The Albanian government has transferred ownership of the land the National Theatre sits on, to the Municipality.
The decision was taken on 8 May and published on the same day in the Government Gazette.
Some 5,522 square metres of land including the National Theatre and its courtyard, was previously owned by the Ministry of Culture. In the decision, the government stressed that the land must be used only for the construction of a new theatre building and that the Municipality cannot repurpose it, change its use, or transfer the land to a third party.
Initially, the government had said the land would be developed by a third-party as they did not have the funds to do so. Following public outcry and a two-year-long protest, they then said it would be paid for by the state. The second announcement came at a time when the government had received over EUR 1 billion in aid to assist with earthquake recovery efforts.
The decision to publicly fund it also came after several years of efforts by Prime Minister Edi Rama and Mayor Erion Veliaj to develop it via a dubious PPP. Government favourite and funder of luxury hotel rooms for Municipality staff, Fusha shpk seemed set to build the new project along with tall towers. This would mean large chunks of prime-public land would be given to them in payment for building the new theatre.
To enable them to do this legally, they drafted and passed a special law that would allow the transfer of public land to Fusha shpk. The President vetoed the law and it was widely criticised by citizens and the European Commission. The government amended the law to open a competition procedure for the selection of the developer.
After many months of silence and no transparency, in February 2020, Veliaj said the tender had failed and it would be publicly funded.
The transfer of land to the Municipality could be a first step towards demolishing the theatre. It also allows the Municipality to allow the development of the site by private individuals, including the further use of public land for private commercial projects.
Citizens have been protecting the theatre every day for over two years. They have assembled on the grounds each night, putting on performances, speaking and making use of the space. The activists behind the theatre preservation efforts were also responsible for the collection and distribution of tonnes of aid, starting just hours after the 26 November earthquake.
One attempt to remove protestors from the area resulted in a siege and a clash between members of the public and riot police. The police finally surrendered as the protestors remained intent on protecting the site.
The National Theatre was recently included on the list of 7 endangered sites, protected by the Europa Nostra organisation. The European Commission and Delegation in Tirana voiced support for the initiative and said they hoped stakeholders would work together.
Veliaj responded by saying it should be an Albanian decision and that the internationals had listened to “the hysterics” of a “noisy minority”.