“The theater fell” – I barely read on my phone screen while I was blindly looking for the glasses in the darkness. The clock showed 03:30 where I live across the Atlantic. A friend had sent me a video attached to the short message. In less than 20 seconds, the front part of the National Theater collapsed after a strong hit by a crane, a cloud of smoke and dust covered the square in front of the theater, and the crumbling echoed against the walls of my empty room.
After more than two years of resistance, in the early hours of May 17, while everyone was sleeping, the State Police emptied the National Theater building in a matter of minutes. Members of the civil society, and artists who had spent two years of their lives protecting the theater, were dragged out like criminals.
What followed next was shocking. Protesters screaming, beaten up, and detained by the police. Journalists and artists crying in silence, curses from both sides, and calls against autocracy and dictatorship. The violent images spread with light speed throughout Europe and across the Atlantic.
I heard one of the Alliance for the National Theater activists saying that “This is no longer about the theater’s demolition, but the downfall of democracy and freedom”. While I respect his opinion, I have to say that I strongly disagree with him. Of course, the demolition of the theater was a stab in the back for all of us who fight for a better Albania. But democracy and freedom in Albania, are not falling. No, I can’t say that. Because Albania, was never a democracy, and we were never free. For thirty years now, we have only been a kakistocracy. A country ruled by the least qualified, who seek to take the only thing left to us. Hope.
The demolition of the theater had only one intention. To put fear in the hearts of Albanians. When the crane hit the theater, the government screamed in hysteria, “I can do whatever I want”. While a few stood grounds and faced the brutality of the police, the others stayed home.
They don’t understand that this is how autocracies rise. Steven Levitsky, in How Democracies Die, said: “The drift into authoritarianism doesn’t always set off alarm bells. Citizens are often slow to realize that their democracy is being dismantled, even as it happens before their eyes”.
We have witnessed other signs of autocracy in the past, but the crumbling of the theater is the alarm.
A few months ago, we were hit by a strong earthquake. Out of fear, we allowed our government to overreach its powers. Today, we are in the same position. For more than two months Albanians have been deprived of their rights and liberties due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The government has prolonged the state of emergency, while most of European countries have started to open, and the reason why, is now clear. The curfew was used as a reason to stop and arrest people from protecting the theater. While some measures were necessary to control the spread of the pandemic, the situation was used by the government to strengthen its position.
Albania is in a critical situation. The opposition is powerless, the High, and Constitutional Court are not operational, the press is under constant threat, and the government is rallying in every direction. This is why today we don’t have time to think about the theater. Walls can be rebuilt, but our rights cannot once we have lost them. We must remain vigilant. The civil society must be more active than ever. After all, the fall of the theater, may be a sign for us to rise and fight for the establishment of real democracy, and the rule of law.