The angry reaction by Croatia’s President Zoran Milanovic to a publication by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in which he presented the map of Greater Hungary has demonstrated Zagreb’s concern over Budapest’s moves to re-evaluate the events of the past that determined Hungary’s present-day borders.
For Croatia, its proximity to influential regional neighbors – Austria and Hungary, has always been a geopolitical challenge, along with the presence of ethnic minorities, including Hungarians, and the mountain-carved border terrain, which made it difficult to secure a clear-cut delineation of borders.
Due to that, the ethnic minorities living in the country, along with the population of isolated regions, such as Dalmatia, became economically and culturally oriented at neighboring states rather than Zagreb.
In the present Croatian Parliament three seats belong to the Democratic Assembly of Istria – a political force advocating the region’s cultural identity and the rights of the local Italian community. The Croatian Democratic Alliance of Slavonia and Baranja, which has six seats, calls for economic development of Slavonia. TheCroatian part of Baranja is populated by Croatian Hungarians, which adds a political flavor to the issue.
The independent Democratic Serbian Party has three seats in parliament, focusing on the protection of the rights of Serbian minority.
Since there is no specifically Hungarian party in parliament, Budapest is interested in having it there.
As Budapest’s foreign policy acquires an ever more pronounced diasporal dimension, there are grounds to maintain that the scope and tone of Hungary’s relations with countries with Hungarian communities depends on whether these countries respect the cultural rights and freedoms of Hungarians. Rumania is home to 1,3 million Hungarians, Slovakia – to 500,000, Serbia – to 300,000, Ukraine – to 156,000. The number of Hungarians living in Croatia is far smaller – about 15,000. (0,33%), but they form densely populated areas bordering on Hungary in the north of the country, on the way «from Hungary to the Adriatic».
It looks like Budapest nurtures the prospect of mobilizing Hungarians in Croatia, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine, which will enable it to establish a trans-border Hungarian community, not limited by Hungary’s state borders, which shrank considerably after the Second World War. The area populated by ethnic Hungarians has been described by Budapest as Carpathian basin, with Hungary in the center.
The Croatian direction looks promising for Hungary because it provides the shortest hypothetical way to the sea. Through the Adriatic lies the way to the Mediterranean. In the past, the proximity to the Adriatic coast made Hungary a Mediterranean power (in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire).
Given that in the current political format of the EU using force by member countries in settling disputes is not the option, the presence of Hungarian diaspora in Croatia acquires more significance for Budapest. Only through this diaspora and by using soft force can Budapest proceed to strengthen its political, economic and cultural presence in the region.
Nevertheless, despite its geopolitical value, Croatia is not number one on Hungary’s diaspora consolidation agenda. Much more important are Rumania and Ukraine. Since Rumania is the most «Hungarian» country of the EU after Hungary proper, it is only logical that the process of restoration of the Hungarian national unity should start there. Ukraine is institutionally the weakest and most dependent on external players European state with Hungarian minority. Considering this, Budapest finds it easier to pursue its diaspora-related initiatives in Ukraine.
That Hungary has been pushing for its agenda in Rumania becomes clear from the recent campaign to collect signatures under a petition addressed to European Parliament with a request to channel funds allocated for ethnic minorities directly to the regions populated by these minorities rather than the capitals of these countries. The petition obtained the required number of signatures thanks to Rumanian and Slovakian Hungarians.
In brief, Hungary’s diasporal policy can be presented as a unity of three components – consolidation – decentralization – internationalization. Budapest advocates consolidation of Hungarians living abroad in order to foster their ties with their historical homeland, favors decentralization of countries with Hungarian minorities with a view to provide the latter with wide autonomy, and calls for internationalization of the issue of respect for cultural rights of Hungarian community by attracting all-European regulatory bodies and mechanisms. Budapest is motivated to include the Hungarian issue into international agenda so that it could be resolved with the help of international financial institutions.
For Croatia, the balance of strength among regional players is crucial for geopolitical stability. Zagreb believes that this stability will crumble if Hungary’s diasporal policy hits its targets. These are the following: to popularize the idea of unfairly separated Hungarian people, to achieve the political and ideological unity of all Hungarians, and to cultivate, regardless of the country of residence, a sense of belonging to the Hungarian state among members of the diaspora, and a sense of historical injustice.
Zagreb fears the domino effect, which could take place if successful methods of working with Hungarians in Rumania and Slovakia set off Croatian Hungarians too and Budapest chooses to apply this kind of diasporal policy in Croatia.
From our partner International Affairs
Kosovo between USA and EU
The issue of Kosovo is yet again becoming one of the hottest on the international agenda. While the US administration is set on the early (before the presidential elections in November) signing of an agreement on normalizing relations through territorial exchanges, the European Union leadership, under pressure from Germany, is pursuing their own agenda: a settlement of political crisis in the region and prevention of a new territorial carve-up in the Balkans. These differences can well result in a buildup of tension on both coasts of the Atlantic not only regarding the Balkan but also in relation to other burning international issues.
So far, the United States is somewhat outplaying the EU on this issue. The Trump administration, after securing solidarity with Kosovo’s President Hashim Taci in his confrontation with radical Prime Minister Albin Kurti, has de facto forced the latter to resign. It is the leader of the Self-Determination Radical Movement who is strongly opposed to an agreement with Belgrade and partition of Kosovo into Serbian and Albanian parts in exchange for the lifting of Serbia’s objections to Pristina’s membership in international organizations. Considering that Serbia’s position is backed by Russia as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, there are grounds to assume that Serbia’s refusal to counteract efforts by Kosovo diplomacy will mean Kosovo’s admission to the UN as an independent state – even in the absence of a legal acknowledgment of independence on the part of Belgrade and a number of EU members (Spain Greece, Cyprus, Rumania and Slovakia).
Understandably, the EU leadership is categorically against such a prospect as undermining the unity of the organization and fraught with new changes of the Balkan borders. Brussels has been doing its utmost to consolidate Kosovo’s political landscape and at the same time isolate the chief “negotiator” with Belgrade – President Hashim Taci. The EU Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi said openly on May 7 that Kosovo needed a strong and stable government. Commenting on the situation following the vote of no confidence in the Albin Kurti Cabinet pronounced by the Kosovo Parliament on March 25, the Commissioner pointed out that ‘time is too valuable to be lost’: “If we do want to overcome the crisis, if we do mean to put Kosovo on the European track, we must do everything we can to come to an early solution in order to set up a sustainable government”.
Pristina should have no doubts which side Brussels is on in matters relative to Kosovo’s government and partition of Kosovo into Serbian and Albanian parts. To this end, the next day, on May 8th, spokesperson for Kosovo in European Parliament Viola von Cramon said that Germany is against changing the borders between Serbia and Kosovo. In her words, any carve-up of borders in Western Balkans requires public approval at the referendum. «A solution is not in the hands of the presidents of two countries since an agreement they sign is to be ratified by the parliaments of both countries and be acceptable for all», – she said in an interview on the Kosovo TV Channel RTK.
Simultaneously, she de facto acknowledged the presence in the EU of grave differences on a further development of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. When answering a question by a Kosovo journalist as to when we can expect liberalization of visa regime between Serbia and Kosovo, Viola von Cramon said that along with the current difficulties it looks like within the EU there is no political will to take such a decision.
Spain is among countries which refuse to acknowledge self-proclaimed independence of Kosovo and which speak against a carve-up of Balkan borders. Spanish media and public opinion have been following closely all the possible scenarios of the development of the situation in the Balkans through the prism of the country’s own problems that have to do with separatism on the part of Basques and Catalonians. However, they are fairly skeptical about EU efforts.
The Spanish El Mundo writes in this regard that «in the heat of coronavirus epidemic the heads of state and government of 27 EU members and six Balkan countries held a video conference. «It is not a summit on EU expansion», – Spain keeps repeating. For if it were different, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez would have never agreed to take part in a high-level event, which was also attended by Kosovo’s president. This summit is designed to bring the sides concerned closer and bridge the differences. Citing Brussels’ sources El Mundo admits that the EU will not be able to offer the Balkan partners the prospect of early membership in the alliance , despite reports about the start of preliminary talks with Albania and North Macedonia. «Practically everybody came to the conclusion that the European Union would not expand for at least another ten years. What happened in 2004, when 10 countries joined the EU at a time, will not take place again. No appetite, no desire. And in the light of disagreements with Hungary and Poland in recent years, nobody wants more experiments», – El Mundo reports.
Mass media in Turkey – a country that found itself locked out of the EU – are as frank in their comments on the crisis in the EU’s Balkan policy. «The decision to start talks with Albania and North Macedonia about a full membership in the European Union means that the EU’s influence in Western Balkans will increase. However, this does not mean that the region will fully fall under the influence of the EU. For nearly 20 years the Balkans have been a buffer zone between big powers. Western Balkan countries where the US influence is strong include Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia», – the Turkish Anadolu Ajansı news agency.
Meanwhile, it is essential to remember that a mere idea – even if hypothetical – of granting Kosovo and other Balkan territories membership in the EU comes instrumental in confrontation with the USA. The latter can use financial and military-technical support but cannot promise membership in regional blocs or multilateral trade agreements. «The battle for influence in Western Balkans is currently in full swing. Given the circumstances, it is possible to say that the EU, which chose to start talks with Albanian and North Macedonia on full membership in the European Union, outflanked its competitors and has hit the top», – the Turkish news agency reports: «Besides, the EU considers it an advantage that countries such as Greece, Slovenia and Croatia are members of the EU, while Serbia and Montenegro continue talks on membership in the EU».
Given the situation, Russia is set on close coordination of effort with Serbian leaders and support of negotiating process in a format that makes it possible to take into account the interests of Serbs and ensures the possibility of a compromise. Simultaneously, Moscow underscores the priority of the UN mechanisms over any other formats of negotiations (including under the patronage of the EU) and the importance of taking any decisions that could be reached between Belgrade and Pristina to the UN Security Council.
From our partner International Affairs
A Sad Anniversary: Ten Years of the Partnership for Modernization
One approaching anniversary seems almost entirely lost in this spring’s torrent of different celebrations and commemorative dates. Ten years ago, the “Partnership for Modernization” Russia-EU Initiative was launched. Let us recap: at the 25th Russia-EU summit in Rostov-on-Don on May 31—June 1, 2010, Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev and President of the European Commission Jose Barroso announced that the Partnership marked a new stage and level in the cooperation between Moscow and Brussels.
Back then, the parties also outlined the priorities for their joint efforts. These included expanding opportunities for investment in the key sectors driving growth and innovations, bolstering and deepening bilateral trade and economic collaboration, and promoting small- and medium-sized enterprises. The parties noted they would prioritize the alignment of technical regulations and standards and enhanced protection of intellectual property rights. Transportation earned special mention.
Promoting a sustainable low-carbon economy and energy efficiency, and support for international talks on fighting climate change were also set as forward-looking areas for sectoral cooperation. The parties agreed to strengthen collaboration in innovation, research and development, as well as space exploration. They noted the need to ensure balanced development by addressing the regional and social consequences of economic restructuring. Additionally, the Partnership envisioned effective functioning of the judiciary and stepping up the fight against corruption, promoting people-to-people links and boosting dialogue with civil society in order to foster participation by individuals and businesses.
Russia and the European Union pinned great hopes on this initiative. On the one hand, both Moscow and Brussels clearly saw that, following the surge in the early 21st century, Russia–EU relations were stalling and becoming bogged down in endless bureaucratic approvals and they were slowed down by many disagreements within the EU itself. Russia–EU biannual summits were gradually losing substance and were becoming less and less productive. The prospects for achieving agreement on such fundamental issues as energy cooperation or a visa-free regime remained vague, while the timeline for signing a new Russia–EU framework agreement to replace the hopelessly outdated 1994 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement was moving further and further into the indeterminate future.
On the other hand, the overall political climate at the turn of the first and second decades of the 21st century favoured new initiatives in Russia-Europe relations and prompted the parties to set more ambitious goals. By 2010, the Russia–US “reset” mechanism had already been launched, Moscow’s relations with Central European states, including Poland, were gradually improving; the EU had emerged from another constitutional crisis, and the armed conflict in the South Caucasus was receding into the past. Economic ties between Russia and its western neighbours had passed through the ordeal of the global financial and economic crisis of 2008-2009 and demonstrated steady positive dynamics.
Accordingly, the parties viewed the Partnership for Modernization agreement as summing up a certain intermediate stage in Russia–EU relations and creating an additional positive impetus for endowing these relations with new dynamics. Both Moscow and Brussels had reasons to be optimistic about the future: the second decade of the 21st century promised momentous new achievements, new political and economic breakthroughs in both the West and the East of Europe.
Nowadays, the 10th anniversary of the Partnership for Modernization is unlikely to attract much attention either in Russia or in the European Union. European leaders will not arrive at a new Russia–EU summit. Experts, entrepreneurs and journalists will not flock to crowded international conferences and forums marking the anniversary. The participants in the Rostov-on-Don summit will not be looking back and reminiscing to the younger generation about the preparations, discussions, and signing of the historic Partnership announcement. The coronavirus pandemic that has stopped all air travel in a petrified Europe and imposed a strict moratorium on public events is not the only reason for this. The thing is, the Partnership is no longer worth mentioning in either the West or East.
Jose Barroso, Former President of the European Commission, has been working for the USA’s Goldman Sachs for a long time; his move to the private sector was scandalous and prompted a special investigation by the European Union. Dmitry Medvedev left the office of Russian President less than two years after the Partnership was launched and, since January 2020, following his appointment as Deputy Chair of Russia’s Security Council, he is no longer involved in matters of international economic cooperation. Today, neither of these men apparently sees the Partnership for Modernization as one of their principal political achievements. Quite possibly, many of those who worked in some way on preparing the Partnership today feel a little bit awkward: how naïve and gullible we were ten years ago if we could discuss such a document in earnest!
It is hard to believe today that, just ten years ago, such in-depth cooperation between Brussels and Moscow could have been discussed as a practical matter. It is equally hard to believe that, in November 2010, the President of Russia attended the Russia–EU summit in Lisbon and discussed the practical prospects for partnership relations between Moscow and NATO based on delineating areas of responsibility for maintaining global security.
History has amended the plans of the Rostov-on-Don summit’s participants as it saw fit. The second decade of the 21st century was a time of trial for both Russia and the EU. Both parties are emerging from this decade with a heavy burden of new and unforeseen problems; acutely exacerbated bilateral relations make this burden all the heavier. Neither the East nor the West of Europe is any longer suffused with the cheerful historical optimism of ten years ago.
Given the radically new circumstances, is it worth remembering the events of ten years ago? Apparently it is, at least to understand what went wrong, why great expectations gave way to bitter disappointments, why, instead of an upswing, everything that had been achieved collapsed. These recollections are necessary at least for us to be able to assess the prospect for Russia-EU interactions in the third decade of the 21st century realistically.
Some believe (especially in Europe, but there are also some proponents in Russia) that, as regards implementing the Partnership for Modernization, everything went well between Moscow and Brussels up until the events in Crimea and Donbass in the spring and summer of 2014. Had there been no 2014 crisis, we would have been reaping the rich harvest of a decade of a mutually advantageous partnership and would have been building tremendous plans for the future.
The tragic events of 2014 did, indeed, draw a bold line under a long stretch of Russia–EU relations, as well as nullifying the Partnership’s prospects. Yet it would be a mistake to reduce all the problems to a single, if extremely acute, crisis. Had everything been going well with the Partnership (and the plans envisioned a new framework agreement following hard on the heels of the Partnership), the 2014 crisis is unlikely to have taken place. The parties would have had enough common sense and specific economic stimuli not to cross the line that separated us from a rapid and irreversible exacerbation of relations. And, if the line was, indeed, irreversibly crossed (be it in January, March or July 2014), this would have meant that, by 2014, the parties already had no particular expectations concerning the Partnership for Modernization achieving its full fruition or some positive breakthroughs taking place in bilateral relations in general. In other words, the four years of joint work within the Partnership’s framework did not perform their role of a deterrent that, under other circumstances, the parties might have hoped for.
The Partnership’s Ambiguity: Contents and Mechanisms
Did the Partnership concept contain some initial flaws, drawbacks or ambiguities that prevented its fully-fledged implementation? Today, looking back at it with the benefit of decade-long hindsight, we have to answer that question positively. From the very outset, the concept had inbuilt contradictions inherent in both the very term “modernization” and in the priority mechanisms chosen for implementing the concept.
Let us begin with the contents. When coordinating the Partnership’s concept and when implementing it, Russia invariably stressed its technological and innovative dimension. President Dmitry Medvedev repeatedly emphasized that the concept applied primarily to deepening cooperation in high tech spheres. These have always been among the most difficult and sensitive for international cooperation in general and between Russia and the West in particular. Implementing the idea of Russia and the EU’s mutual “interpenetration” into each other’s high-tech economic sectors can be likened to the most difficult open-heart surgery, which could only be performed by a top-notch professional. Even with both parties having the political will for it, it was virtually inevitable that they would run into many difficulties in the way of the Russia-EU “modernization alliance’s” functioning.
The EU focused most on Russia’s social and political modernization, on bringing Russia’s institutions and practices up to the European level. The “Partnership for Modernization” was frequently seen as some analogue of the EU’s Eastern Partnership programme for Central European states, which mostly emphasized the humanitarian and legal aspects. Naturally, the EU would act as the mentor and Russia was assigned the role of obedient student. That also required Brussels to act with the utmost delicacy and caution (brain surgery?), which, sadly, it did not. Suffice it to recall here the activities of the EU–Russia Civil Society Forum: Brussels officials assumed the unilateral right to determine who in Russia had the right to represent this civil society and who did not. Since Russia, unlike Central European states, was not aiming to join the European Union, such a pointedly and obtrusively paternalistic attitude on the part of the EU could not but annoy Moscow.
These contradictions in defining “modernization” probably were not irreconcilable and could have been settled somehow. Moscow could have acknowledged that technological modernization is closely linked to social modernization, while it is impossible to attract European investment and technologies without improving state governance, reforming the judiciary, protecting intellectual property and the rights of investors. Brussels could have remembered that the EU had always been rather flexible in applying the principle of “political conditionality” (the requirements that the EU’s partners respect democracy, human rights and the rule of law) and could have used the experience of the EU’s relations with, for instance, China. Brussels could have entertained a broader definition of “civil society” leaders in Russia, adding some politically neutral organizations working on environmental issues, education, socially-orientated business, etc. to politically-engaged NPOs. Unfortunately, both parties preferred to insist on their own interpretations of the Partnership’s priorities, thereby provoking a negative response from their counterpart.
The parties’ different approaches were manifested in their ideas concerning the forward-looking mechanisms for implementing the Partnership. Europe would have liked to emphasize “bottom-up” modernization, meaning modernization originating in the private sector, expert networks and civil society and moving toward major economic projects and sectoral cooperation. Russia, on the contrary, prioritized “top-down” modernization, that is, modernization originating with the government and ministries and moving toward individual enterprises. Moscow had always pinned its principal hopes on sectoral dialogue as the principal mechanism for implementing the Partnership. That is, the parties’ ideas concerning the cooperation drivers were quite different from the outset.
Let us add to the mix such a complicating factor as significant structural differences in the economies in the West and the East of Europe: Moscow had always pinned its principal expectations concerning the Partnership’s implementation on big business, while Brussels invariably emphasized the EU prioritization of development of cooperation at the small- and medium-sized business level. Consequently, Russia calling for the partners in Brussels to launch the development of specific large-scale infrastructure projects and create socially significant manufacturing enterprises did not prompt a particularly enthusiastic response on the part of EU officials.
On the other hand, the EU negotiators never missed an opportunity to say that Russia’s modernization could not be efficient and comprehensive if it did not extend to the so-called “strategic sectors” protected from foreign competition by their special legal and political status and not having real stimuli for technological re-equipment and introduction of up-to-date corporate governance. It is easy to imagine the response these statements must have prompted among influential top managers of Russia’s state corporations!
Under different circumstances, a mutually acceptable balance between these two approaches could probably have been found. Unfortunately, when it came to Russia, the traditional “agency-based” practice of structuring such projects was in the way: the efforts of government officials were rarely supplemented by the requisite mobilization of the expert community. The activities of the Institute of Contemporary Development (INSOR) were an exception as INSOR came to be an important venue for collaboration between officials and independent experts. As for the European Union, it was incapable of implementing the Partnership in the “top-down” format simply because the relevant agencies in Brussels were institutionally weak: the given departments of the European Commission, headed by their Directors General, could only loosely be seen as direct counterparts of Russian ministries and agencies headed by federal ministers.
It appears, however, that the fatal blow to implementation of the Partnership was delivered by something other than the differences outlined above. Such an initiative could have been implemented only if it had been constantly kept in sight by the parties’ top leadership unconditionally prioritizing it. In the meantime, over the years since the Partnership was signed, Russia was gradually moving away from the innovative development strategy, at least in the shape and form formulated during Dmitry Medvedev’s Presidency. Jose Barroso’s team, in turn, rapidly lost interest in the Partnership following Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin and switched its attention to other projects on the eastern frontiers of the European Union.
The Virtue of Necessity
We cannot go back to the year 2010. Even if, by some miracle, the conflict within and around Ukraine were to be solved promptly, on mutually acceptable grounds, the contradictions inherent in the Partnership for Modernization would not go away. Additionally, ten years on, the concept has definitely become obsolete. Our world is now different, the relations between its major actors are structured differently, the dominant ideas of the main challenges and threats faced by individual states and by humanity as a whole have changed radically.
Yet it is too early to write off the Partnership for Modernization. Its relevance might increase precisely because the past ten years have proven to be such a trial for both Brussels and Moscow. Although the European Quarter in Brussels and the Kremlin in Moscow still sound triumphant fanfares, the off-key notes in that cheerful music can be heard with increasing clarity. Little is now left of the former triumphant sentiments of both the European and Russian elites and of the European and Russian societies. The European Union faced an unprecedented migration crisis, experienced a sharp upswing in the popularity right-wing populists and Euro-sceptics, went through a painful divorce from the UK and found itself on the receiving end of the USA’s previously unthinkable hostility.
Russia had to face a variety of economic sanctions, withstand the devaluation of its currency and a drop in the population’s real incomes, and acknowledge the essential loss of its energy superpower status. Both parties are among the countries and regions particularly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Although, over the last ten years, both the European Union and Russia have demonstrated an impressive ability to weather shocks, it must be acknowledged today they have far fewer objective grounds than ten years ago for confidence in a sunny future. Recognizing one’s weakness and vulnerability and realizing one’s common interests with a partner—surely this is a combination that produces readiness to compromise?
Europe found itself squeezed between the US, which still dominates the world and looks on Europe with ever diminishing favour, and China, which is gradually gaining power. Naturally, expanding cooperation with Moscow will not resolve all of Europe’s problems, but it might turn out to be an instrument for buttressing the EU’s current standing in global politics and the global economy and, as such, it clearly should not be neglected.
Having lost a significant chunk of its natural resource rent, Russia is being forced to seek a new socio-economic development model, and it will have to do so under extremely unfavourable external circumstances. Where will it be looking for this model? Perhaps China, India or Singapore? Even given all their advantages, it is doubtful that Asian modernization models would suit the predominantly European society that Russia was in 2010, is in 2020, and will remain in 2030, irrespective of what the many proponents of “Eurasian identity” would like to convince us of.
Is this not an incentive to start working on Partnership for Modernization 2.0? Sceptics are likely to ask: what about the unresolved problems in the east of Ukraine? What about the continuing divergence between the Russian and European political development tracks? What about the unconditional priority both Brussels and Moscow accord their own domestic issues? These questions are reasonable and fair. Yet we will never be able to answer them if we remain unable at least to pencil in a general outline of the desired common future. An attractive image of a desired future should, among other things, become a powerful stimulus for overcoming the negative legacy of the past decade, for resolving the specific issues that stand in the way of a new rapprochement between Russia and the EU.
We would very much hope that the anniversary of the Partnership for Modernization will become not only a reason to mourn the failed hopes of the past decade but also an incentive to think about the opportunities offered by the next ten years.
From our partner RIAC
A Note on the Overnight Demolition of the Albanian National Theatre
In the early morning of the 17th of May the bulldozers of the Tirana city hall started to demolish the building that hosted the Albanian National Theatre. The action came after two years of struggle between the Albanian authorities and a part of the Albanian artistic community and citizens who intended to “save” the building from the government’s plans. Since the beginning, the authorities have been justifying their intents by asserting that the building was decrepit and that the demolition of the theatre originally designed in the late 1930s by Italian architect Giulio Berté was necessary to make space for a new theatre projected by the prestigious BjarkeIngels Group. Despite its structural deterioration, many Albanians are affectively attached to the theatre which represents a symbol of Albanian art and of the capital’s historical heritage that is progressively disappearing with the massive demolition of landmark buildings during the transition period.
The demolition of the theatre constitutes a further phase in the substantial infrastructural planning undertaken by the Socialist Party when it came into power. Part of the efforts were dedicated to the amelioration of the road system of Tirana and have significantly improved mobility in the Albanian capital. However, some interventions on historical buildings and green areas have generated strong criticism because of their cultural and ecological impact. In 2016, the city hall demolished the former stadium “Qemal Stafa” to make space for the new – currently named – “Air Albania Stadium”. Before that, a concrete recreation space was built in the middle of the park surrounding the Tirana artificial lake. Another historical park, which had hosted a Luna Park adjacent to Rruga Elbasanitfor decades, was definitively destroyed to allow the construction of yet another huge concrete building. The destruction of the historical and ecological assets of Albania and Tirana in particular, was not a prerogative of the Socialist Party but started soon after the demise of Communism and has been carried out with alacrity by all governments that have ruled the country since then. Hundreds of buildings of the Ottoman and later (pre-transition) periods have been bulldozed to make space to lucrative tower blocks. The urban planning of the Socialist Party-led administration is a major source of concern for those Albanians who are now more sensitive to the preservation of their shared heritage, and for others who join the protests because of their anti-government feelings.
To many Albanians the theatre represented “the last” edifice of the “old” – and therefore authentic – Tirana which had survived the destructive power of the speculative constructing industry that marked the country’s transition period. When the mayor announced his intention to demolish the theatre in 2018, a group of actors and artists formed the “Alliance for the Defence of the Theatre”. Leading intellectuals and exponents of the opposition have asserted that the government wants to use the reconstruction of the theatre as an excuse to make personal profits. The demolition project also generated an institutional crisis. In 2018 the parliament, dominated by the Socialist Party, passed a law that established the procedure for the planning and the reconstruction of the National Theatre. In July 2019, the Albanian president sent a request to the Albanian Constitutional Court, pressing the Court to declare the unconstitutionality of the law. The commitment of the “Alliance for the Defence of the Theatre” led the international organization for the protection of the continental historical heritage “Europa Nostra” to include the theatre in the list of the “7 Most Engendered Heritage Sites” of 2020.
The demolition of the theatre produced public indignation especially for the surreptitious modality through which it was carried out by the city hall and the government. Many Albanians believe that the authorities exploited the dark and the Covid-19 laws to dismantle the edifice without having to face public protests. After a series of failed attempts to reach a deal with the constructors, on the 8th of May, the Albanian government yielded the property of the building to the Tirana city hall. President Ilir Meta and exponents of the “Alliance for the Defence of the Theatre”, warned that the government’s endeavour was meant to speed up its plans for the demolition. The Albanian president asserted that the decision of the government to transfer the property of the building was illegal because the whole affair was being reviewed by the Constitutional Court. However, the protests did not hinder the government’s plan. In the evening of Saturday 16th of May, cistern trucks filled with water were seen passing in the 21 Dhjetori neighbourhood, moving toward the city centre. According to Albanian media, at around 4 AM, 1000 policemen surrounded the building and forcefully evicted the activists and the exponents of the opposition who were occupying its premises.
The chief of the leading opposition party (the Democratic Party) Lulzim Basha invited citizens not to follow the dispositions of the government for the struggle against Covid-19 and to go out and protest by keeping a safety distance between them. The secretary of the “Movement for Socialist Integration” Monika Kryemadhi appealed to the population not to recognise the “state of Edi Rama”. The president Ilir Meta published on his Twitter account a message in English in which he declared that the theatre was demolished because the government pursued the interests of criminal organizations. The EU mission in Albania declared on Twitter that it was displeased of how events had evolved and invited the parts to calm down. The intervention of the EU appeared hypocritical to many commentators who accused and insulted the EU for having directly or indirectly supported the Albanian government. Lulzim Basha seems to share the resentment against some foreign agencies – although perhaps not specifically the EU – as he declared that “they” (the Albanians/ the opposition) are protesting because a group of “irresponsible persons” had decided to legitimize the government.
It is currently difficult to foresee whether the protests against the demolition of the theatre will settle soon or if the political conflict will escalate into a general grassroots movement against the government. The opposition, part of the media and of the public opinion accuse the Prime Minister Edi Rama of authoritarian tendencies, of favouring criminal activities and hindering the economic development of the country, leading to a significant increment of emigration. To many Albanian citizens, the overnight demolition of the theatre appears as the government’s last insult to democracy and legality. The tensions between the government and the parliament majority on the one hand and the Head of State and the opposition on the other, run the risk of leading to a further idleness of the public administration whose transparency is already hindered by corruption, organized crime and political clientelism. The next elections are scheduled for 2021 and it is quite likely that political leaders will exploit and incite public discontent to raise their consensus. However, it appears that the opposition has not to this date presented a coherent and alternative long-term political strategy for leading the country. Calls such as “rebuilding the theatre as it was” might produce a momentary support but they will most likely not have a major impact in the next votes.
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