Demolition of National Theater Serves Another Strike to Democracy in Albania

By Team Albanians - May 20, 2020

Over twenty-seven months of tensions culminating between social activists and authorities in Albania came to a bitter end this weekend as the government took to demolish its National Theater in a sudden turn of events early Sunday morning.

The much-contested demolition took place around 4:30 AM, after phone signals were suddenly jammed throughout the city, and hundreds of police officers (stripped of their identity numbers) stormed the theatre, forcibly removing and arresting the protesters on site.

The National Theater, known as Teatri Kombetar to Albanians, was built during the Italian occupation in 1939, operating as a cinema until the end of WWII, and a traditional theater stage, home to Albania’s many playwrights and performers thereafter.

The complex had major historical as well as architectural significance to Albanians, being one of the first creations inspired by Rationalist architecture, after a period of neoclassical construction. The Association of Albanian Architects declared their opposition to the demolition of the Theatre for this reason, further emphasizing both its historic and aesthetic value in the capital.

In 2018, the Albanian government, led by an increasingly unpopular Prime Minister Rama, announced plans to demolish the Theater because of an alleged lack of funding and maintenance over the years. The then-Minister of Culture, Mirela Kumbaro, faced much of the public’s initial retaliation, accused of trying to destroy Albanian heritage to further the private interests of those investors with close ties to government.

While Prime Minister Rama promised that a new and improved theater, designed by the famed architect Bjarke Ingels, would arise in its absence, it now appears that quality concerns have led Ingels to abandon the PM’s vanity project.

Timing the demolition in the middle of the night, and at the height of a pandemic, no less, is presumed to have been a strategic measure by the government aimed to suppress public outcry. Likewise with the city-wide communication block, many feel that authorities overstepped their bounds in efforts to minimize public awareness and resistance surrounding the event, even as thousands gathered to demonstrate against the Theater’s demolition over the weekend.

Public demonstrators, composed primarily of local artists and journalists from throughout Albania as well as abroad, were met with a startling display of police brutality and many were arrested both before and after the demolition took place on Sunday.

Video footage featuring the excessive police violence in Albania has circulated far and wide since the protests, shocking both the international diasporic community and EU officials alike, and drawing vehement criticism towards the authorities’ decision to proceed with demolition despite such vast public opposition.

Democratic opposition leader Lulzim Basha visited the site on Thursday, saying that should they choose to proceed with demolition, authorities would be crossing the “red line between democracy and dictatorship in the country”.

The EU Delegation in Tiranë also criticized the Theater’s demolition, saying it came at a time when “we called for dialogue between authorities and civil society before an irreversible decision is taken.” Mariya Gabriel, the EU Commissioner for Culture, had previously urged Albanian authorities to aim for compromise before proceeding with the demolition as well.

Though activists and opposition supporters vowed to protect the historic National Theater, and President Ilir Meta asked the Constitutional Court to review both the “special” law created to justify the demolition as well as the questionable transfer of the land’s ownership to the Municipality of Tirana, Prime Minister Rama and Mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, proved relentless in their joint-efforts to proceed with demolition.

President Meta referred to the decision as “a constitutional, legal and moral crime that cannot be granted amnesty” in a Facebook post shortly following demolition.

This is also not the first time that Prime Minister Rama and Mayor Veliaj are accused of working together in stifling the Albanian democratic process to further private interests. Many construction and demolition projects throughout the capital and surrounding areas have in past years proceeded without any consideration for public interest or consultation regarding public assets.

Given the sordid display of police brutality against protestors, the unsettling timing and circumstances surrounding demolition, and apparent disregard for the ongoing legal process in Albania’s Constitutional Court, the destruction of Teatri Kombetar has doubtless served to spark anger in many, both in Albania and beyond its borders. In others, it has created further unease about what to make of democracy in Albania today.

Anonymous writer 

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