Less than a month after an open letter from Albanian artists and activists pleaded with the international art community to stop “artwashing” Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, Tirana mayor Erion Veliaj is giddily introduced as a guest speaker of “extraordinary success” in an online session of the Urban Future Conference.
Europe’s “largest event for sustainable cities” proudly declares to bring together “CityChangers” from all over the world, and, with the demolition of the National Theater fresh in Albania’s collective memory, Veliaj has certainly changed the city of Tirana in irreversible ways.
However, during the conference Veliaj modestly elects to sidestep this recent major change Tirana went through under his rule. Aside from an offhand dogwhistle, the “hysterical minority” he and his patron Rama enjoy invoking whenever they are met with popular dissent, neither the mayor, nor the moderator touched upon the Theater, though its demolition was eventful enough to make it on several international media outlets.
Instead, Veliaj paints a lovely picture of the power of children, his favorite propaganda tool, and ‘reformed’ public space, his favorite type of project, to change a city’s life. To do so, he uses a series of nigh-undisprovable statements which he, naturally, does not back up with any statistics or evidence whatsoever.
He enthusiastically extols the virtues of playgrounds, whose construction supposedly caused crime to go down. Before one can remind Veliaj that correlation does not mean causation, he provides the laughable explanation that it is difficult to get away with a stolen TV when there are children playing in front of the apartment building.
“Playgrounds [were] the best investment in public safety,” Veliaj concludes with a chuckle, as if even he, himself, cannot believe how easy this whole thing was. Inexplicably, in 2017, Veliaj gave a construction permit that led to the demolition of one of Tirana’s most well-known playgrounds, the “7 Xhuxhat” park.
Veliaj’s pet project, the prefabricated Lake Park playground that was massively protested by Tirana citizens, was inaugurated on June 1, 2016. Oddly enough, crime rates actually increased from 2016 to 2017, with Tirana investigations going up close to 6% and prosecutions going up 3.2%.
Keeping with his children-based propaganda, Veliaj then excitedly recounts “a game” supposedly implemented by the Tirana municipality, wherein “every child plants a tree for their birthday.” This, Veliaj claims, led to an average of over 100,000 trees planted every day, lovingly called “birthday trees.”
Simply living in Tirana would be enough to make one pause at this ridiculously high number, wondering where exactly these trees are being planted. Recently, Veliaj uprooted his fair share of trees to ‘revamp’ the Rinia park in the center of Tirana. Furthermore, if 100,000 trees per day were really being planted in Tirana, Veliaj’s objective to plant 150,000 trees in the entirety of 2019 would be deeply underwhelming.
To finalize, Veliaj gives an example of how his philosophy of ‘learning from the children’ comes to life within his administration. Every day, he claims, the mayor devotes an hour to meeting with a class of children or teenagers. It is his “holy” hour, during which his aides know not to disturb him with any matters of state or emergencies.
Living in Albania, I can no longer muster up the energy to be disbelieving or bewildered at Veliaj’s outlandish claims. They are merely few of the many cringeworthy aspects of his public persona, not significantly different from him wearing Harvard and MIT logo shirts even though his alma mater is the perfectly respectable Grand Valley State University.
What is bewildering, however, is the eagerness with which international artists, policymakers, and intellectuals, for lack of a better word, eat it up.
Certainly, it must be comforting, the idea of a quaint city wherein knitting grannies effectively replace CCTV cameras that remind one of the ever-encroaching postmodern surveillance state. The idea that something as wholesome as playgrounds could replace a police force must seem like a delightful (and oh-so-easy) solution to the dilemma of police abolition that has entered mainstream discourse over the past few weeks. One can even suspend disbelief long enough to believe that the Tirana municipality plants on average 100 thousand trees a day, if it is sugarcoated by the claim that they are planted for children’s birthdays.
Albanian politicians know how tempting viewing our country as a quaint land whose troubled past can be neatly fixed by the power of aesthetics is.
It is this understanding that drove Prime Minister Edi Rama to wax poetic in a 2012 Thessaloniki TEDx talk about “beauty serving as a guardian.” Using similar rhetoric as Veliaj’s, Rama tells the benevolent crowd how painting facades and fixing up streets actually caused crime rates to fall, again, with no actual numbers to back his claim up. It is to cater to this understanding that the museum housed in what was once the Albanian communist regime’s secret police headquarters more resembles a kitschy Soviet gift shop, than a remembrance of the torture and fear its walls have witnessed. It is this understanding that seems to attract weird grifters selling pipe dreams and architects eager to realize Tirana’s potential to become a “non-anthropocentric city.”
Albania, however, is not a fairytale land, nor an aesthetical exercise, and choosing to uncritically view it as such is neither apolitical nor benign.
Veliaj’s exaltation of children conveniently distracts from the ways in which his rule harms children like Ardit Gjoklaj, a 17-year-old illegally employed at the Sharra Landfill, a private public partnership promoted by Veliaj as an exemplary opportunity for work. Centering children, “non-voters” as Veliaj dubs them, though presented as subversive and revolutionary by Veliaj, serves to distract from the fact that his second mandate as Tirana mayor came about as a result of one-party local elections, that virtually put all the municipalities in the country under the rule of the Socialist majority. For all his and Rama’s enthusiastic claims that transforming public spaces can affect society so radically as to reduce crime rates, one is left to wonder how the demolition of the National Theater and numerous other old Tirana villas and cultural heritage objects will transform Albanian society.