Already before the outbreak of the pandemic, it was clear that the government of Prime Minister Edi Rama cared very little about one of the foundations of the European Union, the rule of law. Even the widely proclaimed but poorly implemented Justice Reform never addressed the issue of the rule of law but instead went after a mere symptom of its demise, the widespread corruption within the judiciary. It will soon turn out that even this was only a little bandaid on a broken leg.
In rapid succession, we have witnessed events that even a wannabe dictator like Viktor Orbán can only dream of. The first test of the regime’s newly acquired “emergency” powers was the sudden blockage of the popular blogging site Medium about a month ago. Last week, a few protestors on Skënderbeg Square were violently arrested by the police, even though they kept the correct social distance. Then followed the shutdown of the last non-government-allied TV station in Albania, Ora News, last week. Ora News had been one of the few channels critizicing the government’s response to the pandemic.
The government also ramped up the destruction of architectural heritage elsewhere in Tirana, destroying two historical villas last week to make way for clientelist highrise building owned by the oligarchy that has become fully and criminally entwined with the ruling class.
Using the pandemic as disguise, the government transferred ownership of the National Theater’s land to the Municipality of Tirana, which immediately produced a fraudulent engineering report that its contruction was beyond salvation. Mayor Erion Veliaj then orchestrated an unannounced meeting of the Municipal Council, which voted nearly unanimously for the demolition of the building. In a week it was all done. On the night of May 14, the police issued massive fines to protestors camping out in the Theater to protect it from demolition. Then, yesterday night, the police entered the building, beat and arrested the protestors remaining inside, cordoned off the building, and immediately started its destruction, possibly together with all the costumes, props, archives, and the century-long history of Albanian theater. It’s morning and it’s all gone now.
All of this was no longer about the National Theater building itself, its restoration, or its reconstruction. Starting in 2018, the movement to protect the National Theater had become the epicenter of resistance against the Rama regime and one of the last physical gathering places for civil society. When the earthquake hit Durrës in November, the Alliance for the Protection of the Theater was one of the first to respond by gathering and distributing supplies to those affected by the disaster, far outpacing the slow response of the Rama government.
The site of the National Theater is also of immense historical and symbolic importance. It is right behind the Ministry of Interior and next to the building formerly occupied by the archives of the Secret Police of the communist dictatorship, which were largely destroyed in 1990 and 1991, when the regime “transformed” into the Socialist Party, now headed already for 15 years by Edi Rama. The National Theater is also next to the Bunk’Art 2 Museum, where the government has tried to whitewash the dictatorial regime and its servants Gramoz Ruçi, Skënder Gjinushi, Ardian Dvorani, and all those other accomplices who are still, today, in positions of power.
The two lonely, slender buildings of the National Theater were a constant reminder, in the center of political power, that a culture of civic duty and care can and must resist the onslaught of the provit-driven, drug-infused mafia state. And therefore they must be destroyed.
It remains to be seen what the fallout of this event will be, but it is certainly yet another sign that Edi Rama is using the global health crisis to consolidate his already nigh dictatorial powers. Parliament is dysfunctional. The judiciary is incapable of acting. Protestors are banned from the streets. Independent media are closed. And even though European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel has personally endorsed the protection of the National Theater, which has listed as one of the 7 most endangered European heritage sites by Europa Nostra, I would be surprised if EU Ambassador Luigi Soreca would utter a single word of direct criticism. They are all too invested in the “success” of the Rama regime on its road to Europe. We expect nothing from the internationals. Nothing but silence and shame.
I feel angry, I feel sad, I am worried about my friends and colleagues in Tirana. But this is what I have to say now: Regime change itself is no longer enough. Do we think things will be better when we exchange Rama for the next crook?
The National Theater was a place where ideas were generated, ideas how to live differently together, ideas for a different politics. Yes, it was not utopian, it was full of conflict, and it was a difficult place – those who have been there for more than two years know all this – but it also offered hope, even if only a glimmer. This hope, and the history of that hope, has now been crushed by the banality of evil (yes I will use this phrase). It is not enough to call for the overthrow of the Rama regime, this will no longer suffice. The rot goes deep, and this rot goes far, far beyond Albania’s borders.