The Demolition of the National Theatre
2020 saw the three-year-long battle of the artists, activists and citizens that formed the Alliance for the Protection of the Theatre come to an abrupt end.
Following the transfer, by the government, of the land ownership of the National Theatre to the Municipality on May 8, 2020, the later was expected to vote on the decision about its demolition on May, 18. And yet, citizens woke up in the early hours of May 17 (the last day of the COVID-19 lockdown), only to find out that the Theatre had been demolished in the depths of the night.
Police were seen starting the demolition immediately after arriving at the scene, without giving prior notice to the activists, dragging away those that were camped outside and inside. Video footage later showed people that were sheltered inside making fast for the door, after hearing the excavator dig into the walls of the building.
Leaked e-mails substantiated that the approval of National Theatre demolition was illegal as the voting was added in the agenda of the May 14, meeting of the Tirana Municipal Council last minute. The secret voting took place as members of Alliance, the public and the opposition were gathering to protect it.
Images of the demolition spread fast and citizens gathered in the morning to protest peacefully, but they were dispersed violently by the police hours later. Hundreds more gathered in Tirana the following day under the direction of the Alliance for the Protection of the Theatre to protest peacefully once more. A similar protest was held in Prishtina’s main square with local theatres across the country closing doors to protest the demolition of the National Theatre.
The government and Municipality came under fire for operating under undemocratic procedures, bending the law again and again and the lack of transparency in doing so. Denunciations raged from members of the public, activists, civil society organisations and the opposition, to President Ilir Meta, the German and Dutch ambassadors in Albania, European MP’s and Commissioners, while the EU delegation expressed disappointment over lack of dialogue before the demolition.
It was thus that the construction plans of the new theatre in the ashes of the old one became a reality. In fact, days before the demolition took place and after the agreement with Fusha shpk fell through, Mayor Veliaj claimed that the construction of the new theatre was going to be financed by a loan guaranteed by the government, not by the state budget. In an unsurprising turn of events, by November 2020, the Democratic Party uncovered that the Municipality has requested said construction, estimated around EUR 36 million, be covered by the public finances.
In this year’s end, citizens might be asking if there’s justice in this case of step-by-step well-documented abuse of power? Many might have hoped in the Ombudsman and SPAK investigations, announced on the same day, May 15 – aiming to inquire whether the actions of the state institutions had been committed in violation of the rights of citizens — but as of today, we are yet to have a response.
Five years after it was established, in 2020 the Kosovo Specialist Chambers (KSC) based in The Hague, confirmed first indictments issued by the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office (SPO) against former high seniors of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).
They are accused of revealing without authorisation, information protected under the law of the KSC, including the identifying details of certain (potential) witnesses, on the occasion of three press conferences between 7 and 25 September 2020. SPO charges Gucati and Haradinaj with six counts.
The arrests by The Hague that shook political scene in Kosovo took place in November when KSC confirmed the war crimes indictment against former President Hashim Thaci, former Parliament Speakers Kadri Veseli and Jakup Krasniqi and the former MP of Vetevendosje, Rexhep Selimi.
During the war in Kosovo, Thaci, Veseli, Selimi and Krasniqi were high figures of the KLA Headquarters.
Right before transferred to The Hague, Thaci resigned from his position, leaving the country with an Acting President.
SPO charges them with six counts of crimes against humanity, namely: persecution, imprisonment, other inhumane acts, torture, murder and enforced disappearance of persons; as well as four counts of war crimes, namely: arbitrary detention, cruel treatment, torture and murder.
According to SPO the former KLA leaders are alleged to be responsible for nearly 100 murders.
SPO expected that the trial against four former senior KLA figures can begin by September 2021, but it is strongly opposed by the defence claiming that it would lead to an unfair trial.
Ben Emmerson, Veseli’s lead counsel said that the prosecution wanted to disadvantage the defence’s preparation “by ensuring that it has no more than three months to prepare the trial”.
Except for Nasim Haradinaj who did not enter a plea before the pre-trial judge, all the others plead not guilty of all charges.
The Murder of Klodian Rasha
On 8 December 2020, in the early hours of the morning, police attempted to apprehend 25-year-old Klodian Rasha. The young man was in the Laprake area of Tirana and was outside after curfew. He ran to get away from the police and was shot twice in the back by an officer, killing him instantly. The police said he had been carrying a weapon and that a gun was found in the alley Rasha ran through. Rasha’s family said he did not own a gun and it was not his.
The following day, protests started in Tirana as crowds of young people demanded the resignation of Interior Minister Sander Lleshaj, General Director of the Police Ardi Veliu, and a reform of the police. They also demanded justice for Klodian and condemned police brutality. The protests soon escalated and rocks and other items were thrown at government buildings. A Christmas tree was set on fire and the police responded by using tear gas, pepper spray, and water cannons. There were hundreds of arrests, most of the minors, over the six days of protests and many claimed they were assaulted and abused by the police.
Four journalists were arrested, some claimed they were assaulted, had footage forcibly deleted and were made to sign confessions they did not write or agree with. Others reported side effects from exposure to tear gas and pepper spray and damaged equipment.
Neither the state nor the police has apologised or commented on the alleged brutality against journalists. Now, the government has announced they are investigating the “real cause” of the protests as they say it was not to do with Rasha’s death.
The COVID Pandemic
The first two confirmed cases of COVID-19 were recorded in Albania on 9 March 2020. A father and son who had recently visited Italy were diagnosed and received treatment in the capital’s main hospital. By the 13 March, the number of cases had reached 33 and Albania closed its borders with Kosovo along with Italy and Greece. The same day, the government banned the movement of all private vehicles and the police and army were on the streets ensuring adherence with the rules.
By 21 March, Armed Forces including armoured vehicles and soldiers with guns were patrolling the streets of Tirana. Waves of new restrictions were announced including limitations on when people could go out and why. Other restrictions included only one person per household being allowed out and lockdowns that lasted from Friday night until Monday morning. Albania had some of the toughest restrictions in Europe and was in lockdown for around two months.
Schools were closed and students were forced to attend online lessons. This was difficult for up to 153,000 families who do not have internet access or adequate devices to facilitate online learning. Gyms, sports activities, cafes, and shopping centres were closed and the country’s tourism industry took a big hit. While there were international visitors during the summer, they were nowhere near the amount that was expected by tourism operators. Many businesses went bankrupt, thousands became unemployed, and the economy slipped into a recession.
As a result, numbers of infections remained low and it seemed that the pandemic was somewhat under control. But as the country began to open up, the number of infections increased. Schools and kindergartens were reopened as the government said they were not hotbeds of infection. Universities announced that all tuition would be done online. Teaching in high schools was to be done in shifts-some in person and some online. Cafes and businesses were allowed to reopen but had to enforce strict hygiene protocols.
The biggest jump in numbers came at the end of October and beginning of November here the number of cases per day almost doubled. Masks became mandatory in all public places, taxis, government buildings, and gatherings of more than ten people were banned. Curfews between the hour of 22:30 and 6:00 were introduced for all cars and pedestrians, except for delivery vehicles and emergencies.
Meanwhile, the number of cases reached a peak of over 800 a day. This lead to significant capacity in the specialist COVID-19 hospitals. A total of four specialist facilities have been opened in Tirana as well as some regional centres.
During the pandemic, a total of five people committed suicide while in the care of state COVID-19 hospitals. The government came under fire for not providing adequate mental health treatment for patients suffering from the virus.
The Albanian government was also criticised for its testing strategy. With some of the lowest testing rates, it became clear that the real rates of infection were significantly higher. Patients were treated at home and facing costly medical bills, requested the government pay them. Finally, the government announced it would reimburse some medicines used to treat the virus at home.
Exit reported on several cases where testing was refused. Additionally, the Opposition accused the government of manipulating the number of deaths it reported to underplay their mismanagement of the crisis.
At the time of writing, there have been 54,317 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Albania, 29,799 recoveries, and 1,117 deaths.
So far, the government has not provided a specific date when the COVID-19 vaccine will be available in Albania.
The Rise and Fall of Kosovo’s Governments
Since Kosovo was liberated in 1999, none of the Governments elected so far could finish their four-year mandate.
In 2020 two Governments fell; the one led by the leader of Vetevendosje Albin Kurti was voted out in March, and the other one led by Avdullah Hoti from the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) was ruled as unconstitutional due to a decisive vote of an already convicted MP. The Kurti government was voted out in a vote of no-confidence only 52 days after the Vetevendosje-LDK coalition took power.
Cracks in the coalition started to appear when Kurti did not take the advice of the US administration to immediately and unconditionally lift the 100 per cent tariffs on Serbian goods imposed by the previous government, but proposed a plan to do it gradually, and impose reciprocity measures toward Serbia if the latter did not reciprocate.
The crisis escalated when Kurti fired an LDK minister over statements against his government’s decisions not to support President Thaçi’s proposal for parliament to declare a state of emergency, which would give the president more power during the coronavirus outbreak. The LDK argued that Kurti has put at risk Kosovo’s relationship with the US and has violated the coalition agreement by firing the minister.
In his last speech in parliament as PM, Kurti stated that his government was facing a no-confidence vote to open the way to an agreement with Serbia through the exchange of territories, which is ready and waiting to be signed. Amid calls for new elections, Kosovo Parliament voted on the LDK-led government of Avdullah Hoti, in ruling coalition with the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) on June 3.
The vote came after the contested Constitutional Court ruling in favour of President Hashim Thaci, who decided to avoid new elections after the toppling of the Kurti Government, and sidestepped the largest party, Vetevendosje from forming a new government.
Vetevendosje left in opposition, continuously called the Hoti government illegitimate. It filed a request at the Constitutional Court to review the voting validity on the Government, claiming it violated the Constitution. With Hoti in office, Kosovo resumed the EU mediated dialogue Serbia after a 20-month break, following Kosovo’s imposition of a 100% tax on goods from Serbia, in retaliation for Serbia’s derecognition campaign against Kosovo.
Hoti also lifted reciprocity measures to allow dialogue to continue.
However, on December 21, Hoti’s Government became the second one to fall amid COVID-19 pandemic in Kosovo. Based on Vetevendosje’s request, the Constitutional Court of Kosovo ordered the Acting President to announce snap elections within forty days, after deciding that the vote of MP Etem Arifi on the government is unconstitutional.
Despite having been sentenced to prison with a final verdict, Arifi’s vote was decisive in the forming the government.
Albania’s EU Journey
Albania’s path toward EU membership was dominated this year by the so-called “fifteen conditions” set by the European Council in March that need to be fulfilled for the first Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) to be held. Whereas Prime Minister Edi Rama once denied any conditionality and the European Commission worked hard to dilute them, they were essentially reduced to an implementation of the Electoral Reform following the long list of recommendations of previous OSCE-ODIHR reports and a minimally functional Constitutional Court.
A reform of the Electoral Code, excluding nearly all OSCE recommendations, was confirmed by the June 5 agreement under intense international pressure and outside the Albanian democratic institutions established by law. Its adoption in Parliament was followed swiftly by Constitutional reforms pushed through unilaterally by the Socialist majority and glossed over by the European Commission.
The Constitutional Court became minimally functional this week, with six members appointed by President and Parliament, in violation of the legal stipulation that members are appointed sequentially by President, Parliament, and High Court. As with previous nominations to the Constitutional Court, the procedures were marred by legal violations, which, considering a recent verdict of the European Court of Human Rights, will no doubt lead to future contestations of the Constitutional Court’s standing as an impartial tribunal and undercut the legitimacy of its decisions in a host of high-profile cases, including the validity of the Municipal Elections of 2019. Nevertheless, the Eurocrats were quick to congratulate themselves on this “progress,” while continuing to ignore the increased police violence against members of the public and the media, undermining of fundamental human rights, and backsliding of the Rama government.
With these two issues “resolved” and the remaining thirteen conditions conveniently ignored, the European Commission and the Rama government now see the way cleared to the first IGC, whose date will no doubt be determined by the vicissitudes of internal EU politics, Rama’s electoral campaign plans, and Albania’s steady backsliding into an autocratic police state.
Agim Kajmaku was the Socialist Party Mayor of Vora who was elected during the 30 June local elections. It was later discovered that he had lied on his decriminalisation form and failed to declare his criminal record in Greece when he applied to run as a candidate. He was charged with a variety of offences and promptly went “on the run”. The authorities said they were unable to find him.
Despite the Albanian police claiming for many months that they were unable to locate Kajmaku, Exit was able to find him in two separate locations and obtain photographs of him out and about.
Following a tip from two independent sources, Exit was able to confirm he was drinking coffee regularly at a cafe in Vora, not far from his home. He was then spotted again, drinking coffee and then going for a walk along one of Tirana’s main roads, just metres from a police directorate.
One witness reported that to keep a low profile, Kajmaku is travelling with a vehicle from the National Food Authority (AKU) where one of his family members works.
Police then arrested him and the Appeals Court then released him. The reduced security measure came at the request of the case prosecutor Arta Marku who said he was in poor health.
The Incinerators Scandal
In October 2020, the Special Prosecution Office Against Corruption (SPAK) announced that it has launched an investigation into the concessionary contracts of Albania’s three waste incinerators.
Albania has been paying three concession holders €72 million since 2015 for the construction and operation of these incinerators, two of which have not yet been built, while the other is operating under capacity.
The first incinerator, in Elbasan, came as a result of an unsolicited offer to the government by a new company of no capital or experience. The company was awarded a €22-million-worth concession contract. Within two years, two other concessionary contracts for the Fier and Tirana waste incinerators.
The concessionary contractual obligations were also tipped in favour of the concessionary company. Firstly, per the contract, the government must pay the concessionary before the construction is finished. Secondly, the government agrees to compensate the concessionary company if no sufficient waste is available to fuel the incinerator.
Unsurprisingly, the concessionary companies have thus delayed construction, whereas the government keeps paying.
The government has paid €25 million for the Elbasan incinerator, €3 million more than agreed upon in the concessionary contract.
The Fier incinerator has received €22 million out of the total €27 million cost of the contract. The government has paid over 80% of the cost for an incinerator that has not even been built yet.
The Tirana incinerator concessionary company has received €25 million during the two years of a 30-year long project. Although the incinerator has yet to be built, the government has already paid the company 20% of the total contract cost.
Of the three incinerators, only the Elbasan has been built, though it only operates sporadically and under capacity, as there is not enough waste to burn. Meanwhile, the Fier and Tirana incinerators should have concluded construction since 2018.
In 2019, prosecution wiretaps were leaked to the media that appeared to show collusion between Socialist Party officials and MPs, criminals, police and state officials to intimidate voters, buy votes, and manipulate the outcome of local and general elections. These wiretaps sparked huge Opposition-led protests in the streets of Tirana and prompted the Democratic Party and LSI to resign their mandates from parliament.
The tapes included the voices of Prime Minister Edi Rama, PS politician Damian Gjiknuri, well-known criminals, the previous Mayor of Durres Vangush Dako, and others.
The European People’s Party called for the Albanian authorities to launch criminal proceedings against the officials involved in vote-buying. The matter was also listed as one of the 15 conditions Albania had to meet before sitting at the first intergovernmental conference. It was strangely committed from the October progress report with no explanation forthcoming from the EU Delegation in Tirana or the European Commission.
In 2020, none of the ‘big fish’ were arrested. Instead, 22 Election Commissioners were arrested and charges were filed against individuals involved in the scandal at a local level. This was after SPAK had refused to investigate the two files as they claimed it didn’t involve any structured criminal group and didn’t fall under their competence. The file was then handed to the Dibra Prosecution Office, in a possible violation of the law, where it was overseen by a judge related to one of the accused.
Investigative journalist Klodiana Lala went on to win an EU award for her investigation into the scandal. Her work was called a “careful investigation, verification of facts and determination to shed light on a phenomenon present in Albania’s society but which has rarely been fully verified. Her courageous work and verification of sources make this article credible and influential.”
But still, no convictions of the more senior individuals implicated. In fact, Damian Gjiknuri went on to be the head of the electoral reform commission. Meanwhile, Rama admitted his voices were on the tapes and said he would have the same conversation again.
The Seizure of Ora News
In August, Albanian special forces and police descended upon the premises of RTV Ora. They were acting on the orders of SPAK to had ordered the sequestration of 26 assets belonging to Ndroqi due to his alleged involvement in drug trafficking. Ora News is now being administered by the state.
Ndroqi claims he is legitimate and that the action against him is due to court cases he has initiated against Mayor of Tirana Erion Veliaj and his station’s critical stance against the government. The Albanian Media Council called it a “de facto attack on free speech” and said that the heavy-handed methods used could send a chilling message to other critical media.
The AMC noted that the decision to seize the two TV channels has enabled the government to appoint its own administrators, thus de facto bringing their editorial line, too, “under seizure”.
Ora News and the government spent much of 2020 engaged in conflict.
In August, Ora News published messages that it claims were from the Mayor of Tirana Erion Veliaj and owner of Ora News Ylli Ndroqi. In the published messages, Veliaj insulted the journalist Beti Numa and tried to change the content of the news.
Speaking about Numa, Veliaj allegedly wrote: “I never expected even on the worst day that would allow a beast to enter between us.” He also referred to journalists as “idiots” and accused them of copying news from the Democratic Party in an attempt to discredit him. Screenshots also showed the Mayor forwarding articles from Ora that were critical of the Municipality and him, questioning their publication. These included content relating to the demolition of the National Theatre.
In February, Ora News journalist Sonila Musaj filed staking and sexual harassment charges against Tirana Municipality employee Auren Borici who ‘hugged’ her while she was trying to ask questions to Veliaj. She said it was unacceptable and sexist behaviour that prevented her from doing her work.
Extradition of Turkish Citizens
On the evening of 1 January 2020, the Albanian government deported Turkish citizen Harun Celik, whom Turkey considered linked to the Gulen movement, which it has accused of the failed 2016 coup attempt.
Celik had requested political asylum, the Voice of America reported, but the Albanian government delivered him to the Turkish authorities without due process.
He was arrested in Albania six months before his deportation for travelling with false documents to flee from Turkey to Canada. He was leaving his country because he had received death threats.
Andrej Hunko, Rapporteur on Albania for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe expressed serious concerns over the “worrying extradition” of Harun Celik without fair consideration of his asylum request. A report from the United Nations said that Albania was complicit in “extraterritorial abductions and the forcible return of Turkish nationals” and was party to “secret” agreements with Turkey.
Romanian MEP Ramona Strugariu addressed an official letter to Prime Minister Edi Rama seeking answers on the government’s decision to deport him to Turkey in violation of domestic and international laws protecting asylum seekers.
The EU Delegation in Tirana also criticised the government for not following legal procedures and its international obligations in this case.
A second Turkish citizen, who was travelling with Celik, and was in a similar situation, has been so far kept in Albania, following domestic and international concerns over his safety.
Following his prison sentence for using forged documents to travel to Canada, Selami Simsek’s asylum request was considered before being deported to Turkey.
The government refused his request, claiming his life is not in danger if deported to Turkey.
Simsek took the case to the court, which ruled against him. He is expected to appeal the case, whereas his friend Celik is behind bars in Turkey.
The Unconstitutional Establishment of the Constitutional Court
The Constitutional Court became operational in December 2020 after about 2 years of non-functioning. It had become defunct following the dismissal and resignation of many of its members as a part of the vetting process.
The Judicial Appointments Council (KED) sent the lists to the Assembly and the President this month for the vacancies advertised by them.
Thus, on December 17, the fifth member of the Constitutional Court was elected, while on December 24, the sixth.
Exit explained that their election was against the law as the lists sent to the President and the Assembly contained less than three members, a number set by law and the Constitution. This means that the appointment of the latest members could be considered in violation of both the law and the Constitution that governs that very court.
Despite this, the EU including the EU Ambassador to Albania Luigi Soreca and Commissioner for Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi lauded the news and congratulated Albania on the news. Questions sent to the EU regarding the legally questionable nomination process remain unanswered at the time of writing.
The Court already has the necessary quorum to make decisions. It has six members out of the nine seats available. However, the law on the Constitutional Court (Article 72) provides that the decisions of the CC are taken by a majority vote of all members, so at least 5 members must vote for or against a decision. So far the Assembly has elected 3 members, the President 2.
On November 16, 2019, Albania was hit by a devastating earthquake that claimed the lives of 51 people and left about 3,000 injured.
The European Union organised a Donors’ Conference in February, resulting in €1.15 billion in donations, grants and loans pledged to help the Albanian government with the earthquake reconstruction.
A joint needs assessment report by the EU, the UN, the World Bank, and the Albanian government, found that more than 47 thousand people were affected directly by the earthquake, whereas about 17 thousand were displaced and over 10,000 people were still living in tents. The report assessed that damages amounted to nearly €1 billion.
More specifically, the government announced the following data:
- Over 8,000 homes were made uninhabitable;
- 10,023 citizens living in tents;
- 12,000 families have received the rental bonus;
- 115 apartment blocks were to be demolished, 242 to be rebuilt;
- 1,500 houses were to be demolished;
- 62 will be rebuilt and 17 will be repaired;
- 1455 building permits were approved as per an expedited procedure.
Throughout the year, Prime Minister Edi Rama and Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj have frequently appeared on media delivering newly constructed homes to earthquake victims, but the government has not made public any overall report.
The most up-to-date information is that from Minister for Reconstruction Arben Ahmetaj, who announced on Tuesday that one thousand families affected by the earthquake will move into new homes during this week. Construction works are ongoing in several sites in Peza (Tirana), Shijak, Golem, Manze (Durres). Kavaje, Fushe Kruje, and Thumane, the minister informed, and they will be complete by the end of the year.
The remaining 1,156 families that are still living in tents will have their new apartments within May 2021, according to him.
The government has provided the families in need with USD 26 million to cover their rents.
One year after the earthquake, the United Arab Emirates granted Albania $70 million to fund the construction of 2,000 apartments in Durres, the city hit the worst by the earthquake. The construction is yet to start.
In December 2020, Turkey started to build 524 apartments in Lac, the second worst-hit city. They are planned to be completed in August 2021.
Compiled and authored by (in alphabetical order): Alice Taylor, Bledar Qalliu, Die Morina van Uijtregt, Megi Ndregjoni, Patris Pustina, Rezearta Caushaj, and Vincent van Gerven Oei.