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Thursday, 27 June, 2002, 15:29 GMT 16:29 UK
The mayor transforming Tirana
Tirana's central park
Tirana's central park: Formerly a concrete jungle

In Tirana's central park the grass is growing.

In any other European city this would be hardly be a cause for celebration but the Albanian capital has precious little in common with other cities.


I don't think that this Calvin Klein image does damage - it's the other way around

Edi Rama
When Tirana's mayor, Edi Rama, took office the park was just another derelict public space, its trees lost amid illegal kiosks in a chaotic jumble of mud and concrete.

But nearly two years later the concrete kiosks have been bulldozed, there are no longer piles of rotting rubbish on the streets, and most of the lethal pot-holes have gone.

Edi Rama
Mr Rama tackles vested interests - and survives
The 36-year-old former artist says that in a normal city he would never have aspired to become mayor but in this "strange and special place", he believes a normal mayor could not have helped.

When the eyes of the world last looked at Tirana during the Kosovo refugee crisis in 1999, the city had reached its nadir.

A decade of anarchic capitalism had followed 50 years of Stalinism and the population had swollen from 200,000 to nearer 800,000 with no sewage system or rubbish collection.

Those familiar with the role of the mafia in a country listed by the World Bank among the world's most corrupt, have been surprised at Mr Rama's physical and political survival.

Workers fired

He puts it down to popular support and a policy of making no exceptions.

The city's central square
Rama sees Tirana as a strange and special place
"In the central park. they were all protected, very protected by different politicians," he said.

"When we had to destroy these buildings we didn't make any allowances and when people realised that no-one would be forgiven they were all happy to leave. We have not made any differentiation, which would have been very dangerous."

The mayor's direct approach has seen a lot of former municipal employees fired. On taking office he discovered the municipality employed 800 people to tend public spaces.

The problem was that none of them ever came to work, instead they split their wages with a corrupt official who turned a blind eye.

Five hundred were sacked and now the remainder can be seen hard at work.


You can't use the facade of a building as a canvas - architecture is like sculpture, it's not a blank page

Fatos Lobonja
Rama's former friend and critic
With a passion for strange shirts, Mr Rama, who used to live in Paris, is highly conscious of his image.

He calls himself "a pop star among mayors but a mayor among pop stars", and likes to compare his municipal team to film-makers on a set.

The municipality is, he claims, the only public sector employer with a higher proportion of women than men.

In this traditionally patriarchal society the staff of sharply dressed young women has not gone unnoticed, but Mr Rama makes no apologies for his hiring policy.

"They all speak foreign languages, know how to communicate and the most important thing is they work for the city in the office always more than the eight official hours," he said.

"I don't think that this Calvin Klein image does damage - it's the other way around."

Riot of colour

The main challenge, he says, has been to persuade people that change is possible.

To this end he has treated the bare exterior of the city's grey buildings as a canvas to paint a multi-coloured signal of what is to come.

Repainted building
Rama treats the city's buildings as a canvas
The facades in the city centre are now a riot of colour more reminiscent of a pop art painting than an urban restoration project.

But not everyone is pleased by the sometimes garish results and his sceptics dismiss the urban revival as "boulevardisation" to impress the international community.

Former friend and fellow intellectual Fatos Lobonja is Mr Rama's biggest critic.

The commentator and writer spent 17 years in prison under the totalitarian regime of Enver Hoxha and has earned his reputation as an independent critic of Albania's post-communist politicians.

Self-defence

Mr Lobonja rejects Mr Rama's modern art experiments as egoism.


Three years ago they didn't have a municipality, now they have one

Edi Rama
"You can't use the facade of a building as a canvas - architecture is like sculpture, it's not a blank page," he says.

Accusing the one-time student leader of abandoning his principles, Mr Lobonja reserves his harshest criticism for the alleged closeness of the mayor's office to Tirana's new breed of media proprietors.

Mr Rama is aware of the accusations but is ready with a trenchant self-defence.

"Three years ago they didn't have a municipality, now they have one. They have one institution that needs to be reinforced, needs to be stronger, needs to be more effective but has given to them back hundreds of green spaces... squares and sidewalks... social services and public transport."

Ultimately, though, it will be the voters who decide whether the mayor and his "film crew" will be given the chance to make a sequel.

See also:

26 Oct 01 | Europe
04 May 00 | Europe
19 Oct 01 | Americas
27 Jun 02 | Country profiles
27 Jun 02 | Europe
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