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.