the Theatre cause. She spoke of her disbelief that the only theatre, and one of the few remaining old buildings was earmarked for destruction to “build towers that nobody needs”. She went on to explain that this building is a part of Albanians lives and histories and that it belongs to the people not the government.
“The Prime Minister, an artist nonetheless, should care about cultural heritage and should understand the people- sadly this is not the case,” she added.
Referring to the protests yesterday she called the sending of the police and special forces an example of “misuse of power as a dictator does” and she criticised Veliaj for not acting in the interests of citizens.
She is exactly right. Each day we see more and more, Albania slipping into fully blown dictatorship. Oppressive media laws, single party rule, shamelessly and blatantly rigged elections, total capture of the judiciary, institutions, courts, and authorities, and little to no recourse for those that suffer.
The doors of the foreign institutions are slammed shut to all; the British Embassy, the American Embassy, and the EU delegation all trot out the same Socialist Party line in almost identical copy-and-paste statements, supporting a government that bends the law and the very foundations of democracy to suit their will.
So there is only one thing for it- for those that believe in democracy and the future of Albania to join together and keep fighting for the common good.
As Doris told me today, your courage is to be admired and having witnessed it first hand, I know I can speak for several thousand people when I say to the authorities; “come on then, we are ready for you.”