Analyses of the megalomaniac remake of Skopje, also called Antiquisation, have been both frequent and trenchant in their criticism, but a similar attention has rarely been paid to the on-going reconstruction of the neighbouring Albania. Not only before elections as right now – though construction companies make huge profits in the pre-electoral period – Albanian urban landscape has been undergoing dramatic changes in the past decade. But my recent trip to Albania made me wonder – what are these new façades hiding
I went to Albania in April 2017, looking forward to finally seeing the much-celebrated revamped capital Tirana. But I was immediately struck by the stark contrast between the truly impressive build-up of the capital and the limited economic and political changes on the ground. The more I travelled around Albania, the clearer these contrasts became. This made me wonder whether the political strategy in Albania was driven by a similar ruse as in the neighbouring Macedonia. Tirana’s build-up reminded me of what I saw in Skopje – covering up deep political and economic issues by visually changing the urban landscape. But as we have seen recently, this ‘wag-the-dog’ strategy has only had a short-lived impact. Albania seems to be going down a similar path. Pleasing to the eye and the residents of these cities, the new façades have been welcomed as a positive change from the dark and chaotic 1990s. But this politics of façades has not been able to cover up the dire state of the Albanian economy, the growing drug trade, the lack of opportunities for the large young population in thousands heading for Europe, and the polarized state of Albanian politics, evidence by the current parliamentary blockade. Albanians complain about politicians wasting money on paint while the people were on the margins of poverty.
Many would agree that the artist-turned-politician Edi Rama (PM since 2013) deserves some praise for transforming Tirana from a Stalinist-like grey and decrepit city into a vibrant and colourful capital. For an overpopulated city without a real historical centre and only little to offer in terms of architectural sights, Tirana has turned into a surprisingly pleasant and liveable city. The Grand Park of Tirana has been revamped and transformed into an island of peace and leisure. Tirana’s main buildings have received new (and colourful) façades, the central Skanderbeg Square has been repaved, and Tirana has more greenery on its streets than most other Balkan capitals. Similarly, the port city of Durres has undergone a parallel upgrade, whereby its waterfront has finally been paved and the omnipresent rubbish bins disappeared.
But even more would agree that Rama’s and his Socialist Party’s politics has not been based on long-term economic strategies. The key constant of Albania’s troubles is the economy. The economy sharply expanded after 2000 due to private investments and some of the highest remittances in the world. But the 2008 economic crisis put a sharp break to this progress and led to a fast retraction. Despite some positive growth in the Albanian economy, the current drop in investments and political instability give only little hope in its recovery. Some local residents of Tirana crack jokes that Albanian economic growth is driven by the rising levels of cannabis trade that has turned the country into what some media called the Colombia of Europe.
The second constant is the mass migration from the country. In 2015, Albania had one of the world’s highest emigration rates – -3.3 migrants per 1,000 people, a staggering number considering the fact that there has not been a violent conflict in the country since World War II. In the same year, Albania was ranked second in the list of countries of origin of asylum seekers in Germany, directly after Syria, according to official German asylum statistics. Currently half a million of Albanians are residing in some of the EU countries (while three million live in Albania). But the key reason for the huge proportion of Albanian migration is the structure of its population as some of my respondents reminded me of. With 24 per cent of the population belonging to the 15-29 age group, Albania is one of the youngest countries in Europe. But according to the official Albanian statistical data for 2016, the official unemployment rate of this group was over 30.2 percent. Albanian young people are simply escaping the country in masses for opportunities they cannot find at home. Despite some glimmers of hope that the youth would transform the systematic failures of Albanian politics, youth movements such as Mjaft and Nisma Turje have transformed into political allies of the leading parties rather than political alternatives (two mayors of Tirana were previously presidents of Mjaft).
But most importantly, Albanian politics has recently become volatile, which I experienced first hand passing by the opposition protests daily. The main opposition party – the Democrats – pitched a tent opposite to the governmental building already in February to stage protests against Edi Rama and boycott the upcoming elections in June 2017. Rama’s rule of Albania (currently in coalition with Lulzim Basha’s Socialist Movement for Integration) has antagonized opposition parties. Their boycott has effectively paralyzed Albanian politics with their request for Rama to step down and create a technocratic government. But the opposition does not have much public support – perceived as corrupted and power-seeking, they have only limited public support.
As an analyst I interviewed noted, with his high EU ambitions and promising to delivery on EU reforms (the most recent one regarding the justice sector), Rama has been a darling of the west without seriously tackling any of the key issues in Albania: cronyism, patronage, the drug business, and the lack of economic development despite the country energy, tourist, and agricultural potential.
‘Rama runs the country as if he were still the mayor of Tirana’, he added. He invests in his choking media campaigns, rallies, and personal networks. And most importantly, he supports new façades and constructions.
On the day I was leaving Albania, there was an alleged attempt to assassinate the opposition leader who has been blocking the adoption of EU reforms and the organization of the June elections. This was yet another reminder that the colours of Tirana cannot hide the growing political tensions and no signs of economic recovery. My taxi driver joked that he could not find any street because Tirana has been always under construction. ‘They keep building, but nothing really gets fixed’, he sighed. Finally, the new façades have finally started showing their cracks to the public eye just as in the neighbouring Macedonia.
Jessie Barton Hronešová is a ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the Oxford Department of International Development. Jessie’s life goal is to combined academic research and policymaking in foreign policy, aid and development. Her research focuses on governance, justice and politics of South Eastern Europe, while her political work see more…
Barton Hronešová, Jessie: “Albania under Construction: The Façade of Politics”; in: Globalising Southeastern Europe (09.05.2017); URL: https://global-sees.org/2017/05/09/albania-under-construction-the-facade-of-politics/.