With Albania finding itself in the midst of a deepening political and social crisis, is there any way out of it?
“The battle to save the National Theatre of Albania has become symbolic of the social ills in Albania,” Robert Budina told TRT World over the phone.
Budina is an independent film director who has more than 20 years’ experience writing plays and producing films. He’s now fighting to save the historic Albanian National Theatre from being demolished by the government.
In March of last year, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama announced plans to build a new National Theatre and the ensuing stand-off has increasingly become a microcosm of other problems the government is facing.
Firstly, student protests that began at the end of last year did not end until February, shortly after, the opposition embarked on a boycott of parliament.
The Albanian National Theatre was originally built by in 1938 by the soon-to-be occupying Italian forces as a multi-purpose cinema, sport and cultural complex.
“The National Theatre is a focal point for meetings between people, an open public space and the government's plans threaten this space,” says Budina who is also one of the spokesmen for the Alliance for National Theatre, a civil society organisation seeking to preserve the status of the building.
It occupies more than 7,500 square metres of public land in the centre of Tirana, surrounded by government buildings, and the government views it as prime real estate ripe for commercial development.
The government plans to replace the theatre with a 3,000 square metre one, while the remainder of the land will be given to private developers to build six towers, at varying heights, for residential development and other shopping facilities.
Since public land can not be used for private development and the Municipality of Tirana, currently under the control of Rama’s Socialist Party, did not have the sufficient votes to redesignate the land, the government took the extraordinary step of drafting a law in parliament to take the land.
This proposed law has yet to be ratified, but for many, it showed the government's lack of concern for citizens’ objections and a willingness to use any method to get its way.
“The government actions are unconstitutional,” said Budina. “And if this theft of land was to take place then after this then who knows what’s next.”
The Alliance for National Theatre has been protesting every single day since February of last year. They have also joined the wider anti-government protests led by the opposing Democratic Party.
The demands of the protesters have included an end to corruption, graft, cronyism and what they see as the increasing concentration of power at the hands of Rama.
The opposition, led by Lulzim Basha from the Democratic Party, is seeking a technocratic government that can pave the way for early elections.
The opposition, however, has found it challenging to muster the necessary popular momentum to bring the government to the negotiating table and there are good reasons for this.
During a recent trip to Albania covering the opposition protests, Alma, who refused to give me her last name because she works for the Albanian state and was previously hopeful when Rama came to power in 2013 after more than eight years of Democratic Party rule.
After more than six years in power, she agrees with much of what the opposition protests are saying about Rama’s record, mainly the fight against corruption and the increasing hold by an oligarchy over Albania, resulting in a poorly performing economy and increased unemployment.
Speaking to TRT World, Alma said: “I agree with everything the Democratic Party says but it should not come from their mouth.” Her comment references the Democratic Party’s time in power and the accusations it has also faced of cronyism and corruption.
The opposition in Albania has aligned with the Movement for Socialist Integration, its founder and the current President of Albania, Ilir Meta, was filmed secretly engaging in corrupt practices in relation to public tenders.
But there are signs that the Democratic Party recognise their past failures.
“The opposition has problems of distrust or doubt with it because in general people's trust in politics has been damaged,” said Vokshi, a member of National Advisory Council for the Democratic Party, talking to TRT World.
Increasingly, politics is seen less as “a tool for solving social problems”, said Vokshi, adding: “The Albanian opposition led by the Democratic Party must pass some tests, be humble and give strong evidence that she views politics as a tool for solving problems.”
Lack of trust
The sense of disillusionment by Albanians towards their political class is palpable, no matter who you speak to. And people are voting with their feet as record numbers of people desert Albania for Western Europe.
One of the few young people to attend the protests in Albania, a student identifying himself only as Jurgin, told TRT World: “It has become difficult to live in Tirana for us and our families.”
He then proceeded to name a whole list of grievances that are afflicting his family including low pensions for the elderly, high unemployment and low wages for his parents.
A fellow student protester and friend of Jurgin, Besiana, said: “Life in Albania is becoming unbearable … we don’t see a future here. We start university, but we are afraid to graduate; we don’t know what awaits us when we finish school.”
Young people have largely avoided the opposition protests in Albania, mainly because they view the opposition as part of the problem.
When student protests started in December 2018, they took Rama’s government by surprise. The student organisers refused the overtures of the opposition party to co-opt the movement and as a result, they have also boycotted the current wave of protests.
Initially, the student protests started after tuition fees for universities and fees for exams were increased. However, they quickly grew to encompass other demands, including fighting corruption in the education system.
The protests provided a wakeup call to the Albanian political class that the young will not tolerate the status quo forever.
Student activists I have spoken with in Albania believe that while the student protests, which have now ended, were a partial success, they also energised the youth to work outside the sclerotic political system.
The battle for Albania
The political polarisation in Albania escalated in February when the Democratic Party resigned their mandates, effectively leaving the Socialist Party of Rama as the remaining party in parliament.
However, there is no sign that Rama will yield to the opposition demands, their popularity at the ballot box is far from assured.
In addition to the political crisis that Albania faces, its justice system, far from perfect, has effectively come to a standstill.
Three years ago, under pressure from the EU and America, Albania embarked on justice reform overseen by the powerful American Embassy in Tirana and the EU Commission.
Dr Olsi Jazexhi, a journalist and history lecturer in Albania, has been highly critical of foreign interference in Albania’s justice system.
Speaking to TRT World, Jazexhi said: “The US and the EU forced Albania to change its constitution and inserted a clause that the future justice apparatus of Albania was to be monitored by an International Monitoring Group.”
This outside body would effectively oversee the appointment of judges in Albania. It is an extraordinary and unprecedented level of foreign interference in Albania’s justice system that has left the judiciary paralysed.
They are now monitoring the ‘vetting’ of the more than 800 judges and prosecutors in Albania.
The Albanian constitutional court, normally composed of nine members, is now completely dysfunctional and has been gutted; there are currently no serving members in the highest court of Albania and no one in sight to fill the vacancies.
“They have taken power from the Albanian parliament and presidency and it is now directly the US Embassy which decides who will be the judge or the prosecutor,” added Jazexhi.
While the changes have been made under the guise of fighting corruption, the opposition, initially supportive of the reforms, has become increasingly wary of the process, fearing that it could be used against them.
“The main target of the judicial reforms is the political elites of Albania,” said Jazexhi.
The Albanian political elite may very well be deeply corrupt, however, it’s unclear whether foreign interference that only serves to deepen Albania's political and social cleavages is the way forward.
The battle to save the National Theatre in Albania, and more recently the student protests, follow a bottom-up approach to building awareness around deeply entrenched social issues. And in the long term a more sustainable model.