News & Analysis

Protesters decry demolition of Tirana’s National Theatre as an attack on democracy

On Sunday May 17, Albania’s National Theatre in Tirana was finally demolished after more than two years of protests and resistance from civil society, artists, and activists.

Early in the morning, at 4.30am, police cleared out protesters who had occupied the building, causing injury to some – according to reports from sources in Albania. There were further clashes, and a number of people were arrested after throwing water bottles at the police.

The demolition had been announced on May 14 by the city’s council, but since council decisions take 10 days to come into effect, the legality of the demolition is questionable.

Protests continued on Monday, despite a heavy police presence. Violence then erupted as police attacked demonstrators.

Additionally, police officers were spotted on roofs near the site of the National Theatre building, monitoring the protests with binoculars and sniper rifles.

Albania’s ombudsman reacted strongly to the events, condemning the use of force, the jailing of several journalists, and the fact the police had failed to take proper coronavirus-related protective measures.

The ombudsman also pointed out that the demolitions began while some people were still in the building, which severely endangered their lives.

Albanian President Ilir Meta condemned the demolition as a “a moral crime that cannot be granted amnesty”.

On the other hand, Prime Minister Edi Rama accused those who oppose his plans for a new theatre of “not liking development”.

He has also denied that any violence was used against the protesters.

Demolition has been strongly opposed by artists and members of the cultural community in Albania ever since it was first announced in 2018.

“This has been the longest continual protest in Albanian history,” Alice Taylor, a Tirana-based journalist and blogger tells Emerging Europe. “It brought together artists, intellectuals, journalists, civil society, and foreign institutions. It became an agora where every night people would meet to talk, share ideas, put on plays and performances.”

The National Theatre, built in 1939 during the early years of Italian rule of Albania, is considered by many to be a historical building of significant cultural importance.

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However, neglect – in the form of lack of maintenance and investment – has left it partially dilapidated and in need of renovation.

Despite this, the theatre remained operational. It also housed artefacts such as photos, recordings, and costumes which have now all been destroyed along with the building.

According to Ms Taylor, the real reason for the National Theatre’s demolition is a wider plan to replace historical buildings located in prime Tirana real estate with residential towers, shopping malls, and other new developments.

A day after the demolition, Mr Rama unveiled a project for a new theatre while dismissing the protests as antagonism from a group of “professional troublemakers”.

The new National Theatre is to be built by Bjarke Ingels Group under commission from Fusha, a construction company closely associated with the Rama government.

Fusha will also build new high-rise buildings behind the theatre.

Meanwhile, Albania’s Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SPAK) has launched an investigation into Tirana mayor Erion Veliaj and deputy major Arbjan Mazniku.

The charges of corruption in relation to the National Theatre were brought by the Alliance for the Protection of the National Theatre on May 6, before the land on which the building is located was handed over by the government to the Tirana municipality on May 8.

Less than a week later, the municipality decided to tear the building down.

For a lot of people in Albania, it is not just a building that is being demolished, but also democracy.

“For Albanian people this signifies more than just a theatre, it is a democratic movement against the perceived corruption and increasingly concerning behaviour of the government,” Ms Taylor explains.

The film director and protester Edmond Budina said the event was a turning point in Albanian democracy.

“This is not the destruction of a building. This is also the installation of a dictatorship,” he says.

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