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Europe Thursday, 4 May, 2000, 17:05 GMT 18:05 UK
Blowing up the bunkers in Albania
As Albania's Minister for Culture, Youth and Sport, Edi Rama is trying to forge the country a new image
By Max Easterman

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Albania is a mess. It's Europe's poorest nation by a handsome margin. Still, anyone who gets to know the country, as I have over the past ten years, ends up loving its landscapes, its people and its atmosphere.

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But, inevitably, they will also end up deploring its lawlessness, its bemused tolerance of corruption in public life, its chaotic administration. Ten years of raw, unfettered capitalism (after nearly fifty of isolationist, utterly hard-line Communism), have combined to reduce many Albanians to desperation and subsistence living.

So it's almost baffling for an outsider to hear that the new Minister of Culture, Edi Rama, sees culture as a kind of battering ram to blow open the windows of Albanian social life, and let in some much-needed artistic light. But he insists it is also a vital way to blow away the endemic corruption, which has scarred political life for so long.

The Millennium Cinema in Tirana, one of Rama's favourite projects
But Edi Rama is man full of surprises. He complains about how little money he has, but spends sixty thousand dollars to subsidise Albania's first commercial cinema - showing Hollywood films. He defends this, because he believes letting the outside world in is more important than worrying about what it brings in.

Edi Rama is a no-nonsense, get-things-done man, who also enjoys flamboyant clothes and surrounding himself with pretty girls (though he insists they also have to be able to do their jobs well.)

He is a painter and sculptor, who has abandoned art for politics. Ten years ago, as the Communist system began to totter, he refused to get involved in the new democratic politics. He preferred to snipe from the sidelines, and when democracy showed itself to be almost as corrupt as the old regime, he left for Paris, to continue his crusade against Albanian political corruption from France.

Decaying concrete bunkers still litter the landscape and coastline
A key image in his work was that of the concrete bunkers, which disfigure so much of the Albanian landscape. The former dictator, Enver Hoxha, put up 600,000 of them. This was ostensibly to repel attack from whatever quarter it might come, but in reality created a surreal atmosphere of permanent insecurity amongst the population. It is this mentality which Edi Rama is determined to break down.

Unless Albanians can be persuaded to come out of their psychological and cultural bunker, he explains, they will not hold civil servants or politicians to account.

But here, the contradictions of his character show themselves. He makes his colleagues in the Ministry take personal responsibility for their decisions, even fines them for missing deadlines. But he also dominates his weekly departmental meetings, and runs them with iron efficiency. He makes appointees do exactly what he wants, leading to charges that they're mere stooges.

Zana Cela
Zana Cela, his new Director of the Opera and Ballet Theatre, stands accused of having more beauty than brains. The charge is laid by the musicians she sacked, after a bitter hunger strike, no less, mounted because they opposed the introduction of competitive contracts, and an open bidding system for project grants.

These are all Edi's policies; but Zana Cela points out with asperity, that when she took over, the Opera and Ballet were down to just eight performances a year, and most of the musicians and technical staff seemed to spend more time drinking than playing their instruments. Those who stayed on now have to provide at least two performances a week.

Edi's latest project is to clean up the heart of the capital, Tirana, from the central square, Skanderbeg, with its neo-Stalinist Opera House and National Museum, through the Ministry District of fine (but neo-Fascist) Italian buildings, put up in the 30s, and on down the Boulevard of the Heroes of the Nation to the University.

The Pyramid, Tirana's arts centre, is often used as a slide and a playground by local children
His aim is to create a city Albanians can be proud of, to give them back some dignity. Out in the country towns, local people are sceptical, wondering why he can't spend the money on a football pitch or a decent cinema for them.

Edi Rama is unapologetic. "I have to start somewhere", he says, "and I have to show my colleagues in other Ministries, that you can take unpopular decisions and survive. That's why I refused to back down over the changes at the Opera - even when the musicians went on hunger-strike. "

"We had to win, and we did, and the Opera is now doing its job for the first time in years. When other Ministers can work like this, Albania will have finally begun the long march into the real world of the 21st century."

Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: a visit to one of the illegal shanty towns ringing Tirana, and a trip to the beach, to discover why Albania is daring to promote tourism.

Edi Rama Albania March 2000
adds his views on the brain drain, and why he's "not interested in being a nice dictator"
See also:

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