Using the cover of the coronavirus lockdown, a political elite sees an opportunity to bulldoze the opposition.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, Albanian police officers dressed in riot gear demolished the historic National Theatre of Albania. Widespread anger was the immediate result of these actions.
With much of the country facing a lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, activists had feared from the outset that the government would use the situation as a pretext to, once and for all, move against the protestors.
Those who had continually guarded the National Theatre in their two-year-long campaign to save the cherished building had gone home in light of the pandemic, leaving it weak to attack.
On Sunday, they came back out to protest government actions.
The long-running battle to save the theatre had pitted activists, who are eager to preserve a unique piece of urban history, against the socialist government of Edi Rama, who instead sees the area as prime real estate ripe for commercial development.
First built in 1939 by Italian architect Giulio Berte, the theatre has “become symbolic of the social ills in Albania,” which is how Robert Budina, spokesmen for the Alliance for National Theatre, described it to TRT World last year.
When TRT World attempted to reach Budina again, the film producer-turned-activist apologised for being unable to comment, merely explaining that his organisation was busy arranging a protest against “police terror” following the demolition.
Mechanised diggers have swiftly torn down much of what remained of the National Theatre, while police have used pepper spray and batons against protestors speaking violence.
One bystander at the scene spoke of police attempting to goad protestors as a pretext to attack them.
“They not only beat up protesters and journalists, but some also instigated violence by laughing at people who were crying and ridiculing them,” Heldis Matja Ismailaj told TRT World.
Sad day for #CulturalHeritage in Albania & Europe.— Europa Nostra (@europanostra) May 17, 2020
Sad day for #Democracy & #RuleofLaw in Albania & Europe.
Early this morning, Albanian authorities arrested #civilsociety activists & started demolition of protected #NationalTheater in #Tirana#7MostEndangered #NotOurEurope pic.twitter.com/MPaex9YUEW
‘Extreme turn to authoritarianism’
Albania also happens to find itself in the midst of a political crisis. It has no effective opposition in place since the Democratic Party left parliament resigning their mandates.
A recent recommendation by the national audit office for the government, which suggested to halt the demolition and wait for a final ruling from the Albanian supreme court, was ignored.
A ruling from the Supreme Court, however, would not be possible after much of the judiciary finds itself in a state of paralysis as judges and prosecutors face corruption probes.
The central government, therefore, has seen its authority become increasingly unrestrained in the face of a dysfunctional system of checks and balances.
Ismailaj sees the government's actions as part of an “extreme turn to authoritarianism because they were certain that they wouldn't be stopped by anyone, and that the pandemic provided them a perfect cover.”
The destruction of the theatre for many Albanians was the passing of a cultural monument that hails the city's rich cultural and artistic history.
“It was built in a distinctive style that attests for the occupation of Albania under fascist Italy, and historical and artistic because Albanian art was birthed inside those walls,” says Ismailaj.
“Some of the greatest Albanian icons performed on that stage and left an inspiring and precious art history behind. Those walls had a soul that was built by decades of people pouring talent inside them, and these hooligans say it was a useless ugly building,” he added.
Much of the protestors see the theatre demolition as an example of rampant urban development which trumps the cultural and historical fabric of the city and the country as a whole.
This kid is holding The Idiot by #Dostoyevsky as he is pulled by #Albania police in 4 different directions, for protesting the demolition of The National Theater building in #Tirana. Police violence wasn't provoked by protesters & the kid never let go of the book. #teatrikombetar pic.twitter.com/X548LkZlZ0— Blendi Salaj (@BlendiSalaj) May 17, 2020
Rampant urban development
Since the fall of communism, Albania has seen the tightly-controlled real estate market boom, reflected in the speed with which buildings go up.
Albania’s capital, Tirana, has been transformed beyond recognition as the city has spread uncontrollably in all directions - sometimes legally, and sometimes not. The country’s civil society, however, is determined that the government will be held accountable.
“If the pre-nineties political system did something right it was urban planning – with systematic roads and residential blocks and with a floor height of 5-7 floors in most parts of the capital. In addition, there were public spaces between the living block in the form of courtyards and playgrounds for children,” says Nebih Bushaj an urban planning student and activist fighting for students rights.
Tirana’s rapid transformation has impacted the different layers of history that the city has been through.
“Many characteristic villas in Tirana including Ottoman period villas and Italian villas from the 1930s that were not affected during the [communist] dictatorship, were allowed to be sold to constructors without being protected by the state, often being deliberately left to be ruined so that their owners would sell them for two pennies to the construction companies,” added Bushaj to TRT World.
Multi-story high rise concrete towers have shot up in the capital and there are pervasive rumours that members of the Albanian political class across the spectrum have shares or receive kickbacks for authorising their construction.
The area around the theatre will see six high-rise blocks be constructed, alongside another shopping mall.
Much of the re-developed real estate will be out of reach for most people in a country where the average monthly wage is $360 and where one square metre of property in the centre of Tirana can cost upward of $1600.
In the absence of an effective judiciary, political opposition and a neutered media, the theatre has become a lightning rod for those Albanians greatly affected by the economic and political malaise in the country.
For some, it has also become an attack on what it means to have a cultured society governed by the rule of law.
“This is a move to destroy our history because when you destroy people’s history, you kill them,” said Ismailaj.