Much has been written about the way that dictators use celebrities to “reputation launder” pesky matters such as a terrible human rights record, murder or multi-billion financial scandals. The general consensus is that celebrities should either not engage with such individuals, much less perform for them on private islands and in glitzy arenas, and if they do, they should donate their exorbitant fees to charity.
Examples of superstars performing for less than honourable people include Julio Iglesias warbling for the President of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Sting performing at an event organised by the Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov, and Beyonce and Jay-Z, and Mariah Carey strutting their stuff for Gadaffi, of all people. Who would have known he was a fan?
Some have refused to perform for dictators and used their fame and power to denounce them instead. Madonna and Bono have both criticised various dictators and their regimes, others donated their fees to charity.
But what about in Albania?
Over the last weeks and months, as election time is approaching, we’ve been treated to a parade of C-list celebrities and ageing beauty queens, all voicing their support for the incumbent Socialist Party. In many cases, they have not been vocal, long-time supporters of the government, rather they seem to have chosen 2020, after eight years of Socialist Party government to express their love.
To me, this seems disingenuous. When I see various celebrities being wheeled out to reiterate the supposed virtues of the party, it makes me think “what is your motivation?”
Anyone with two eyes in their head can see that the last eight years has not transformed Albania into a social utopia. Democracy is declining, press freedom is decreasing, human rights are sliding, asylum applications and the mass exodus of desperate citizens continues, drug trafficking is rife, corruption is pervasive, poverty is widespread, the justice system is in pieces, Tirana is being concreted over on a daily basis, and there is no constitutional court. I love this country with all its flaws, but I am not going to stand up and voice support for a party that has spearheaded its demise.
Furthermore, the Socialist Party presides over a country where up to 83% of the population are desperate to leave and where debt is at its highest level in Albanian history. Hardly something to be proud of. Definitely not something to praise the government for.
These are facts-independent and indisputable facts. So why, when faced with the reality of the situation in Albania, are these artists fawning over the Socialist Party and extolling their virtues? One has to wonder what motivates them because I can guarantee it is not a pure, undying love of Rama and Veliaj.
So why do politicians do this? Why do they launder their controversial reputations by getting celebrities to publicly support them? The answer is simple-desperation.
Mayor of Tirana Erion Veliaj is desperate to portray the image that he is a regular, cool, normal, guy and someone that is just like you. He wants you to think of him as an uncle, cousin, friend you could watch the football with, and a fun time guy that came from a humble beginning selling figs, who has your best interests at heart.
Unfortunately, no amount of photo ops of him cuddling children and wearing designer sportswear while smiling at members of the public can convince us of that, so he enlists the help of celebrities who he hopes will make him seem accessible to the masses. He hopes the appeal of these figures will rub off on him and those that look up to them will think that he is also nice, via association.
Veliaj is desperate. In the local elections, less than 15% of Tirana voted for him, meaning that the majority of his previous voter base deserted him. He is obsessed with being liked, or at least appearing to be liked. Therefore the vote of confidence from celebrities is immensely important to him.
The second reason for this kind of behaviour is an attempt to seem relatable. Albanian politicians live in whitewashed, gated communities and designer, concrete bunkers halfway up mountains. They travel with bodyguards and in cars worth more than the average Albanian house. Albanian politicians, like most other politicians for that matter, are completely out of touch with the electorate. Appearing with celebrities is an attempt to make themselves appear human and just like you.
Of course, it doesn’t. If anything it makes them look less credible and harms the reputation of the celebrity. You can almost see the collective national eye roll when a new public figure is unveiled as a surprise lover of a political party. In fact, the first thing I think many of us ask is “how much did they get paid for that?”
Last week, Veliaj rolled out the big guns. International pop star Rita Ora appeared on a Zoom meeting with the Mayor to discuss a number of matters. There was outrage.
Many believe that someone with such immense fame should be careful of who they endorse. Appearing with Veliaj gives a de facto thumbs up to the crimes, scandals, and human rights violations that have occurred under his watch.
In my opinion, as a pop star, albeit of Albanian heritage, she should not be expected to know every single intricacy of Albanian politics and the many scandals that Veliaj has been involved in. She has stood beside politicians from both sides and I believe she thinks she is doing what is best for her country-as misguided as that might be. The issue comes however when she is called out on it and then continues to support him. If this is the case, one would have to question, like the gaggle of Albanian celebrities, what her motives are.
While we cannot expect celebrities to care, or be involved in domestic politics, we can expect them to uphold some kind of moral compass. Performing for dictators is wrong, smiling for photos with autocrats is ethically concerning, and conducting zoom meetings with those involved in issues like the demolition of the National Theatre (and much, much more) is ignorant at best, and an example of selling out at worst. Of course, they are free to do as they choose as long as it’s legal, but this doesn’t make them immune from criticism.
I was never a big Rita Ora fan, but by associating herself with Veliaj and by default, the Socialist Party, I’m afraid I will have to get my occasional dose of pop music from elsewhere.
If observing the bizarre pantomime that is Albanian politics has shown me anything, it’s that in cases of reputation laundering, the bigger the celebrity, the bigger the sins they are trying to hide.