Albanian surfaces 

I watched a half-hour TV program yesterday on Albania’s towns and Austrian development aid projects there. The objective of the program was obviously to make the Austrian projects look good and to give an optimistic outlook on Albania’s future, but still, it was well produced and quite interesting.

The report focussed on the capital of course. I haven’t been in Tirana since the beginning of 1997. Since then, hyperactive mayor Edi Rama has pulled through his now famous program of mural painting: all the previously decrepit building fronts along the main boulevards have been painted decoratively in a wild mix of primary colours; trees have been planted; and, most significant on the symbolic level, the river-bed of the small river Lana that flows through the city-centre has been cleaned up and lined with meticulously kept lawns. In the early nineties, these river-beds had disappeared beneath the anarchic illegal building activities of newcomers from the countryside, much to the dismay of the city’s established population. Rama said in the report he was a believer in the ‘broken window’-theory: every broken window that is not repaired triggers the breaking of several more windows, or, as he put it, hundred additional trees are better than hundred additional policemen. It was symbolic politics at its best. The shiny model of the future city in the national museum, complete with flashing lines of miniature light-bulbs and irregular-shaped glass cones representing a Manhattan-like skyline overdid it a bit.

Albanian intellectual Fatos Lubonja was given two minutes for his view on Tirana’s development. It was left uncommented in the documentary and not picked up again. He said he was an opponent of Rama’s policy, which amounted to boulevardisation rather than urbanisation. Those lovely facades so admired by international visitors were a smoke-screen in front of the unregulated and unchecked building activities of the mafia everywhere behind them, Lubonja said. He said the country was kept in a strangle-hold by the elite with its mafia structures, for whom a shopping-window like those few renovated boulevards in the capital was just ideal.

The report then travelled the rest of the situation. The co-ordinator of Austrian aid in Albania was proud that money was never given to ministries to distribute, but always directly to local NGOs. This, he claimed, means that every cent that is spent can be checked. Good luck to him. Shkodra was found lacking the colourful facades of the capital, and suffering from its opposition spirit, which includes the refusal to pay utility bills to the hostile government. The water power stations in the mountains provided truly spectacular images (note: want to go there once), decent technical improvement work of the bi-national engineering teams, and a female project leader on the Albanian side, a fact that surprised the Austrian film team (‘in such a patriarchal society’) more than viewers who know that in comparison, Austria is not the less patriarchal country of the two. In Durres the film team seemed unsettled by the chaotic drainage and electricity situation in a new illegal settlement – but another heroic NGO has taken up the fight for improvement. Vlora was vaguely about tourism, and a disco party on the beach - organised by the municipality ‘to motivate young Albanians to stay in the country’ - represented the happy end of the documentary.

All in all not bad for thirty minutes, the main surfaces duly covered. Talking repeatedly about surfaces is of course manipulative of me, it implies that there exists a layer of a deeper truth. Something like what was described by Mr Lubonja for example. What counts more, the dynamic surface or the questionable dealings beneath it (assuming, and it’s always only an assumption, that the critics are right)? I believe that both of them matter, in all sorts of countries, not just those undergoing radical change. I’d like to be aware of both sides of the story, and I’d like to be able to make my peace with the situation not only by hoping for the best, but also by assuming the possible worst.

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