Painting Politics: Why Edi Rama Matters

Edi Rama

A former painter turned politician, Edi Rama is the chair of the Socialist Democrat party in Albania and the capital city of Tirana’s three-term mayor.  While teaching at the Academy of Arts in Tirana, he was active during the anti-communist revolution and he co-authored a book in 1992 condemning Enver Hoxha’s regime.  The book called “Refleksione” discussed thoughts on emigration, economics and the future of Albania. Rama criticized the Democratic Party because of its corruption and more specifically, he often spoke out against Sali Berisha while abroad during his time as an internationally recognized visual artist.  Now that he is mayor of Tirana, it seems as though Rama is still struggling with the same fights today.

Albania applied for NATO membership on April 1st of last year, and submitted its application to join the EU less than a month later. It now has to receive a positive European Commission assessment of its preparedness for accession talks to be recognized as an official EU candidate.  The country’s future looked a bit brighter until the parliamentary elections on June 28, 2009. Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s right-wing Democratic Party (DP) and its coalition partners won the vote and a second term with a marginal 1.5% victory over the Socialist Party (SP), led by Edi Rama. The SP contested the election results, claiming they were manipulated, and called for a thorough investigation into the poll and a recount of votes, but Berisha rejected that demand. As a result, the SP, which won 65 of the 140 seats in parliament, has been boycotting the assembly since September, thus paralyzing the adoption of EU required laws. While the ruling DP-led coalition has a 75-seat majority in parliament, most of the bills the country must pass to make further progress on its EU integration path would require a three-fifths majority — 84 votes.  The point is that Albania’s government has not functioned since September because of this boycott and a year that could have been used to start adopting EU law was wasted.

Edi Rama's Colors

Rama has a bold style when it comes to reform, and he rid the city of many illegally constructed buildings, expanded roads, and built many parks.  Although I have not been to Albania (yet), I first learned the name Edi Rama when I read about the brightly colored buildings in the capital.  Sparking a great deal of controversy, Rama issued a decree to paint the gray communist buildings with bright, even a bit garish colors.  They bought red, blue, yellow and green, and even mauve, lilac and taupe and the city was transformed.  I like the idea of this project for many different reasons.  Even though I have not been to Tirana, I’ve spent enough time in East Europe to know that communist buildings can be a bit…gray.  Also, this project taught the residents of Tirana to share responsibility for their city.  This aesthetic and political act prompted many other social reform projects, and even livened up the art scene in Tirana, which now has an international contemporary art biennale.  In my opinion, however, the biggest success of what is now known as “Edi Rama’s Colors” is that the project gives visible evidence to social change, using the city itself as a canvas.

Despite Rama’s positive reforms and popularity, he led this boycott of parliament, which created a lasting political crisis and paralyzed the government.  He felt that the elections were fraudulent and he is unwilling to let the Socialist Party remain the opposition for another four years.  The EU, USA, Council of Europe and OSCE have tried to mediate talks between the parties, but neither side will budge.  The OSCE mission in Albania says that the country’s elections never meet international standards, although some progress was made during this last round.  In fact, in every election held in Albania since the end of the communist era in 1991, the “loser” has complained, accusing the “winner” of electoral fraud.  This election was no different.  Rama led a series of protests around the country over the past 6 months, but currently, they seem bigger and more exasperated than ever.  This weekend tens of thousands of people protested in Tirana starting on Friday, demanding a recount of the votes.  Some people are even claiming that they will not leave the square until the recount takes place.  Tents were erected, and a few hundred people (including a couple of dozen parliament members from the SP) are not giving up.  There are even talks of a possible hunger strike.

Because I am a former art student who now studies East European history and politics, I have a bit of a soft spot for Edi Rama.  He often makes comparisons between politics and conceptual art, and I appreciate his passionate and bold reforms.  However, I think that this stalemate in Albania’s parliament has lasted way too long.  I think that Edi Rama seems like the type of person who sometimes creates messes and doesn’t know how to fix them.  He must have thought the boycott of parliament would work by now, but he needs Plan B.  Are hunger strikes really the answer?  And what is the point of the OSCE monitoring elections?  The OSCE says that the elections are never up to international standards, but do they have the power to do anything about it?  Probably not.  If the elections were democratic in the first place, Berisha wouldn’t mind a recount, but most likely he knows he does not deserve to be in power.  Finally, I wonder when these politicians will think less about their own power, and more about the future for Albania.  Albania is ready to start making the necessary reforms on the path to EU membership.  First however, the country needs to wait out the several decade long bickering of archrivals Sali Berisha and Edi Rama.

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  1. I appreciate this mixture of art and politics not common at all. The idea of Edi Rama has been spread from Tirana to every region of the country and it’s a really characteristic feature of the Albanian landscape, which with its bunkers,its mountains and its unique culture make this country something really different and special. Visiting Albania is a really worth experience. I hope you can go there soon.

    Btw, a picture of Edi Rama also would have been appreciated.

    • Christine
    • May 3rd, 2010

    Thanks… good suggestion for the picture. I think many of the most visible signs of change in Albania and Tirana specifically are due to Edi Rama. Visible change gives people hope… so I like how Edi Rama thinks. Now if only they can sort out the mess in parliament, the country can move forward.

    I also hope I can go there soon – maybe this summer.

    • Sarah Correia
    • May 3rd, 2010

    Excellent post, Christine!

      • Christine
      • May 4th, 2010

      Thanks Sarah!!!!
      I’ve been wanting to ask you- are you going to Bosnia this summer? I’d love to hear about your research plan.

  2. Well done for the pic of the star of this post next to the stunted main river of Tirana.

    • JM
    • May 11th, 2010

    Those ‘illegally constructed buildings’ were more often than not homes. You know, the sort of place where poor people live.

    Despite the garish colours, absolutely nothing has been done to address the fact that these depressing looking buildings are depressing primarily because they’re falling apart.

    I suggest you visit Tirana. Endemic corruption, crumbling infrastructure and a general state of hopelessness abounds.

    • Christine
    • May 11th, 2010

    Thanks JM for the thoughtful comment. You raise a good point that Edi Rama eliminated many homes when he widened the streets and dealt with the “illegally constructed buildings.” In your opinion, do you think this will help the city in the long term, or did he destroy homes for nothing?

    Of course the colors do not fix any problems, but I do think from an artistic standpoint, the project highlights transition. I also think the project is unique.

    I would absolutely love to visit Tirana, and hopefully this will be possible in a few months. Are you located there now? Thank you so much for the insider’s viewpoint.

    • Ekphrasis Studio
    • July 23rd, 2010

    I encourage you to look further into what Edi Rama has done for artists other than himself. What you will find is that he has done very little (as have his counterparts). It is a sad state today in Albania for artists and professionals in the creative industries, and the situation is not improving.

    Look into how many cultural activities and institutions exist in Tirana as of 2010. Or open calls from the municipality (or state) for public artistic projects, changing street names, citizen needs, transparency, public spending, commitment to the citizens, etc.

    Yes, the articles found on the internet ‘paint’ a very positive picture, but upon taking with the cultural community in Tirana, I’m sure you will quickly find otherwise. It is now 2010, and we are still talking about ‘transition’.

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