In the early hours of May 17, 2020, armed special forces and police stormed the National Theatre building in central Tirana. Inside was a group of peaceful activists, mainly artists, intellectuals, and journalists, who had been occupying the building in the hopes of preventing its demolition.
A phone signal jammer was used to stop them from calling for help or reinforcements, essentially shrouding the theatre in darkness and leaving its inhabitants at the mercy of the police.
Video footage emerged of protestors being violently manhandled, and it also showed that the demolition of the building started while there were people still inside. The belongings of the activists went down with the theatre, buried under the rubble, and they were not given any opportunity to retrieve them.
In the hours that followed, people gathered in the street outside the theatre, prevented from getting closer by metal barriers and lines of emotionless police officers who had each removed their identification number from their uniforms.
There were tears, outpourings of grief and despair, and utter disbelief as demolition vehicles continued to tear down the walls of one of Tirana’s few remaining historic buildings.
As the crowd grew, police attempted to disperse citizens multiple times using heavy-handed techniques, often dragging and manhandling peaceful protests. Two journalists were arrested and claimed they were assaulted and verbally abused while in police custody.
To outsiders, the demolition of the National Theatre was a sad event, given the theatre’s status as historical building that should have been preserved on that standing alone, but to Albanians, it meant so much more than that.
Albania’s longest-running protest
The protest to save Albania’s National Theatre was the country’s longest-running civil society protest. For two years, a group of activists, citizens, and artists met in the square of the theatre every day and night, to peacefully protest. The area became a meeting place between like-minded individuals, and even those that disagreed on other matters, came together over this one issue.
People gave speeches, music was played, performances were given, and mini-festivals were organized. It was a friendly and welcoming space where creatives and even curious bystanders were welcomed and encouraged.
The protests formed a community, one where culture and heritage were at the forefront of the debate, along with criticisms over the decline of Albania’s democracy. It became a place where many ideas were discussed and where plans were formed for a better future for citizens and residents alike.
Help in times of crisis
On November 26, 2019, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck Durrës and Tirana. It was followed by large aftershocks and thousands of smaller tremors over the subsequent days. The quake claimed the lives of 51 people and left thousands homeless. Even today, two years later, there are still hundreds of families living in tents or damaged properties.
The earthquake happened in the early hours of the morning, but within minutes, the activists of the National Theatre had sprung into action. Joined by other members of civil society, they quickly organized an aid distribution system, all coordinated from the Theatre. They put out public calls for aid including food, blankets, tents, sanitary items, and clothes, and asked that items be dropped off at the Theatre. From there, they delivered 40 tonnes of aid from more than 9,000 donors to families in need throughout Tirana, Durrës, and the surrounding towns and villages.
Their efforts continued for weeks, and some 200 volunteers worked around the clock, using their own resources to provide help to their fellow countrymen.
It’s my view that without the work carried out selflessly by these volunteers at the Theatre, the situation for those impacted by the earthquake would have been much worse. They would have faced issues in getting aid quickly, and in having other donations distributed fairly. I have previously written that these people were the real heroes of that fateful day and its aftermath, rather than the Albanian authorities.
But it wasn’t just local people that wanted the Theatre to survive, it became the subject of significant international attention.
Europa Nostra, a pan-European cultural heritage NGO pleaded with the Albanian government not to demolish the theatre. They sent letters directly to Prime Minister Edi Rama, published public statements, tweeted, and even designated the Theatre as one of the 7 Most Endangered European Heritage Sites for 2020.
Following its destruction, they condemned the ”brutal demolition.”
In a statement, Europa Nostra wrote:
“The National Theatre, constructed in 1938 by the Italian company “Pater Costruzioni Edili Speciali”, was a remarkable example of innovative construction and modern architectural expression from this time period. The architectural significance of the building has been recognized by many international experts not only for the building itself but also for being part of the context of the monumental axis created for Tirana, in the 1920s. In the past years, it became an important cultural center and now, a symbol of civil society’s will to defend their heritage and the intangible values connected to it.”
The European Commission also voiced its support along with the EU Delegation in Tirana, saying they backed the “7 Most Endangered” intiative and it’s objective. They called for dialogue and collaboration between the parties, in particularly with heritage stakeholders.
Members of the European Parliament were also vocal regarding this matter. Michael Gahler, David Lega, Johann Wadephul, Doris Pack, Ramona Strugariu, and 20 other MEPs either called for it not to be demolished or later demanded its demolition be condemned.
Others that spoke out included President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, as well as the German, Swedish and British Embassies in Tirana, and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti.
Despite the significant international support for the Theatre, the Albanian government decided to proceed with its demolition in the dead of night, on the last day of COVID-19 lockdown in Albania.
The legality of the demolition
Activists and legal experts have argued that the demolition of the Theatre was illegal.
On May 8, the government transferred ownership of the National Theatre’s land to the Tirana municipality, a decision contested by President Ilir Meta, who has asked the Constitutional Court to repeal it, as well as by the Albanian Ombudsman, who has started an administrative investigation into the transfer.
Three days before the demolition, the Tirana municipal council secretly approved the demolition of the theatre.
Decision number 50, dated May 14, 2020 stated that the building would be demolished based on the expert report of the Institute of Construction. It also stated that the Institute of Territorial Defense has the right to surround, enter and then demolish the building. The decision gave no date for demolition but stated that it would notify the Municipality 24 hours before it entered the building.
The expert report issued by the Institute of Construction was drafted only one day before, on May 13, and stated the building is not suitable for carrying out activities and that regardless of any renovations, it cannot be made safe.
The subsequent vote on the report by the Municipal Council was not founded in law. Firstly, the Municipal Council can only take a decision on a property that belongs to the Municipality. In this case, while the land the theatre sits on does indeed belong to them, the building itself did not.
Secondly, the expert report is an administrative-legal act that can only be subjected to judicial review. A political institution such as the Municipal Council of Tirana does not have any jurisdiction over a legal act put forward by a central government institution.
Thirdly, it’s unclear how the vote took place. No public announcement for the Municipal Council meeting was made public, as required by law.
But asides from this, the special law created by the government which ultimately paved way for its demolition, was still yet to be reviewed by the Constitutional Court.
President Ilir Meta had filed two reports with the court, the first to abrogate the special law and the second regarding the decision by the Council of Ministers to transfer the ownership of the land to the Municipality, therefore opening the way for private companies to develop it.
The two reports were filed in July 2019 and May 2020.
In December 2019, the available members of the Constitutional Court asked the Assembly, the Council of Ministers, the Ministry of Finance and Economy, the Ministry of Culture, and the Municipality of Tirana to provide their arguments for their decision to pass the special law.
No decision had been taken but the government proceeded with the demolition anyway. The court was not functioning at the time, but as now it has a quorum, it will proceed to review the cases.
Simply put, activists, journalists, and the President believe that the government manipulated laws, created new ones, and broke existing rules to suit their agenda. All of this, they believe, was done in order to demolish the theatre to make way for expensive commercial construction for the benefit of companies that have a close relationship to the government.
Multiple complaints have also been made to SPAK, the Special Anti-Corruption Structure, but no action seems to have been taken by them so far.
What happens now?
One year later and the site of the Theatre is surrounded by opaque barriers. Nothing has happened since it was demolished and there is no sign of the promised brand-new theatre, or the towers, commercial and residential property, and potentially casinos, that are expected to be built in its place.
The civil society organizations have fractured and splintered, some are still protesting, others no longer speak to each other and have become consumed with political goals and petty arguments. Tirana has lost one of its most beloved historical buildings, and many others in the immediate vicinity are expected to fall in the coming months and years. After all, the government won this battle, meaning they now believe they are invincible and no one can stand in their way.
The people of Tirana who supported the renovation of the Theatre feel deflated. Today is a day of mourning. Not just for a building, but people’s power, democracy, and civil society. The Theatre’s demolition stands as proof that even in the face of peaceful resistance (apart from one particular protest where citizens fought off the police successfully), the machine of capitalism, populism, and greed will often succeed.
It’s also a strong reminder of the way that Albania’s democracy is continuing to ebb away under this regime. Police violence, lack of respect for journalists, indifference to citizens’ wishes, refusal to negotiate or organize a referendum, complete disregard for international opinion, and dare I say it, fascism, paint a concerning picture of what we have to look forward to in the third term of Rama’s rule.
While we may be powerless, we will not forget. Tonight, I will join hundreds of other protestors at the site where the Theatre once stood to march to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Municipality. Because as I remarked already, this isn’t just about a building, it’s about democracy, society, and the future of every person in Albania.