Gresa Hasa explores how the government of Albania demolished the building of the National Theatre in the middle of the pandemic and a national lockdown.
Early at dawn, on 17 May 2020, when Tirana’s citizens were asleep and still under curfew, the government of Albania demolished the building of the National Theatre.
The building dated back to 1939 and was built during the early years of Italian rule. It operated as a cinema until the end of the Second World War, when it was transformed into a theatre.
After two years of protests and manifestations by artists, activists and citizens for the preservation of the building, at 4.30 am, hundreds of armed police forces and the special RENEA unit (The Department of Neutralization of Armed Elements known in Albanian by its acronym “RENEA”, the main counter-terrorist response unit in Albania) besieged the entire area around the National Theatre and raided the building.
At the time, under COVID19 regulations, nobody was allowed to leave home before 6 a.m. and public gatherings and protests were forbidden. Nevertheless, for several months, the activists of the movement “The Alliance for the Protection of the National Theatre”, had extended their shifts at the occupied theatre, and continued to guard it 24 hours non stop. An evening before the demolition, as every other night, they were there, trying to protect the 82 year old building, also part of Albania’s cultural and historical heritage, from being destroyed, as had been the case with many cultural objects in the country in the last decades.
“I had fallen asleep shortly, after several night shifts in a row, and a prior intense and hopeful evening that resonated in all of us. There were so many people that night. I believed that the theatre could not be destroyed at that point. I felt that there was already a lot of pressure within and outside the country, considering the support we had gotten,” says Dorina Musai, architect and an activist of the Alliance for the Protection of the National Theatre.
On July 2018, Europa Nostra, the European Federation for Cultural Heritage, wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Edi Rama, President Ilir Meta and Ambassador of the European Union to Albania (then) Ms. Romana Vlahutin, expressing concern for the abrupt decision to demolish the building of the National Theatre, “a heritage site of great cultural and architectural importance in Europe”, as they stressed. In March 2020, two months before the demolition, Europa Nostra, this time with its partner organisation, the European Investment Bank Institute, brought the National Theatre of Albania to attention again by including it in its list of the 7 Most Endangered Monuments and Heritage Sites in Europe for 2020.
Two years before the demolition, on 10 September 2018, the European Commission, specifically, the Head of the Enlargement Directorate for Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovica, Ms. Michella Matuella, in a letter addressed to the General Secretary of the Council of Ministers in Albania,
Engjëll Agaçi, made a request to the Albanian government to remove the proposed special law for the National Theatre arguing that it violated the principles of non-discrimination and free competition, provided by articles 72 and 74 of the SAA. The law was introduced with a fast procedure to the parliament by Prime Minister Rama, with the aim to be voted by a majority as soon as possible, at a time when the Constitutional Court of Albania was dysfunctional and unable to institutionally challenge this personal decision of Prime Minister Rama, thus protected by a special law that made it possible to give over the public space around the National Theatre, including the land of the National Theatre, to the private business firm “Fusha sh.p.k.”, which as the government tried to justify, had requested to “further develop” its property (in reality, “Fusha sh.p.k.” owned only 298 square meters in the center of the city, not related to the land of/and around the national theatre).
This private firm, according to the new special law which also bore its name, would have the right to construct the new building of the National Theatre, while serving as the sole proprietor of the land. “Fusha sh.p.k” would at the same time be excluded by all the public-private-partnership laws and public procurement in the country. The law foresaw as well the exclusion of “Fusha sh.p.k.” from any public, transparent and fair project competition for the construction of the new building of the National Theatre.
The practice of these “special laws” is not new in Albania. In the last years, the Albanian government has introduced several special laws whenever it benefited its agenda, which generally does not align with the public’s needs and demands. These special laws have all had the same function: that of alternating the status of public spaces or protected areas and handing them to shady, private companies, usually close to the government, for narrow profit.
Thereupon, the struggle about the National Theatre was not necessarily about the theatre per se, but for one of the most economically valuable lands in the center of Tirana, the privatization of which would bring money in the pockets of very few actors: some wealthy businessmen and a bunch of politicians. At the same time, the demolition of the building, in the way it was executed, early at dawn, in the middle of a national lockdown, during a global pandemic, served as a dystopic performance of authoritarianism to an entire people.
Photo: Xheni Myrtai
Certainly, this was also the case of yet another cultural object that was erased from its existence and the collective memory of the people but firstly and foremost, it is the case of yet another stolen public land for the benefit of a private business close to the party in power. The initial plan for the new building of the National Theatre, erased from the city’s map also other objects and replaced them with business towers, similar to “Plaza”: expensive, luxurious, mainly empty and not really functional, exclusionary to the 99% of the people and behind the sparkling façade, without clear known owners of the property.
On 8 May 2020, nine days before the demolition took place, through the 377 Decision of the Council of Ministers, the government of Albania transferred the ownership of the land of the National Theatre from the Ministry of Culture to the Municipality of Tirana, preparing the ground for the offensive that was about to happen next. Prior to this, in autumn 2018, the Ministry of Culture had transferred the National Theatre of Albania, to the building known as “Turbina”. Therefore, the actual historical building of the National Theatre was stripped of its functionality. Already being excluded from the historical area of the city as it had become, the building ended up being a mere old, empty and dysfunctional object. The alteration of its status from “public property”, serving to the public and useful by it, to “state property”, useless to the public but profitable to the state which could do with it anything possible, brought the building to the risk of demolition that actually happened, brutally and unlawfully.
On the other hand, it could not be proven that the building of the National Theatre was declared a monument of culture of primary importance (part of a list with 150 objects of such kind in Tirana), as per the decision of the Minister of Culture Bujar Leskaj in 2007, due to lack of transparency and missing documents.
At a time when people were fearing for their lives from the COVID19 virus, and the country was in the middle of a health crisis, soon to be extended to an economic crisis as well, Edi Rama decided to send almost all of its armed forces to the National Theatre, for yet another unnecessary and aggressive show.
“I was hiding in one of the lodges of the second floor when I understood that RENEA was part of the raid. I saw their troops standing in line on stage, as a surrealistic play. They had special uniforms, helmets and were the only ones equipped with heavy machine guns,” says Dorina.
When asked about the cooperation with the opposition, Dorina Musai explains that she did not expect the opposition to save the theatre, or to even show up there. She notes that only the numbers of the people they could provide mattered. “We needed people. If there was something that could have saved the theatre, these were the people. If there would have been 1500 people, the theatre would not have been demolished. To me the opposition meant nothing more than just numbers.” – she says. “But, when I suddenly woke up that morning, a while before the police and the special forces arrived, I discovered that most of the people had disappeared, including the two leaders of the opposition, Lulzim Basha and Monika Kryemadhi, who had expressed their support and solidarity. I went outside, confused, trying to understand where everybody had gone, when I heard a loud whistle and immediately saw hundreds of police and special forces raiding the building.” – Dorina sighs.
The opposition leaders, especially Lulzim Basha, head of the Democratic Party, who had signed a cooperation contract with the “Alliance for the Protection of the National Theatre” in the name of his party, expressing support to the cause, had decided to join the night shifts in the last days, together with the activists. However, right before the police and the special forces raided the building, he decided to leave, encouraging activists and citizens to do the same, trying to convince them that the theatre was not at risk anymore. However, worrying that the police might arrive at any minute, to forcefully remove the activists from the theater space and open the way for its demolition, like it had been the case before, the activists had decided to remain in the theatre.
The Alliance’s cooperation with the Democratic Party and the closeness to the opposition parties generally, divided the civil society in the country and many citizens who were standing in solidarity. There were those who saw this cooperation as hopeful, practical or opportunistic even, and others who saw it as harmful, perceiving it to be a way for the opposition to use the cause for personal political capital.
Ervin Goci, a professor at the Faculty of Journalism in the University of Tirana and an activist of the “Alliance for the Protection of the National Theatre”, was one of the dozen activists besides Dorina, who had remained in the theatre that dawn.
“Everything happened tremendously fast,” he says. “The entire state was in front of us that morning, heavily armed. Every possible private and public force had entered the theatre: the state and municipality’s police, the private units “Shqiponjat”, the National Inspectorate for Territorial Protection, RENEA. The only one missing was the military.”
The building had been hit twice and the frontal part of it was already demolished and had fallen, while the police and the special forces were playing hide and seek with the activists and the citizens inside the theatre.
“When I initially heard glass shatter loudly somewhere on the second floor, I thought that [they] had broken a window but soon I understood that the building had been hit from outside and it was crumbling. I then decided to move from my hidden spot and make myself visible. It was hard to see clearly but I could easily move around because I already had memorized the entire planimetry of the building. I knew the exit doors, all of the rooms and stairs, every single lodge and window. During this entire time, I had turned on the camera and was recording live for our movement’s Facebook page, until they spotted me. At 4.45 the building had fallen entirely on the ground,” Dorina concludes.
The police and the special units did not give a sign or a warning beforehand. They never tried to communicate with the activists and the citizens.
“They came in secretly, at dawn, during lockdown, when Albania was dealing with a global pandemic, lack of doctors, hospitals and basic sanitary and medical equipment; when the city was still asleep. They started with the demolition immediately while our people and theirs were still inside. At the end of it, some of us tried to find an escape, to avoid being caught dead in the ruins,” says Ervin.
The police had blocked all the streets leading to the National Theatre from that moment on, by setting up checkpoints in every entrance. For the next three days, all of the streets leading to Tirana were blocked as well. Nobody could enter the city. The government was using the COVID19 pandemic as an excuse to this sudden siege, while on the other side, the government was bragging about a successful handling of the pandemic and was informing the people that in a few days the country would start to slowly open.
The activists believe that the blocking of the main streets was only done to prevent people from reaching the capital to protest. Those two weeks of a prolonged lockdown, in a time when Albania had very few COVID19 infection cases, as well as the decision to demolish the building of the national theatre, at an unusual time, during an unusual and critical moment, raise concerns about the slip of the Albanian government (still currently ruling, after having secured a third time in the April 2021 elections) further away from democratic practices.
Elsa Demo, cultural journalist and a show host of the cultural program “Arkapia” on national TV, as well as one of the most valuable critical voices in Albania for culture, was one of the people highly engaged with the protection of the building of the National Theatre, since the 2000s.
“The way theatre was done in Albania has been developed in parallel to the infrastructure policies of the country. That is why the demolition of the building of the National Theatre symbolizes not only the failure of the infrastructure policies taken by the governments throughout these 30 years, but also that of the mentality that leads the art. The demolition of the building is meaningful also for the art itself, in cinematography or visual arts too, concerning the ways how institutions deal with it. Institutions which are left abandoned. For example, the takeover of contemporary art in Albania by Edi Rama is materialized by COD (Center for Openness and Dialogue) in the main hall of the building of the Prime Ministry. He was able to raise a specific budget for it, build up a library and produce publications, something which the National Gallery of Arts lacks.
After Edi Rama, Elva Margariti, Minister of Culture, has done the same thing in the main hall of the building of the Ministry of Culture: she has created her personal “cultural hall” where she commissions works of art with a value that can often reach an amount of 6 million ALL. She calls an artist who prepares a work of art which later is enjoyed by the bureaucrats of the Ministry of Culture and afterwards, nobody knows what happens to the art piece or where it ends up? Events of this kind are not open to the public because to be part of these structures one should be in line with the vision of those in power. There are many activities of this kind where as a journalist of culture, I am not invited or have no access to the information about it.”
The demolition of the building of the National Theatre, after two years of intensive protests and manifestations; of internal and external solidarity, did not generate a stronger and solidified cultural movement. On the contrary, “The Alliance for the Protection of the National Theatre” ended up being divided into two separate groups: one, more moderate and willing to continue to seek justice and the other one, slipping into the extreme right rhetoric, rebelling without a cause, protesting against the COVID19 vaccination, deepening the conspiracy theories and spreading misinformation while at the same time, aligning with authoritarian leaders from Western countries, like Donald Trump in the United States.
Nevertheless, there were always two fractions in the movement from the very beginning. The more the time passed, the more the crack deepened between the two sides of the same coin.
On the other hand, many artists in the movement (though, not only them), were under a lot of pressure. Many actors have felt threatened of losing their jobs because of protesting. Others were blackmailed. And some others were bought or seduced with certain privileges. “This is a system that hits people where they are the most fragile,” as Elsa Demo summed it up.
“If we were in another system where talent and capabilities are valued and not in a system that encourages fear, servility and obedience, we would have a different image of the society. Maybe, in the other system, the theatre would have survived. And even if it would not have survived, it could at least leave behind a shadow, a shadow that I do not see today. The trauma lives among those people who perceive the theatre as an extension of their lives, as their common part, the part of the collective,” says Elsa Demo.
“I used to spend a lot of time in the newsroom, working, and regularly I would miss the sunsets. Only when I went to the theatre for the afternoon rehearsals of a play that I would see several times before writing a piece about it, I was able to see the sunset, the afternoon promenades… Details that I would miss from the darkness of the newsroom. From my work to the theatre which was a short walk, I would see the city, its vitality and I perceived this scene connected to life itself, the life that the theatre brings as an epiphany, as something that appears out of the blue suddenly… I keep saying that the review of X theatre play or Y article, has caused me two sunsets or four sunsets.”, she confesses.
The irony of it all is that this violent attack against culture comes from a Prime Minister whose educational and professional background was nurtured in culture. Not just so, but since Edi Rama was mayor of Tirana, he liked to be presented as the “artist-politician” or the “politician-artist”, a symbiosis which reflects a constant conflict between the fact that he is not an artist, nor a politician; that he never managed to fully execute any of these identities and professions, something which has severely threatened the democracy in Albania, as Elsa Demo stresses, and which can easily be embodied in his doodles on official governmental documents.
“I also would not leave aside a figure like Anri Sala, the artist-businessman, a warrantor of some of the “great” architecture works that are being built in Albania, great only from the perspective of the capital they provide to the 1% in the country and the rough intervention to the public space. An investment of this artist who in 2003 preceded this commitment of cooperation with Edi Rama, through the video-art “Dammi i colori” (“Give me the colors”), the project that presented Edi Rama in the Venice Biennale as an artist and a mayor who treats the city as his canvas on which he pours his inks. ”, brings Elsa to attention.
By refusing his position as a politician and a Prime Minister, Edi Rama at the same time refuses the responsibility that comes with the job. This is not a naive manoeuvre but a cunning one, narcissistic also, and absolutely bad news for us. Despite not being “enough” in any of these two professions, he still gets chosen, as he likes to put it, by the people of Albania as a Prime Minister, and by world-known art galleries, for his art, although supported by his political network, influence and power.
While he destroys public property, enforces himself upon an entire nation and erases the collective memory of the country (because if history cannot start with Edi Rama, why is it needed?), an important question pops up: When will the people of Albania end for good the theatre-play of Albanian politics and finally and fully establish democracy?