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Tirana Gets Real

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1Tirana Gets Real Empty Tirana Gets Real Tue Nov 23, 2010 11:29 am



Tirana Gets Real
By Christopher P. Winner

Stray into one of Tirana’s many forgotten neighborhoods and you’ll come upon scales that vendors have placed on the pavement as if lying in wait for justice. But justice knows the drill. So does the world. Yet Tirana’s vendors persevere. They peddle what they can. They’ll sell you your weight for the cost of a Depression apple. It’s their little New Deal and they’re scruffily unashamed of such piecemeal hustling. Even the citizens of an emerging democracy must get wise to weight. Or maybe not, but why not try? Assuming the scales work.

Tirana is a mix of energy, color, and decrepitude. Mayor Edi Rama, below, has revolutionized an archaic city in six years.

What’s captivating about Tirana’s kilo-mongers is how they differ from the crowd only 20 blocks away.

Near freshly asphalted boulevards that extend from Skenderbeg Square, the city’s fulcrum, trim young men and women cloned from Armani and DKNY blueprints probe parks and storefront entitlements they’ve only recently been gifted. Though Italian television transmits the latest in celebrity and affluence, it is relatives quarrying in Italy who dispense bella figura tales first hand. While transplanted Albanians are unbeloved in Italy, their steady euro incomes, refluxed across the Adriatic through wire transfers, boost a stagnant domestic economy afflicted by indolence, graft, and an absence of vocational training.

Post-millennial Albanians of all social classes are mired in a job funk. National unemployment is pegged officially at 20 percent though the actual figure is probably higher. An estimated 300,000 Albanians are idle and many outside Tirana lack primary education. The numbers are dismaying considering that two-thirds of the population is younger than 30. Ironically, it is the semi-privileged middle class spawned of dictatorial seed and illicit cash that struggles most for an identity; they are the city’s most conspicuous idlers. Eurotrash hopefuls, they stroll in scented abeyance for the next cell phone call or café conversation. And cafés, both chic and blue collar, are plentiful. Café society, a synonym for days given over to animated chatter and debate, is an Ottoman legacy and a Balkan social contribution. But despite these Rome borrowings, contemporary Tirana is not easily shrunk to guidebook cliché. It reflects an intriguing if frustrating convergence of negligence and dynamism that not even self-styled progressives can exactly defend or celebrate.

“If we have nothing else we have our fascino,” says the political columnist Mustafa Nano, smiling wanly. He is on his third cigarette in a café under the city’s Twin Towers, two 15-story glass structures in the city center. Fascino is an Italian word that mellifluously weds intrigue to charm. “I look around sometimes and see the disaster that we are. But at other times I remember what we were, and that makes me more optimistic.”

Tirana has a trendy reformer in Mayor Edi Rama, an authority figure of commanding substance who if he gains the prime minister’s spot will vault Tirana onto Europe’s PR radar. Two years ago, he was voted World Mayor 2004 by a patchwork of do-good United Nations city agencies impressed by extensive urban redevelopment that included decorating apartment façades in Alexander Calder colors. Rama, an accomplished artist who spent years in Paris, approached the painting of Tirana in JFK style: not why but why not? Painting pink dewdrops and green arrows on tired plaster wasn’t the Sistine Chapel, he knew, but the city was due a morale-booster. He was instinctively right. The project was a hit. Though UN competitions are their own café society, Rama, and not the mayor of Mexico City, won the prize; Edi Rama, the determined mayor of backwater Tirana, Albania’s Clark Kent.

Until Rama, Tirana had few automobiles, many unpaved roads, and less than 100 street lights. Elected in 2000, he imported Italian products and French ingenuity to adorn now-flourishing boulevards. He erected a hip concrete-and-glass district (its center is called Blloku, or “The Block”) near the once-off limits villa of dictator Enver Hoxha, the disciplinarian plutocrat who for four decades isolated himself from his capital and his country from the world. Parks replaced shanties. Clubs and casinos got a glow. On weekends, The Block’s night spots throb with no-name bands unabashedly playing accented versions of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” to thrilled applause. People have fun.

Adored or abhorred, Rama is ardent. He lifted tired Tirana by the scruff of its neck and shook it into a new century. Only Ahmed Bey Zogu, Albania’s self-anointed King Zog, doted so compulsively on Tirana’s basic needs, abolishing veils and serfdom in the 1920s. Zog was punted by Mussolini’s Fascists in 1939 and the colonists churned out a few EUR-style white elephants before vanishing into a war they couldn’t possibly win. Rama’s friends liken him to Peter the Great, the mercurial 18th century czar whose visionary enterprise and “do-as-I-say” bluntness made him good television before it existed.

Despite Albania’s reputation as a major player in the sex trade, street prostitution is hidden and brothels unheard of (though pornography makes Blue Tooth rounds). Reptilian money-changers prowl the center tamely shuffling wads of cash. Rama’s Tirana is provocative but inoffensive, a starlet who refuses to descend into outright promiscuity. It’s refreshing.

Jane Kramer, the author of idiosyncratic European chronicles for the New Yorker since the 1970s, doted delicately on Rama a year ago. “His brother says [Rama] survived on eloquence, intensity, and a gift for bullshit,” she wrote of Rama’s endurance through the Hoxha years. Now, she added, musing on his artistic side, “maybe he’s protecting a world he loves from a world he hasn’t had time to mend.”

MAYBE IT'S NOT THAT SIMPLE. Tinkertoy skyscrapers are Tirana’s hallmarks. Some are unfinished, others done but mostly vacant, a few hauntingly abandoned. They are tellingly viewed between the clothes that street vendors display on corrugated aluminum fences designed to keep intruders from loitering inside construction compounds. Mongrels thin as coat hangers befriend the buildings and snack on garbage.

When slums flirt with stalled shopping malls, whether in Rio or Baku, paradox makes progress itch. Tirana, which functions outside understood norms of private property, has an estimated 12,000 inhabitants per square kilometer, which works out roughly to l0 people to a room. Still, it builds posh monuments to vacancy.

Yet the metropolis may actually profit from these copious blemishes. Industry of any kind counteracts lassitude and instills evolution with non-Balkan optimism. Ignore the empty buildings. Ignore that the construction industry, the city’s only steadily credible cash source, is hopelessly venal. “I think, therefore I am,” wrote Descartes. Tirana’s variant is, “We build, therefore we may be.” Cities in transition take what’s available to advertise motion.

There’s also a MacLuhanesque subtext in which construction is both language and alphabet, a barely decipherable message about the shape of the future. Tirana is 1870s America, a Gary Cooper frontier town with outlaws and gamblers. To build, you need a permit. To get a permit you need political friends. To get a life, a Mercedes, and maybe a girl (or a few, including one with a T-shirt that reads: “Queen Me Up”), you need influential friends and a knack for flattery.

Material absolutism makes sense after Hoxha, whom Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare refers to only as “the Leader,” adding mystical layers to a truly peculiar man. Hoxha’s Cold War pedigree was unimpeachable. He fought Fascists and Nazis in the Albanian Resistance. Later, he applauded and applied Stalin’s brutal fortitude. But Stalin’s death depressed the Leader and he evolved into Dr. Strangelove with a country in his pocket. In 1967, he declared Albania an atheist state, which it remained for 23 years.

It took a full decade — Hoxha died in 1985 — before Badlands Albania established a functional second order (some deny it’s even happened). The second order much resembled the first. An early prime minister was redolently named Fatos Nano, a professional communist reborn as a socialist. Even now, many Albanian government officials are either former communists or reclaimed dissenters. Most journalists, the credible ones at least, are frustrated intellectuals hardwired to criticize authority. The rest are poorly trained novices doing the bidding of Yellow Journalism publishers who get cheap thrills (and influence) from cowing opponents. It’s an outlandish scene. Smalltime crooks in business suits conspire with genuine nation-builders to make loose laws work in everyone’s favor. Albania is a risk taker’s whorehouse.

Then there’s the matter of infrastructure, a basic concept that circumscribes the reach and limits of modernization. Infrastructure’s latest priests descend from growth-oriented America of the 1950s where East Coast planners eager to capitalize on World War II gains made urban expansion into a political fetish. Cities and suburbs, clean homes with pleasant kitchens and pastiche smiles, were sold as a nonmilitary antidote to communism. New was good, and newer ever better. Procreating urban growth depended on planning, zoning, gerrymandering, and ensuring the systematic expansion of a utilities grid. Just as investment helped reinvent postwar Western Europe (stripped down, the Marshall Plan was valence against communism peddled as European recovery), America hunted its own significance through technology.

This was the pre-Kennedy New Frontier, and it was not without skeptics. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith worried that doting on consumer prosperity could suffocate social morality. But even liberalism requires pipes and filament. Too-small cities flowed outward toward previously dim horizons, later officially called suburbs and exurbs. Infrastructure made it possible, even when it gouged rural communities. Water and light traveled to remote places. Schools were erected and numbered in the plus column. Communities, commerce, and missile silos grew from cornfields.

Tirana has no silos of any kind. It has a few new schools and many overhauled neighborhoods, but its citizenry still seeks broader access to the “things” to which Galbraith referred. Foreign response to the yearning seems simple enough: earn it honestly. The U.S. Embassy, the World Bank, the UN, and many Albanians themselves link affluence to methodical planning. There is no lack of intellectual realism. “Of all the mind-bending developments of the last 15 years,” says one North American diplomat, “by far the most amazing is that Albania has become a country.”

“Or is it?”

The caveat is masterful.

As an “emerging” or “transitional” state Albania is shielded from finger-pointing, or, better said, it is temporarily inoculated against exaggerated criticisms of fiscal and social shortcomings. These are the ephemeral advantages of an informal economy nestled in a formal state. Accurate statistics regarding substantive matters are beaten down by a sly amalgam of confusion and sloth. One American Embassy official in Tirana confided shyly that her husband’s dream was to paint numerals on houses and apartment complexes that lack them. Since the official leaves in July the dream will fail. But another year would make no difference. In Tirana, what you see and what you make for yourself by any means — not what you think you’re promised or believe you’re owed — is what you get. Addresses are as approximate as fiscal rules.

INFRASTRUCTURE IS HAPHAZARD BECAUSE TIRANA disappeared for half-a-century. Hoxha’s mistrust of a world in motion put Tirana in a freezer (toward the end of his rule he reviled both Russian and Chinese communism, rinsing out both). Part Ceausescu and part sultan, possessive and tricky, he was also sentimental and self-righteous, a foul mix. Albania must be kept pure, he said. This was the Ottoman communism of paranoid idiosyncrasy and infinite ruse. His chosen heir, Mehmet Shehu, died puzzlingly in 1981 — an event author Kadare pondered in his latest novel, “The Successor.” Suicide, the official explanation, was disputed.

Tirana was a rumor to the planet, its urban viscera known to few. This made its collision with the 20th century all the more vexing. Ruined peasants (subsidies vanished) rushed from mountain to city, making Tirana into a Brazilian-style agglomerate of slums and temporary housing. Few now know where the many live. Utilities are measured by inspectors who overtax the wealthy to offset what the poor can’t pay. Electricity is “stolen” absurdly (thieves tap into snarled lines) and local and national taxes make sense only in the abstract. Standards, whether for fresh meat or antiseismic building material, are often in the eyes and pockets of beholders. The city is a cult of shifting allegiances, most informal and deeply personal. Big projects take priority over local business development because there’s more money involved and few in the city can yet speak in terms of a common interest. When Hollywood scriptwriters needed a Balkan nation to fulfill nutty invasion needs in the movie “Wag the Dog,” they picked Albania, which literally means “eagle’s country.” All knew about Kosovo, America’s 1990s redemption project. But genocide wasn’t amusing. Albania, a vaguely inhabited Mars, was studio-city perfect. Who knew anything about Albania but that it reveled in scams? Who cared?

Good question.

Tirana’s norms are based on Balkan magical realism (Rama would disagree). The European Union is light years away. When it invests in Albania it does so absentmindedly, as to involve itself only gingerly in a place of South American lineage. Dollars count over euro, vintage 1960. Most cars and trucks burn noxious diesel fuel (about €1 a liter in Albanian Lek) and skitter around farting clouds of smoke. Many pumps are Italian leftovers that wistfully register lire. The deputy energy minister announced recently that 80 percent of the service stations in Tirana were illegal and threatened to shut them down unless their “owners” agreed to conform to fuel standards. That’s like menacing food stores with closure: it is both high-minded and unenforceable.

Police are ubiquitous, blowing traffic whistles and gesticulating in curt gestures. Much of the population chain-smokes. Drive 20 kilometers into the damp, smoggy night toward Durrës and the sea and you pass a dozen modern hotels with prosaic signs pledging lodging and pizza — there’s even a Hotel California. Who’s inside? Probably no one. The hotels were built not for a clientele but to move hot cash. Construction is Albania’s conspicuous consumption. Few refuse the lure of paraphrasing an American axiom: if you build it, they will come. But they don’t come. Not yet, at least. When the power grid stays healthy (it flickers at times, ill with urban arrhythmia), the hyper-city glows as far as electricity travels, fading rapidly as big hills snort northward.

Dozens of makeshift markets sell household appliances, mostly black market refrigerators, washers, and air conditioners slipped in overland and by sea from Italy and Greece (you can still get a 1980s vintage boom box). Exports are deflated because Albania doesn’t have the standards to vouchsafe its few goods. It produces some sugar and textiles, but buys four times as much as it sells — $1 billion in imports to $250 million in exports. Italy and Greece dominate both markets, with Greece’s influence growing annually.

There is no McDonald’s (the “Kolonat” pizza and burger joint has half-a-golden arch), no Burger King or Kentucky Fried Chicken, the stablizing corporate troika that staked out hundreds of franchises in Eastern Europe after 1989. Regulatory gaps keep major players at arm’s length. Same old story: who knows where the meat comes from? Who can certify local poultry? Who enforces EU-style hygiene?

Comic, perhaps; funny, no.

Tourists are a rumor. Twice weekly, British Airways flies from London to Tirana’s single runway airfield (Mother Teresa International Airport) and an Alitalia flight lands daily from Rome, 55 minutes away. But the passengers are either Albanians or visiting businessmen who spend hours in meetings or hunched over free Internet in business centers. Postcards are difficult to locate and stamps even harder. There are no souvenir shops because there are no souvenirs. Twenty years removed from Hoxha’s anti-foreign psychosis, Tirana may be the most pristine capital city in Europe. “Charming,” says the political journalist Mustafa. “Not so charming,” he adds. The perfect contradiction.

“Tirana was once a small city. It is now a city-village, a mix of the urban and the rural,” says Remzi Lani, the executive director of ISHM, the Albanian Media Institute. He describes the capital as a wedding cake of architectural layers; the Ottoman, the Italian, the Russian, the Chinese, with each style encompassing slivers of a obstinate past. A surrealistic ensemble, Lani calls it: “Not a city, a monster.”

The monster sleeps on pins and needles. Headlines in Tirana’s English-language Albania Daily News, a daily compendium of sorts, owe a debt to woe. “Expired foods, 230 complaints in 3 months,” reads one. “Health Outcomes Lag Behind Those of European Countries, Report,” says another. “Empty Seats” chronicles loopholes in national education. Elsewhere, there’s “Friend of Notable Politicians Jailed” and “Irregularities in Last General Election.” Finally, and most lamentably, “As Many As 20% of Children Physically Abused.”

Ask anyone how a work-in-progress city so fantastically rich in uneven personal circumstance and with nothing to sell can justify its bulging circumference and the answer is the same: dirty money. It includes construction bribes, cash laundering, sex slaves, drug running, and mobile phone price fixing, in no special order. Vodaphone and local operator AMC (funded by Albanian and Greek cash) monopolize the mobile phone market, since landlines are few. A promised third operating license has yet to materialize. Detractors say rates reek of collusion and price gouging.

To hear it, Albania is a hangout for vices and Tirana home to ambitious if patriotic thugs (love of nation matters) who dabble in Robin Hood methods and place ingenuity ahead of ethics. As an American ally, an emerging democracy, and a doer of many correct things on the diplomatic front, Albania can justify most of its means. It’s off the Michelin grid. It doesn’t take credit cards. It arches its back when threatened. Don’t fuck with it.

But there’s a flip side to the flip side. When no one seems to care, Albania weeps for lack of attention. Thus the Balkan circle of frantic self-pity is unbroken.

Ah, but the energy of it all.

SHPËTIM NAZARKO TELLS GOOD EDI RAMA STORIES. In fact, all his stories are good. Their accuracy may be questioned, but the Balkans spill many lyrics at once: you must listen to all.

Nazarko, 47, is, among other things, a self-made former chess champion and closet physicist. He publishes the Tirana weekly ABC, which he started last fall. The paper looks like the French leftist daily Liberation, splashed with front-page color and j’accuse headlines. Nazarko is a Hegelian thinker who swears by Balzac and Thomas Mann and has compartmentalized the world. Energy is the kitchen. Albania can be a minor global player, he says, if it learns to take advantage of internacine skirmishes over natural gas and petroleum waged by Germany, Russia, and the United States. “We are a bridge,” he says, citing the strategic Caspian-Adriatic link. “But we don’t play to this strength. People talk about the new European order. It’s not new. The quarrels are still about energy sources and the territories that furnish them.”

Nazarko claims most Albanian media is owned or controlled by businessmen who use newspapers and television stations for leverage to get cash favors and legal breaks. Merchants and builders are frequent owners and mobile phone companies vital advertisers. “Newspapers,” Nazarko rues, “are business cards. Most of them are dirty.”

He uses the Italian word, sporco. Tirana residents have been weaned on decades of Italian television and some switch language seamlessly. Sporco comes up repeatedly. “Many play the dirty game,” Nazarko says, “but I do not. So, I am poor and they are rich.” Not quite, since Nazarko owns a print shop with book and personal check contracts. Tirana has more than 25 newspapers. The press may be compromised from a purist’s standpoint but it is abundant. Shpëtim Nazarko and his talk-show-host brother Mentor run ABC, whose basement offices are located on a dirt side street next door to a store that sells women’s apparel.

The word on the Nazarko brothers is that they can’t be bought, which in Tirana is almost quaint. By all objective measures it is also accurate, which is more important still.

Not everyone is a fan, however. Piro Misha, who once worked with philanthropist George Soros and now runs the Institute of Dialogue and Culture (IDC) a Tirana-based nongovernmental organization, finds Shëptim Nazarko “disturbing,” alluding to an unschooled raft of conspiracy theories Nazarko advertises as fact.

Under Hoxha, Shëptim toiled in the oil industry. Life was hard. His back still hurts from menial tasks. He and his brother support their aging parents. When the communist fog lifted, Shëptim started a newspaper, Dita Informacion (Daily Information), which he ran through the late 1990s. Mentor, erudite and astute, traveled to Italy where he obtained the college degrees that eluded his older brother. On TV, Mentor is respected for no-nonsense questions. His genial caution belies a ruthless side he can use to turn guests away from speechifying.

Shpëtim Nazarko is cut from rambling Balkan intellect. He is also widely trusted. He calls Tirana a city of “pagan Orientals” and drives an exhausted Mitsubishi Pajero through thrillingly madcap traffic. He can quickly excite himself into an Edi Rama frenzy. “See that paved street? Rama,” he says. “All holes before. See that sidewalk and how the street is wider? Rama. He’s crazy! He’s a genius! He’s old school, like a dictator.”

The exclamations are disarming since Rama once wanted to widen Nazarko’s street at the expense of his house. Rama likes widening. Nazarko tells the tale in comic book bubbles. “The city decides that it wants to expand my street for another lane of cars so it tells all the inhabitants that they must give up two meters, which means they slice two meters from your property. Think about it: you own a property and the city hall people come and say, ‘You must give up two meters. You have no choice.’” Nazarko howled at Rama, who is at once friend, adversary, and Tirana buddy. The mayor sometimes calls him after midnight — Nazarko shows off text messages — to chat and pose philosophical questions. “Rama never rests,” says Nazarko. “He is always out at night, checking, checking, looking.”

But Rama wouldn’t budge on the two meters. No exceptions, he said. Nazarko had to cough up the land. This was the law.

The dispute escalated into a verbal brawl that climaxed in a hotel bar face-off. You want the two meters, said Nazarko, then pay for them: one million dollars. Rama threatened and cajoled until they reached a Balkan impasse. Says Nazarko, winking: “I looked him in the eye at that point and said, ‘Rama, my mother will die in this house.’”

Maybe Rama knew that the Nazarko brothers’ elderly parents lived in the house, or perhaps he’d made his point. The mayor relented. Now, on Nazarko’s street, one house juts two meters forward, like a battering ram.

“Crazy, no?” says Nazarko.

No crazier than what happened last November. Lack of accumulated rainfall — Albania depends on hydroelectric plants — left the country without power for 16 hours a day. The outages lasted for weeks and terrified investors. The snakebit days were gone, they thought. Wrong.

ALBANIA IS RUN BY A MAN CALLED SALI BERISHA, a caustic former heart surgeon from the Albanian north near Kosovo who heads the conservative Democratic Party. Critics don’t see what’s democratic about it, but that’s an old riddle. His party won summer elections that took two months to sort out. So far, he’s behaved capriciously, grinning and ranting by turn. In December 2004, Albania signed a multimillion-dollar deal to contribute in the building of a trans-Balkan pipeline set to run from the Bulgarian city of Burgas on the Caspian Sea to Albania’s deepwater port at Vlore. The pipeline, known by its acronym AMBO (Albania Macedonia Bulgaria Oil), is worth about $1.2 billion and is expected to move 750,000 barrels of Caspian crude a day. AMBO is backed by a U.S.-registered consortium and has been in the works for more than a decade. But Berisha is having second thoughts. He has flirted with Germany, and Russian giant Gazprom, seeking an alternative route. The AMBO project is on hold.

Why jeopardize a done deal? “Megalomania,” says Nazarko. “He [Berisha] gets to be the big man, dealing with both the Americans and the Russians, to be in the middle. But it’s very risky. This is a major deal and a major pipeline. You cannot seek economic growth while at the same time changing sides.” In his defense, Berisha, a leading party official in Hoxha’s final days (he ran the hospital system), says that the planned pipeline might dent tourist development around Vlores. This is considered disingenuous.

“Tourism?” responds an incredulous Andis Harasani, a Socialist parliamentarian. “How tourism? Why tourism? Why should anyone come here? Our people go to Italy, to Greece. It’s cheaper there than it is here. The truth is we have no real economic planning. Just fashionable notions.”

Ironically, socialists were the first to advance tourism as a revenue source. They foresaw the Adriatic coast as a luminous venue for resorts and casinos, “to attract Americans,” says Harasani. The idea was similar to one promoted by liberal assistants to Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in the late 1950s, when full-scale development began on the Costa Brava and Costa del Sol. Spain needed dollars. Torremolinos and Marbella were born.

Realistically, Albania of 2006 is not Spain of 1956. Spain’s coasts were primitive but wired. Like his predecessors, Berisha proposes resorts in a utilities vacuum. Most of Albania’s Adriatic coast, unlike Croatia’s, is difficult to reach by car. Mediterranean cruise ships alight in Durrës, but do not disembark passengers.

“Albania,” laughs Nazarko, “is a big mental hospital, one big psycho ward.”

Berisha has led the country three times, the first two as president. His second term ended ignominiously in 1996 when the breakdown of a wildfire pyramid scheme bankrupted an already desperate nation. With banks in their infancy, pyramid “vendors” offered Albanians a chance to double short-term deposits. Real estate firms also entered the pyramid market, promising 30 percent interest. Many companies had impressive-sounding acronyms and pledged legitimacy. Berisha let them operate hoping to stir up spending.

Dreams of instant dividends made naïve Albanians vulnerable. Jobs were scarce; wholesale emigration had begun; the UN’s Yugoslavia embargo shoved crooked cash through the Albanian sieve, which opens into Serbia and Montenegro. A pyramid scheme is vampirism nourished by fresh cash and new players. Concentric expansion guarantees dividends. In this case organizers panicked. Illicit capital dried up with the end of the Yugoslav embargo. Pyramid organizers took the money and ran. Life savings vanished. The meltdown wiped out thousands of first-timers. The Lek crashed; prices rose 30 percent; riots broke out. Berisha reaped the whirlwind and was hounded from office early into his second term.

His successor was ex-communist Nano, a Hobbit-like man who ran his first government in the early 1990s. Like Berisha’s hardliners, his Socialists were reconfigured bureaucrats from the Hoxha period. For a time, the two men traded places much as Turkey’s Bülent Ecevit and Süleyman Demirel did in the 1970s and 80s. In between, Albania was run by their younger protégés, including one, Pandeli Majko, who gained the prime minister’s office in 1998 at age 30.

But Nano’s florid thinking disturbed those who knew the legacy of Italy’s Bettino Craxi. A Socialist comet of the 1980s, Craxi was felled by corruption and died in Tunisian exile in 1999. The self-conscious Nano reveled in the easy life. “In Monte Carlo, he would have hit the casinos starting at 18,” says Nazarko, whose Nano-skepticism is widely shared. By the time Nano’s Socialists consolidated power in 2001, construction was booming and predatory investors everywhere. Tenders were sealed behind closed doors.

“Nano became greedy,” says Nazarko. There were women, parties, and most of all gambling. As in Craxi’s Italy, socialism curdled. When the economy stalled, Nano was blamed and finally bounced. Audits of his official mobile phone charges allegedly revealed a $70,000 bill.

Cometh stubborn heart surgeon Berisha — unrepentant as ever. His return has dismayed progressives. As significant as Berisha’s comeback, however, was Nano’s ouster as Socialist leader. The new man’s name had a familiar ring: Edi Rama.

Already, Berisha, 62, and Rama, 42, are feuding. “It’s the caveman meets the laptop geek,” says Erion Veliaj, executive director of MJAFT, a high-octane NGO (mjaft emphatically means “enough!”) that wants Albania in more impartial hands. MJAFT depends financially on Albanians living abroad and Dutch as well as Scandinavian investors. “Berisha is a negative figure who exudes negative energy,” says Veliaj. “He would be a great leader in a war. He’s a destroyer.”

In destroyer mode, Berisha has stonewalled Rama’s Tirana modernization plan by saying he suspects the mayor of fraud, an allegation he favors as much as Rama likes widening roads. Berisha’s latest target is the attorney general, Theodhori Sollaku. Berisha, mulish when angry, insists the prosecutor is soft on crime. Others say he wants to wiretap at will but that Sollaku won’t let him. Berisha’s solution: create a commission to fire Sollaku. “Berisha is a tribal populist,” says the IDC’s Misha. “By talking always about crime and criminality he highlights the worst aspects of Albania to the world.”

If Rama’s opposition Socialists win coming regional elections, the mayor will be in line to get Berisha’s job. Such an overhaul would give Albania its first dramatically new look in a decade.

The idea doesn’t displease columnist Mustafa, who tires of writing the same old story. “This is a country where the ruling class, on all sides, has not been able to manage things. You can fault builders and mobile phones companies all you want, and they have their blame. But it’s a government that must set the example and take the lead in managing things.” Mustafa proposes a “ground zero” amnesty for all fiscal offenders to “start the country from scratch.” The alternative, he says, is chaos into the foreseeable future. Craxi’s Italy adopted similar measures in the 1980s to recover lost taxes and jumpstart spending. Only a pardon, Mustafa insists, might persuade lucrative black marketeers to come clean. Since Mustafa once embarrassed Berisha on national television — “You are an old Communist, and they never change!” — it is unlikely Berisha’s advisers are paying much attention. Without a strong state, Berisha barks, “there is no security.”

It’s a Balkan take on Patriot Act venom.

The Media Institute’s Remzi Lani is dispirited. “The people of a nation have a right to expect five things from their government: electricity, water, roads, schools, and hospitals where they can take their relatives. All these things in Albania are a disaster.” Berish’s election slogans, Lani notes, was “Time for Change,” lately updated to “Time for Punishment,” a reference to avenging Nano’s excesses and those of others. “Our politicians are kids, children. Before we can even begin to think about Europe we need to learn to talk to one another. The real slogan should be ‘Time for Development.’”

He’s spoken the magic word: Europe.

NEAR THE ORTHODOX CATHEDRAL ON RRUGA ELBASANIT, Elena Basha paints in watercolors. The wind ruffles a sheaf of paper that she patiently reassembles and places under a small block of wood. She’s taken up station along the banks of the Lana River, a narrow V-shaped moat that scurries past richly-green grass for miles. Today, she admires snowy cumulous clouds hauling rain toward the sea. “The pollution makes it difficult to see colors clearly,” she says. “It makes the air into a brown. You feel like you’re drinking it.”

Tirana can disturb EU breathers. Diesel exhaust abrades the lungs. Grease gathers in pores, eyes water, and the impromptu aroma of coffee grounds and hot refuse stir up a homeless odor that profanes the breeze. Basha, 24, is painting trees. Nearby is state police headquarters that a German firm is remodeling thanks to a EU grant worth €1.22 million. Brussels bureaucrats often allude to Albania when they talk about third-stage EU expansion. The talk, though, sounds forced. Of Albania’s estimated 3.2 million people, a fourth work as émigrés in euro zone nations.

Among them is Maja, Basha’s older sister, a waitress in an Italian bar. She sends home about €500 a month to Elena and her mother — their father died in 1997. The money represents more than half of the median annual income, 11,400 Lek, about €900 (statistics cited by the Albania Daily News suggest 40 percent of the population lives on less than €1.50 per day, with 70 percent subsisting on less than a euro.) Diaspora euro and dollar earnings are vital. “It is good that we have this money because it is not easy here,” says Basha. “Some of us are on a dangerous path over making money.”

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2Tirana Gets Real Empty Re: Tirana Gets Real Tue Nov 23, 2010 11:29 am



Organized crime? Prostitution? Drugs? She won’t say. Headlines answer for her. In mid-April, police in the port of Durrës seized 1.5 kilos of cocaine found in a parked Audi. Cocaine traffickers use ferries and container ships to push Russian, Balkan, and Near Eastern drugs into Italy, a ferry-ride away (Bari, Brindisi, Ancona, and Trieste are the ports of call). The Durrës haul was valued at €1 million — enough to feed 50 poor Tirana families for two years. According to Interpol, South American drug cartels wary of Western European ports turn to Albania as a distribution point. The country’s largest single outside investor, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, recently pledged €188 million in “infrastructure assistance” over two years but pointedly recommended the money be spent on improving the judiciary and trimming corruption.

MJAFT’s Veliaj is blunt in this regard. “Skyscrapers in Tirana are not built through the remittances of dishwashers working overseas. It’s drug money. It’s great ‘trickle-down.’ One success can finance a family.”

Basha’s boyfriend, Gjosh, is a hotel security guard whom she sees only on weekends. “But he wants to leave, to go to Italy or even Canada, but this is difficult.” She and Gjosh considered a mortgage on a local apartment but were daunted by paperwork and interest rates.

“Recently,” says the Socialist economist and lawmaker Harasani, “the government passed laws to encourage leasing. OK. Fine. But leasing here is taxed twice: on the first ‘contract’ and then, at the expiration of the leasing arrangement, the government gets another ‘luxury’ sum. So what’s the point of leasing? The purpose is defeated from the start.”

Visa lines outside the Italian Embassy consulate are often deep and wide. The days of Mussolini’s colonial delusions are long gone but Albania’s peculiar relationship with Italy persists. “For years,” says journalist Besar Likmeta, “RAI [Italy’s state television] was Albania’s window to the West. Italy stood for Western culture.” It was also a potential haven from the quirky vicissitudes of post-communist life. In the mid-1990s, thousands of Albanians boarded rusty hulks and landed in southern Italy. The exodus put Italian authorities in the awkward position of seeming ill-disposed to humanitarianism. Italian director Gianni Amelio’s 1996 film “Lamerica,” which focuses on the relationship between Italian businessmen and Albanian refugees, drove the point home. Though the Italian migration has since shifted ethnicity, Asians and Africans replacing Balkan runners, the Albanian stain is unwashed.

In Italy, Albanian migrants foraged for status. Men took on physical labor, women became maids. Poorly trained, some inevitably turned to organized crime. In nervous Italy, where racism underlies decency, l’albanese is an insult. Nazarko’s reference to the Albanian gioco sporco has spread through inference. Albanians will scam anyone, or so many Italians think. Not just Italians. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ranks Albania high on the list of “origin countries” for human trafficking, joining other regional anti-luminaries such as Russia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Romania. But only Albania is a raft-ride from Italian shores.

Young Albanian men like their women dressed like Italian celebrity showgirls: high heels, tight pants, mascara, and provocative tattoos. Albanian women, in turn, are seduced by the promise of Fashion TV. A breathlessly young society falls for its own hormones, and soon learns their market value. If Italy’s implicit sexual apartheid dismays the fair-minded, Albania’s disparities are more striking. Albania is a patriarchal culture in which women generally do what they’re told. This is less the case in Tirana, where a middle class, old and new, balances the scales. But it is shanties and villages that furnish most prostitutes and sex slaves. Lack of income-generating skills put young women at greater risk. They can aspire to shop girl and hostess posts but little more. In the countryside they seek only the city. This exposes them to sexual bounty hunters disguised as mentors or facilitators, if disguised at all.

“After Hoxha was gone, Germany made a good offer,” says Shptëm Nazarko. “It said, ‘We will fund trade schools so that your people can learn skills. We will help teach them.’ But [the government] said, ‘No, we don’t need your help.’ It was still the old Hoxha thinking. Now look. Look at what we’ve lost.”

Probably a generation: Albania’s lost generation of the 1990s.

GENCI RULI IS A SKEPTIC with a hopeful streak. National lineage is not an entitlement or a passport to European Union membership. Cigarette coaxed between smooth knuckles, he mourns the collapse of education and calls the country’s political and business elite immature. Transformation and modernization shouldn’t be discussed but carried out. Time is wasting.

Ruli is Albania’s finance minister.

His well-appointed office is located near where Hoxha once worked. “Albanians have big emotions and big expectations,” he says. “They think Europe should ‘swallow’ us, that there is a historical debt. They say, ‘We are different from Ukraine and Turkey. We were always part of European traditions.’ OK. Fine. Is this appealing thinking? Yes. Is it realistic? No. No integration in history has ever been based on cultural debt. Everyone has to pay his way.”

Ruli is a prototypically loquacious Albanian. He’s 48, has been in and out of government for 15 years, and started an international economics think tank. He sports gold cufflinks, keeps a rigid, elegant posture, and rarely gesticulates. He speaks, he says, as a concerned Albanian, not a government official.

But he is a government official, which makes his balanced candor impressive. “There is a difference between Europe and the EU. We were not part of medieval Europe, of Renaissance Europe, of Protestant Reformation Europe, of the Industrial Revolution. We were part of the Ottoman Empire. The pretensions that we deserve to belong [to the EU] are very nice, but they are just that, pretensions. We must catch up. The question is how.”

Tirana, moreover, doesn’t represent Albania. A third of the country, he notes, is off the map. Soft credit and hiccupping investments built a few provincial roads, but the effort went no further. The isolation is crippling. “To get to Bosnia, I have to fly to Zagreb,” he says. Not a European itinerary. Nations such as Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), Poland, and Hungary, tackled a “single transition,” from a Communist system to a free market economy. Instead, Albania and its Balkan neighbors must develop and modernize contemporaneously. This is Albania’s only viable ticket into the EU. Anything else is a pipe dream milked for its media buzz.

“Look,” say Ruli, “there are 80,000 pages of laws and regulations [connected to entering the EU]. Are they applicable here and do we have people, lawyers and technicians, capable of processing them? Again, the answer is no. This is not Greece or Portugal, which were just poor. We must have institutional progress.”

Another view is that of Misha. He faults the EU for shortselling agriculture in its early aid packages. Hoxha-subsidized peasants fled their villages leading to the “savage urbanization” of Tirana and massive emigration. “The [EU] didn’t address the rural side or how to open avenues to the possible tourist areas on Dalmatian coast, probably because Greece [an EU member] saw this as competition,” Misha says. The vision of a flourishing riviera arising from Albanian’s fallow coastline — the city of Saranda faces Corfu — is marred by awful access roads.

The most ruinous irony, though, is education. Under communism, Albanians had to complete elementary school. “You could not spread propaganda if you didn’t have the education to understand it. The training system was massive,” says Ruli. “Now, we are losing even what little we got under Hoxha.” The situation alarms Artan Puto, a correspondent for the Eastern European website Transitions Online. Today’s Albania, he wrote recently, “is far cry from the days of communism, when it was rare to see children on the street during school hours. During that time, a network of preschools reached throughout the country.”

Under Hoxha, about 57 percent of the preschool population attended some 3,000 schools. Half that number remain. Ruli wants Albania to adopt a model similar to the one followed by postwar Japan and South Korea. Both tied mandatory schooling to national rebuilding. The quick-fix logic of The Block, Ruli says, has duped a population of dreamers. “People here got sudden freedom and a sudden chance for material profit. It was a kind of psychological explosion: ‘I have the possibility to get rich!’ The problem is that many of those who did get rich had no education, so the question became why get one at all? The common-man orientation in which you have a family that wants you to improve and to learn to do well was blown apart.”

Rama’s remarkable progress in Tirana will matter little, most agree, unless Albania works toward self-sufficiency. If urban Tirana is virtual Europe, rural Albania is desolation row. “Europeanization is a hard project,” says the Media Institute’s Lani, who travels often in the western Balkans and whose wife is the Albanian ambassador to Spain. A soft-spoken man, he is sensitive to symbolism. That USAID’s Tirana office (“From the American People,” is its logo) is located inside the $200 a night Sheraton Hotel doesn’t help; it will move soon. Subtleties matter, he insists. “It’s one thing to feel European but something else to think like one, and something else again to think and act like one.” Albanian’s shortcomings, he adds, induce condescension. “They [EU] see the western Balkan states — Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia, Serbia — the way Italy sees Albania, as a problem.”

Yet imposing a passive quarantine in which Albania is occasionally applauded but substantively ignored is self-defeating. Though Sofia and Skopje may outstrip Tirana, Lani sees no reason why the EU, having chosen to “absorb” Romania, can’t also include the western Balkans. “They don’t know that we’re a bigger problem out than in.”

Albania’s diplomatic stock rose during the Kosovo conflict when it rallied behind Kosovo’s Albanian minority against the hectoring of the late Slobodan Milosevic. That support continues and Albania is included in most major discussions about the region’s future. But NATO admission, like EU membership, is far off. Even if, as Ruli suggests, Albania simply can’t, and shouldn’t, worry unduly about the EU riddle until it copes with quintessential dilemmas, Lani doesn’t want the matter buried. “We need Europe as an ideology, something to aspire to. If we fail to adopt this kind of thinking we risk lapsing back into the Balkan way, civil wars and squabbles.”

TIRANA'S RHYTHMS DIFFER. Near the coarse Durrës highway, furloughed soldiers, faces the color of ketchup, strut in search of pizza past preadolescent cigarette vendors. Shrill girls in jeans, tittering, teasing, and spilling cheap scents, swish by the other way headed for the potholed bus terminal. Eyes bend for a second, contact lost as it happens. The congregated odor — soldiers, girls, vendors, and buses — is a styptic marinade of kerosene and eros.

A block away, two young women emerge from a lunar road and streak past a row of wheeless garbage bins, one of them ablaze and stoked by a garbage boy who jabs the filthy fire with a frayed stick. Garbage browsers (and burners) are commonplace in Tirana, reflecting an inadequate waste collection system. The boy hardly sees the women, a thin blonde and a heavy-breasted brunette, both about 25, with silver and purple nails, imitation Prada bags, and jet-nosed pumps. They negotiate potholes while keeping their thumbs busy on luminous Nokia displays. The decrepitude bores them. Once on Boulevard Durrësit, the main drag, they pivot as one and aim for civilization. Suddenly, the blonde pauses. Her phone is buzzing. Silver sequins on her tank-top read “I Like Man.” She speaks over traffic, grins, flicks her hair, and preps herself to enter the realm she’s preened for.

That realm is The Block. It has tree-lined streets, cafès, pizzerias, several parks, and caters to the under-30 crowd. The Block is pure Rama. He’s transformed once off-limits streets into an open-air dance hall for Tirana’s walk-and-text generation, what Piro Misha calls its “spoiled and imitative” middle class, its hedonists. Here, young Romeos find girlfriends or show off their current flings. Girls by the dozens aloft on high heels lock arms and shop, or pretend to. It’s a mating burlesque with no guarantees. Ice cream cones are a pastime. There are mini-malls with widescreen TVs blasting second-rate retro-pop or wailing Balkan crooners. In the few Internet cafes, video gamers gather to check out “Grand Theft Auto 2.”

Teleported to The Block it might seem like Prague or Budapest. Prices (in Lek) outstrip the rest of the city: a cappuccino costs €1.50, a pizza €6. And yet this is the Tirana that some cosmopolitans wish the whole would become: urbane, cool, sexy, hopeful, and nouveau riche. If capitalism has been misunderstood, says Misha, at the very least these young people “want to have a new relationship with the world.”

Andi Balla, 26, is among them. The outgoing managing editor of the English-language weekly Tirana Times, Balla is headed for Columbia Journalism School in New York City this fall. “Whenever I read about Albania I always see it referred to as the ‘troubled’ Balkan country,” says Balla, who graduated from the University of Wyoming in 2003. “Why, I keep asking, is it troubled? English has become the dominant second language; more people are coming back than leaving.” After Columbia, Balla expects to return. “There’s important stuff to cover here. I see this place as a faster path to success.”

BLINK, AND TIRANA REVERTS TO OTTOMAN TIMES. On Boulevard Bajram Curri, at the corner of a nameless street, elderly men with sailor caps barter over cables with a truck battery salesmen. Off a ways, near graffiti that reads “Juventus,” two bulbous merchants idle on a stoop and jab curved fingers at each other. A nearby market sells apples, watermelons, and grapes. In an open lot, feral boys forage for scraps amid underbrush and olive trees. Chain-smoking pensioners stroll morning to night, smoke trailing from toothless mouths. Buses, some of them orange IVECO leftovers from the Italian 1970s, suck in riders until they’re gorged, suspension low to the asphalt. They skitter off like cockroach traps on wheels.

ATM outlets in Tirana’s tougher districts are guarded by khaki-dressed troops with automatic weapons. Most ATMs — there are probably 50 in all —belong to Raiffeisen Bank, the Austrian giant that entered the Albanian market on a prayer. So far, so good, even if core Tirana annuls the modern. Paul Bowles would like it here. Or Lawrence Durrell. Turning wide, buses miss their mark and lean menacingly into oncoming lanes, claxons braying. Wild traffic backs up as if announcing an accident. Even Rama’s color-daubed façades seem at times like morning-after dates with soiled makeup. Kandahar is the city Rama used to describe unreconstructed Tirana to Jane Kramer; “Kandahar,” says Nazarko, making the same comparison.

Kandahar’s mention begs mention of religion. Islam gets wise in sidestreets. Burqas are more common there. Mosques pop up, papier-mâché in frailty, prayer-chant speakers pinned to the tops of index-finger minarets. A normally-taciturn journalist at Nazarko’s ABC weekly, shown a photograph of two middle-aged burqa-clad women ambling down a crowded Tirana street, grows immediately indignant. “This is not Albania,” he exclaims.

There are in fact two Tiranas, two Albanias: the ruggedly Catholic north, influenced by roving missionaries, and the Christian orthodox and Sunni Muslim center-south, loyal in spirit to the caliphate carpet that once covered the Ottoman Balkans. Estimates place Albania’s Muslim population at 70 percent, far higher in rural areas than in the capital (but such numbers, like census information, are approximate). Hoxha, son of a Muslim merchant, was a southerner from the city of Gjirokastër. Affluent Tirana mostly eschews its Muslim side as bad for business. This is less a split than a matter of loyalty, with the city’s upscale side inoffensively preferring Christian affiliation or none at all, hewing to Hoxha’s atheism.

Christian Albania fought the Turks vigorously: the national hero, Kastrioti Skënderbeu, or Skenderbeg, resisted for three decades in the 15th century before he was overrun; 400 years later, in 1911, a nationalist uprising ended Ottoman rule. Today, Boulevard Curri — Curri himself was an Albanian nationalist — offers its share of young Muslim men with full, bushy beards. They mingle and chat in the courtyards of local mosques. Albania remains a secular state in the groundbreaking Atatürk mold. While Islamist parties have found pre-eminence of late in Turkey, Albania has so far shown no inclination to jackhammer Islam into politics. That may change. “Albanians are Albanians first and everything else second,” says Nazarko.

North American diplomats, mindful of the teeming under-30 crowd, murmur unspecific concern. They cite a Muslim revival screened from public view. How this responds to post-September 11 anxiety is unclear. Some Albanian Muslims have ties to Arab states, opening a ripe channel to oil money and the grievances around it. In 2002, the government stopped the construction on the downtown Twin Towers when their Saudi backer was alleged to have al-Qaeda ties. The buildings were later completed. In March, a Muslim leader in the northern city of Shkodër objected to a plan for a centrally-located statue honoring Mother Teresa, born in Macedonia. She was first a Catholic figure, second a humanitarian, he asserted. A less evident statue will be erected. Tirana’s lavish Sheraton Hotel, opened in 2003, is patrolled by Men-in-Black style security agents who bark furtively into walkie-talkies. U.S. Embassy officials acknowledge that Albania could be a threat, but their conviction sounds tepid, perhaps because at this juncture in history all the world is daunting.

A VETERAN SOCIETY MOCKS ITSELF while telling foreigners not to do the same. Defensive-aggressive by design, it affirms itself through expressions of calamity. Foreigners, Tirana natives say, cannot criticize Albania knowingly. They lack context and favor cliché. Only the spaciously self-deprecating cynicism of true nationalism can explain what doesn’t work and why. Objectively, though, the weak link is that Albania seeks more for less, using the hardships of democratization as an excuse. “Albania grew accustomed to being subsidized by Moscow, and then China, and it can’t break the habit,” Nazarko says bluntly.

The construction boom exposes the country’s Achilles heel, which, Nazarko asserts, is its failure to fertilize its assets. Natural resources are discarded. Albania is a predominantly rural and agricultural nation that spends less than 1 percent of its income on sustaining farming. In the countryside outside Tirana merchants peddle their wares from carts, a custom in many developing nations. But much rural produce come from Greece and Macedonia, fundamentally undoing notions of self-reliance. MJAFT, which acts as a watchdog, says parts of Albania are being marketed clandestinely as hazardous waste disposal sites. This is its dead land. Making the countryside work is a marginal priority because it offers no immediate profit.

“Albania is a transit nation,” says Nazarko. “Its ports are essential. It can sell its geographical location. But the talk is about big urban projects.” Look, he says, at Iceland, Switzerland, and Scotland. All three covet their strengths. “Does Iceland betray its fishing industry? No. Does Scotland betray wool? No. Does Switzerland abandon clocks and chocolate? No.”

Albania prefers incidental luxury to systematic reconstruction. The reasons are cultural (resistance to change) and deviously pragmatic (why open Pandora’s Box?) Tirana residents assail their dubious living conditions while aware that a life lived differently life would come at considerable cost. Change is not on everyone’s mind. Small businesses resist paying taxes. Electricity theft and the bypassing of bills mitigates systematic expenses. In the absence of private property, taxation stays abstract. In a state of corruption — the preferred name remains “informality” — black market goods seem less obscure than penniwise.

Regulatory discipline, when applied, is selectively limited to construction. There is, for example, a Construction Police. In late April, it began tearing down two unlicensed floors of a new 14-story building. Yet policing is open-ended. It can also be bribed into stasis. The public works ministry, urged on by Berisha, is studying ways to legalize more than 200,000 rogue structures. Squatters and para-legal builders would receive a set amount of time to come forward and stake their claim.

Edi Rama finds all this facile, however. It’s the cart before the horse, he says. Give people private property and register their ownership. Which brings us to the mayor of Tirana.

EDI RAMA HAS RECORDED A HIP-HOP CD, but we’ll leave that for another time. First comes the invisible hand story.

Up close, Rama looks less like a Left Bank artist than a very large Secret Service agent. At six feet six, he is Tirana’s Paul Bunyan-cum-Andrè Malraux with a penchant for anecdotes and parables. His American English is crisp and he doesn’t like it when his stories interrupted. “When I took over in 2000, people dealt with city hall this way: There was a kind of kiosk, or temporary structure. That was city hall. So people would stand in line for hours in rain and cold waiting to get to a window. OK. When they finally got to the window there was just a slit, you could not see the person behind it. No face. You would then make your request, whatever it was, and the voice behind the slit would say, ‘No,’ or, ‘Come back tomorrow.’ You could only see the hand, never the face. The person would come back the next day to wait for the same invisible hand and again be told ‘no,’ or come back again. The person, by that time desperate, would then try a bribe, because it was obvious that that was what was needed to get anything...”

He pauses stragetically. “Now, we have a working city hall and real people who can be approached. We have computers and databases.”

It’s true.

Rama has a dream. Make that two. No, six.

He charges ahead at non-Albanian warp speed sweeping aside obstacles through sheer force of personality and physical persuasion. His trick, he says, is trusting common sense — chiefly his own. It’s brilliant strategy in a metropolis known for spayed bureaucrats. Whether the raging bull-with-a-heart approach can go national without impudence is arguable. Rama’s kindest critics say he’s a heartbeat from enlightened tyranny, while a less-generous contingent berates him as Western-spun version of Albanian home cooking: which is to say he’ll say or do anything to accumulate influence and wealth.

The meaner assertions sound envious.

Rama has a political sixth sense about what works, or might — an instinct Italians flatteringly call una marcia in piú, in essence a thruster gear. Painting the façades of dozens of apartment complexes was a stroke of genius, rewarded by ample media coverage. Now, he’s playing another card. His two deputy mayors are women (“women are less corrupt than men,” he explains.) Overall, 60 percent of his staff is female. Getting women into politics, he says, is the most effective way of putting a dent in Albania’s rigidly patriarchal society. “Woman can give a sensitivity and seriousness that is missing.”

Though his views can border on the maudlin, he is not running for governor of New York. In fact, his approach has a post-diluvian New Orleans feel. He’s hands on. He knows he’s liked — statistics say he’s the most popular politician in Albania — and he expects others to yield the right of way. Rama is separated and has a son who is undergoing cancer therapy in the United States. Of this he does not speak. “Albanians are a good people, a smart people,” he says, “but you have to give them the means to function. You have to give them quality of life.” Rama has studied President Luiz Lula da Silva’s running of Brazil (both men have faced their share of corruption allegations) and thinks that creating a socially-conscious citizenry shouldn’t take three generations. Change is afoot, he says. Believe it, he adds. Young Albanians abroad are returning to Tirana with acquired expertise. Fewer are leaving to start with. The city has an athlete’s pulse.

Since replacing Nano atop the Socialist Party, Rama has clashed bitterly with Berisha, who has responded to the mayor’s political ascent by interfering more intensely than ever in city hall (among Rama’s desktop files is a touched up Adobe image of the Albanian cabinet in which all ministers bear Berisha’s face; he has also printed posters of Berisha as a chicken). To Rama, Berisha is former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi run amok; Berlusconi, he says, accused the Italian judiciary of communist leanings but he never prosecuted the prosecutors, which is what Berisha is doing to Sollaku, the embattled attorney general. Where in the world, Rama asks — no, where in Europe, he rephrases — does a national leader impugn someone for sport? His voice trails off.

The Berisha spat dates from 1996 when Rama and other student dissenters accused then-President Berisha of bias and corruption. Berisha is now turning the tables by blocking Rama’s pet projects, including a plaza and underpass leading to the Durrës highway. Berisha says the so-called “Blackbird Square” plan is unsafe. Rama’s urban planners view the prime minister’s sudden urban awareness skeptically. The nasty stalemate means a traffic nightmare.

Rama’s response was typical of his style. He had a stuffed yellow bird sent to a hairdresser where it was painted black. He then placed the bird in his office. “Tirana is not the last wagon,” he says. “This is not a Third World stereotype. Our people are running, and running much faster than the state.”

Berisha’s state.

“The big Cyclops,” is what Nazarko calls Berisha, while Veliaj says he’s the Last of the Mohicans: “When Berisha goes, the whole chapter of a generation is closed.”

For now, however, Berisha brushes aside the mayor’s resistance. Insults are boy’s mischief, like pulling the wings off an insect. Rama storms but he also stews.

“I like Rama,” says Lani. “He’s created a model of a city that’s changing. It may not be perfect, there is reason to criticize. But at the very least it’s a model.”

Misha goes further: “Berisha has a rural mentality while Rama’s is urban. His sheer will has shown people that a spiral of helplessness is not a given.”

For MJAFT’s Veliaj, Berisha is a street-puncher who “sees sabotaging the city as a perfect way to put Rama down.”


Like Ruli, Rama believes Albania must impress Europe, not the other way around. When Tirana cab drivers went on strike to protest paying bribes for licenses, a veteran city hall official told Rama there were three strata of municipal legitimacy, “legal, illegal, and half-legal.” Half-legal was the norm. It angered him.

So do the slumbrous shortcomings of Tirana’s hospital system, which is spectacularly outdated. Rama has met with doctors and administrators to streamline procedures, so far to no avail — hospitals, after all, were Berisha’s specialty under Hoxha.

Appreciating Tirana’s post-Y2K progress begs recalling the city in 1996, when villagers slapped mortar together for temporary shelter. It also requires suspending disbelief. Rama is probably the only UN World Mayor who wears a Homer Simpson tie to work. It’s reverse-chic irreverence that suits both man and city. His mayoral position limits his national exposure. His experience, he admits, is based on Tirana. But aren’t the ethics of urban planning global? he asks.

“The poor in Tirana live in anxiety. Why is that? Because they have no title to their land. They fear that at any time someone can come and take it away. You cannot integrate them without giving them something, so the problem — poverty, squatters, social differences — is also part of the solution. The government says that the poor, the squatters, should just be legalized. Period. But in that case you’re only legalizing a ghetto. Nothing changes.”

Rama wants improved city services, fiscal accountability, and legal title to land. Berisha, who must satisfy campaign pledges regarding ownership of city property, counters with his less detail-oriented legalization plan. The Industrial Revolution-style collision between the two men was probably inevitable.

But if Rama’s media-friendly wit gets him into trouble in Tirana, it may yet assist him on the global stage. He stands to become the first post-1991 Albanian leader who can deliver snappy sound bites in English. “The key is modernization, not witch-hunts,” he says in another swipe at Berisha’s grouchy crusade against city hall. “We must give people back their city.” He’s convinced he has.

He claims Tirana’s crime rate is the lowest in Europe for a city its size — 350,000 officially, twice that by most informal accounts. When he took office, he continues, the capital had 78 streetlights; there are now 2,000. He’s razed 145 “kiosks” — “or 148, I can’t remember” — patchwork concrete and wood housing that snacked on the landscape for decades. Slums along the Lana’s riverfront have been cleared. Small and mid-sized parks have emerged from rubble. He spews figures like a proud father and political pro, which he is gradually becoming. He admits to endemic corruption and doesn’t believe city officials are sinless “angels,” as he calls them. “Even Jesus Christ, after 40 days, would become tempted to take a bribe,” he says, another pitch-perfect bite. But if people recognize, as they have in Tirana, that you can reap the rewards of citizenship without resorting to duplicity, they’ll get with the program. First, they must see it and believe it.

Rama’s “Give Peace a Chance” theme is muscular. Even skeptics agree that the overflowing city is more vibrant than ever. “There is an old joke,” says Rama. “There’s a guy driving through Italy, and in Italy he wears his seatbelt, obeys police, and pays attention to lights. Then, as soon as he crosses the border back into Albania, he takes off his seat belt, tells the police to go to hell, and ignores the streetlights.”

You want to say something like: “Dude, no one wears seatbelts or pays attention to streetlights in Italy,” but you know he knows, and he quickly makes it clear. “Albania is America in the days of its birth, an America in its baby phase. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. We only need to copy what others have done. We are what Greece was 50 years ago, what Italy was 90 years ago.”

The ways Rama satisfies his fixing needs — he’s a resourceful boy with an immense shovel — recalls a lyric from the band Counting Crows, “All I ever need is everything.” His enemies might go with Neil Young: “There’s still crime in the city, but it’s good to be free.”

As for the hip-hop CD, “West Side Family & Edi Rama,” the lyrics are an elegy to the brave new city. If he does for Albania what he’s done for Tirana, it could soon become a collector’s item.

Source: The American Online

Published on September 4, 2006

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