26 / 2 / 2014

The Unofficial View of Tirana (75)



About a week ago my eye fell on a couple of news items telling the rather curious story of the appearance out of nowhere of a 3-meter tall bronze statue in Qafë-Kashar, of all places. Very little is known about this statue or its provenance, apparently showing that Albanian national hero Skënderbeg as half man-half goat, with tail and oversized genitals. The inscription on the basement apparently says SCANDERBEG. Although director of the National Gallery Artan Shabani has worked very hard the last few months to track down and recuperate all governmentally owned art works throughout the different public institutions, I bet that this one was not on the list. Apparently the sculpture is currently under investigation and located somewhere on the premises of the Ministry of Interior Affairs. While the art historical investigations are continuing, the only visual evidence is above picture tweeted by Artan Shkreli accompanied by the comment “The Skënderbeg of Qafë-Kashar: joke, surrealism, or desecration?”

Continue reading…

The Unofficial View of Tirana (74)

Edi Rama - "The Sorrow of Kosovar Nights"

Edi Rama – “The Sorrow of Kosovar Nights” (with shqiptarja.com watermark)

Lately there has been a sudden online upsurge of PM Edi Rama’s work as an artist. Gazeta Tema posted a painting made by the young Edi in 1989 (that is, during the final days of the communist regime). The newspaper offers the following description:

“The Sorrow of Kosovar Nights” is a rare painting as regards the artistic production of artist Edi Rama, currently Prime Minister of Albania. Continue reading…

The Unofficial View of Tirana (73)


British ex-PM Tony Blair presiding over the Albanian Council of Ministers, watched over by Founder of the Republic Ismael Qemali

Quickly after securing his major victory in the elections last June, Edi Rama announced that British ex-PM Tony Blair would become a councillor to the new government. This deal was the logical consequence of an electoral campaign that was advised from the Democratic side by the Podesta Group (who were behind the Clinton campaign) and from the Socialist side by the group around British spin doctor Alistair Campbell (from the Blair period). It was already very clear from the type of campaign meetings organized by the PS that the British model had considerable influence, as I’ve written before.

In October, PM Rama invited Tony Blair to preside over the newly-formed Council of Ministers, and although apparently no contract or deal has officially been signed between the government and the club/organization/company Blair and Campbell are running and all advise is as for now free of charge, their “assistance” is making itself clearly felt in the communication strategies of the Socialist government. As the Guardian has rightfully pointed out, Albania is the only European country were a left-wing Labor-style government is still in vogue and ruling with a very comfortable majority, even though we all know that Labor-style left-wing politics is essentially marginally cushioned neoliberal doctrine. Investing in Albania would be for Blair thus to somehow safeguard his political heritage. He can also be seen in the Albanian propaganda video posted on the website of the Council of Ministers in November:

00’55″: There is a new possibility in the country, there is new hope in the country. So the challenges are going to be huge, but I think this is an extraordinarily exciting moment for a new generation in Albania to take charge and move the country forward. […]

09’14″: Albania’s got tremendous challenges but it’s got an extraordinary possibility for the future, because you have the European Union right on its doorstep. I think there’s every chance that Albania can take its place in the family of European nations within the European community. To get there it needs to demonstrate that this sense of hope with the new generation [in the Albanian subtitles it says "hope brought by the Renaissance" – the PS slogan during the elections] is real. So that’s the challenge but I can’t of a better group of people and a better leader than Edi [Rama] to take it forward. […]

All of these wonderfully empty words have had serious consequences for the style of politics under PM Edi Rama. Starting from the campaign strategies, most other communication strategies of the current government are uncomfortably close to the ones I’ve seen in the UK under Blair, which have been dissected so precisely in Adam Curtis’s documentary The Trap. See the following video from 44’00″:

The PM’s press conferences became an endless procession of graphs and tables proving that the government was meeting its performance targets. This was the politics of negative liberty, trying to give people simply what they wanted.

The rest of the documentary is enormously insightful in Blair’s role in the Kosovo war which in its turn was a side-effect of disastrous economical situation caused by the regime of then president Berisha. But this is not what I would like to focus on, even though my curiosity is piqued by the relation between Blair, the Kosovo war, and his current function as advisor to the Albanian PM. In fact, what we are witnessing in Albanian governmental press conferences is precisely the “endless procession of graphs and tables” that characterized Blair’s take on bureaucratic “output.” Ever since September, we have been bombarded by positive “numbers” and “figures.”: 105% of the customs revenue target met in October 2013 and 129% in December; 1300 police tickets in 24 hours; number of murders are decreasing in November and December; enormous amounts of penalties, lists of corrupted officials, statistics of abuse under the previous government. In the meantime, the only way the PD opposition is able to react is to say that the numbers are “falsified,” but we all know that numbers don’t lie – they all too easily congeal into the only relevant facts.

Whether these numbers are false or not is beyond the point. The question is what they precisely represent (129% higher than which estimate and who set that estimate?), and whether wide-spread social phenomena such as family violence and murder can and should be only expressed in numbers and dealt with as mere statistics, or should they rather be approached from the question of social security and education. What I am so afraid about is that behind these splendid “numbers” and with all the good intentions the current government is clearly disposed of, we may witness an increasingly growing intellectual and moral vacuum, precisely as happened in the UK under Tony Blair’s Labor government. And we all know where that ended: the closest approximation of a police state our planet has to offer.

Laten we het maar vergeten, dat Europa

Nederlandse Minister van Buitenlandse Zaken Frans Timmermans en Minister-President van Albanië Edi Rama, 23 oktober 2013

Minister van Buitenlandse Zaken Frans Timmermans en Minister-President van Albanië Edi Rama, 23 oktober 2013

Maar bar weinig las ik laatste dagen over de Nederlandse blokkade van het Albanese EU kandidaat-lidmaatschap, waartoe afgelopen donderdag een motie in het parlement werd aangenomen. Hier en daar wordt wel vermeld dat Nederland alleen staat in dit standpunt – minister van buitenlandse zaken Timmermans zou nog op zoek zijn naar medestanders want alleen durven we het natuurlijk niet aan – maar zoals gewoonlijk blinkt de vaderlandse media weer uit in de afwezigheid van iedere analyse die iets verder graaft dan de oppervlakkigheid van een persbericht. Inmiddels hebben zowel het Europees Parlement als de Europese Commissie zich uitgesproken voor het toekennen van het kandidaat-lidmaatschap, maar Nederland lijkt zijn poot stijf te houden: Niet nog eens een fout zoals met die Bulgaren en Roemenen… We hebben ons lesje nu wel geleerd, heet het.

De in de ogen van de Nederlandse (rechtse) politiek geflopte toetreding van Bulgarije en Roemenië is echter geenszins te vergelijken met de huidige beslissing waar de EU voor staat. Ten eerste gaat het niet om toetreding, maar om een kandidaat-lidmaatschap, volgens Timmermans zelf nota bene ‘een puur politieke formule zonder enige juridische consequentie’. Vanaf de toekenning van een dergelijk kandidaatschap kan het nog wel een behoorlijk aantal jaren duren voordat Albanië ‘echt’ mag toetreden, en dan zijn er nog allerlei secondaire criteria voor het toetreden tot de Eurozone, Schengen, enz. Zo’n vaart zal het dus echt niet lopen. Nee, het weigeren van het Albanese kandidaat-lidmaatschap dient te worden geïnterpreteerd precies zoals Timmermans zelf aangaf: als het weigeren van ‘een puur politieke formule’, met andere woorden, als symboolpolitiek.

Nu is het inderdaad zo dat de Europese Unie als symbool op zeer verschillende wijzen wordt ervaren. Waar in de Oekraïne de EU staat voor hoop zich eindelijk los te kunnen weken van de verstikkende invloed van Rusland en in Kosovo de invloed van EU onlosmakelijk verbonden is met de zekerheid dat de bloedige oorlog van 1999 niet nog eens herhaald wordt – zoals de EU ook ooit stond voor ‘dit nooit meer’ – valt de mogelijk toekenning van het Albanese kandidaat-lidmaatschap aankomende week samen met een grote omwenteling binnen de Albanese politiek. In september trad een nieuwe linkse regering toe, gekozen met een overweldigende meerderheid in de eerste vrije en eerlijke verkiezingen sinds de val van het communistische regime in 1991. Deze regering erfde een land dat volstrekt was leeggezogen door een uitermate corrupt politiek systeem geleid door een centrum-rechts coalitie die het land nagenoeg bankroet en weggeliberaliseerd achterliet. Hier betekent Timmermans’ ‘puur politieke formule zonder enige juridische consequentie’ het omslaan van een nieuwe bladzij, een steun in de rug voor een regering die daadwerkelijk veranderingsgezind is.

Maar waarom dan toch die Nederlandse weigering om mee te spelen in het symboolpolitieke spel? Is het misschien omdat Albanië een ‘moslimland’ is? Het zou me niet verbazen als er in Nederland inmiddels meer moskeeën staan, en ik heb nog niet eerder in een land gewoond waar de scheiding tussen kerk en staat zo totaal dat niet eens een religieuze politieke partij bestaat. In Nederland zal het nog wel even duren voordat de christenfundamentalisten en ‘joods-christelijke’ apologeten hun plekje bij het vuilnis van de geschiedenis hebben gevonden.

(Ter illustratie, een typische PVV Kamervraag: ‘Albanië is een islamitisch land; corruptie en misdaad viert er hoogtij. Deelt u onze mening dat Albanië in geen honderdduizend jaar zou mogen toetreden tot de Europese Unie, ook niet als kandidaat-lid? Zo nee, waarom niet?’)

Of is de coalitiepartner van Timmermans’ partij wellicht nog steeds bang dat de PVV nog harder haar onsmakelijke, racistische stereotypen zal uitschreeuwen richting het lamgeslagen en achterdochtig gedrilde volk? Gezien de huidige vergiftigde staat van het Nederlandse debat rondom ‘buitenlanders’ – van Zwarte Piet tot een Chinese student – lijkt me dat geen onwaarschijnlijkheid. Relnicht Gordon heeft nog zo goed verwoord: ‘We ons in Nederland al enorm laten overlopen door alles en iedereen. […] Het is absoluut absurd wat er gebeurt nu.’ Pim had het niet beter kunnen zeggen!

Timmermans zegt toegeeflijk: zeker volgend jaar, heel goed wetend dat er dan inmiddels de Europese Verkiezingen geweest zijn, waarbij extreem-rechts verwacht wordt ruim te winnen. Door te stellen: natuurlijk krijgen jullie dat kandidaat-lidmaatschap wel, in 2014, zegt Timmermans eigenlijk: we gaan dit lekker aan het volgende ongetwijfeld veel eurosceptischer (lees: nationalistischer) EU-parlement overlaten, Nederland hoeft dan geen definitieve spelbreker te zijn en de regering kan dan ook niet door die PVV’ers ervan worden beschuldigd een slappe rug te hebben. En Albanië weet dan ook dat we het beste met ze op hebben! Wat een fantastische win-win situatie heeft onze hoofddiplomaat toch weer uitgedokterd.

Oud-Minister-President Sali Berisha en Ambassadeur des Konings Martin de la Beij, 11 oktober 2013

Oud-Minister-President Sali Berisha en Ambassadeur des Konings Martin de la Beij, 11 oktober 2013

Ik kan het nog wel even iets cynischer stellen. Tijdens de Koninginnedagreceptie op de Nederlandse ambassade in Tirana vertrouwde een van de daar geplaatste diplomaten mij toe dat de ambassade feitelijk een soort vooruitgeschoven handelspost was voor Heineken, Amstel en Shell: ‘Zij zijn de enige reden dat we hier überhaupt nog zijn.’ Laat ik daar dan ook nog even bij vermelden dat slechts een maand nadat de nieuwe regering was aangetreden, de Nederlandse ambassadeur in Albanië, Martin de la Beij, een ‘vriendschappelijk’ bezoek bracht aan oud-minister-president Berisha in zijn nieuwe kantoor – dat overigens vol hangt met ‘gedoneerde’ kunst. Bij dit bezoek aan deze fabelachtig corrupte man, overhandigde De la Beij een brief van onze minister-president Rutte waarin hij de goede relaties tussen Nederland en Albanië benadrukte en hem bedankte voor de samenwerking. Laten de brief er even bij halen, let wel, vertaald uit het Albanees naar het Nederlands, van Berisha’s Facebook pagina:

Beste Dr. Berisha,

Nu dat uw mandaat als minister-president ten einde is gekomen wil ik van deze gelegenheid gebruikmaken om mijn erkentenis uit te spreken voor de goede werkrelaties die we hebben gehad.

De betrekkingen tussen onze twee landen zijn altijd hartelijk geweest, en ik ben ervan overtuigd dat deze zich zullen blijven ontwikkelend onder uw opvolger.

Ik wens u veel succes in uw toekomstige professionele en persoonlijke ondernemingen.


Bedoelde hij met ‘goede werkrelaties’ misschien de enorme belastingvoordelen voor de Nederlandse bedrijven tijdens Berisha’s regering? Doelde hij misschien op de hartelijke relaties met een van de meest nepotistische regimes van Europa? En is onze rechtse vriend Rutte misschien nu ineens heel erg bezorgd dat er een linkse kunstenaar (een kunstenaar!) minister-president van Albanië is geworden die niet alleen druk bezig is – met hulp van de EU – corruptie groots aan te pakken en – ach en wee! – een progressief belastingstelsel in te voeren, maar misschien ook nog wel eens een paar procentjes belasting extra op die lucratieve concessies van Nederlandse bedrijven zal heffen?

Dat is een VOC-mentaliteit waar Balkenende nog wel een puntje aan kan zuigen!

The Unofficial View of Tirana (72)

Opening the Pyramid

Opening the Pyramid

About 100 hundred days after the installation of the new left-wing government, the Albanian twentieth century is slowly seeping in through the cracks of the cleptocratic system that held the country together for the past eight years. Although the second “Rilindja” (renaissance) announced by the ruling Socialist Party has already many times been parodied by the Democrats from the opposition as a renaissance of communism, it seems clear that the current government will mainly continue many of the neoliberal policies that were developed in the wake of the “shock therapy” of the Albanian communist economy in 1991.

There seems to be a feeling of regained freedom of political expression that has shattered many taboos of the last eight years. Albanian students and civil society protested successfully (although on a mainly misinformed basis) against importing chemical arms from Syria, in a days long protest that would have never been tolerated by the previous government (which no doubt would have accepted the arms in order to fill their pockets with US money). In a smart political move, PM Edi Rama sided with the protesters, to the great exhilaration of the masses. One of the momentous scenes during the protests in front of the PM’s office was when opposition leader and mayor of Tirana Basha and ex-PM Berisha attempted to join the crowd. They were practically thrown out by masses of students who didn’t want the protest “to be politicized.” (Poor students, of course it’s always already politicized.)

Continue reading…

The Unofficial View of Tirana (71)


My zen moment during the gay marriage debate: sun, water, trash, and pyramids.

I had woken up with a slight hangover and the mildly depressed feeling I always have after finishing a major piece of writing topped off with a few glasses of raki in my new favorite bar, Byroja, and sharing a small joint with a friend underneath the arches of the “Spanish” buildings along the Lana. Slowly I slid behind my computer with a cup of coffee, the morning sun on my back, and there it was, in all its glory: the Albanian gay marriage debate, splurged all over my Facebook and every single Albanian news website. National Ombudsman Igli Totozani had proposed to amend the Family Code in order to allow people of the same sex to marry. He claimed that he would send a legislative proposal to the parliament any time soon. For the Albanian speakers amongst you, here is the clip:
Continue reading…

The Unofficial View of Tirana (70)

Edi Rama's office, first day as new Albanian PM (but net yet in his new office)

Edi Rama’s office, first day as new Albanian PM (but net yet in his official office)

I have to admit that I was very excited to suddenly live in a country where an artist had become Prime Minister. Not that in the past artists have proven such good politicians or statesmen, but because we’ll have a man with taste, and that’s worth something. Already his choice of photography is exquisite, and I would like to highlight in this post several recent developments concerning this form of propaganda. From the beginning of his election campaign, Rama had hired well-known (in Albania, at least) photographer Jutta Benzenberg, as well as the guys who got Tony Blair elected. His style of campaigning reminded me a lot of the style of former Dutch labor frontman Wouter Bos introduced in the Netherlands (advised by the same English Blair guys) during the 2003 parliamentary elections, which was one of their biggest wins in recent history: egalitarian environments, speaker surrounded by supporters, not behind a lectern on a stage. Naturally, it worked, especially when contrasted with the “post-communist” style of Berisha. Campaign photography was excellently done as well, and the overall style of the campaign was consistent.

Continue reading…

Occupy 24 Months On, Whereabouts are we?


1) Financial Crisis

This has not gone away; “green shoots” of a recovery are optimistic at best. Growth, even in “recovering” economies is slow and sporadic – below the 3% compound growth required for capitalism to be considered as “healthy” (at least healthy for the rich). Moreover, “recovery” figures in the UK seem to be largely resultant of a renewed housing bubble stemming from low government interest rates and low bars set for mortgages (that is, subprime mortgage offers). Speculative bubbles and wild oscillations in stocks mark this era and it is unclear whether the transfer of “private” toxic financial assets into public debt via bailouts has fully exhausted itself globally; indeed, we seem to be entering a stage two of the 2008 crisis as this new web of toxic assets unravels.

2) Austerity

Austerity politics has been most obviously played out in Greece and the EU. Today Greece is in the third day of public sector strikes over the fact its government would rather send money to international creditors than spend it on wages, pensions, housing infrastructure, education, and so on.

Continue reading…

The Unofficial View of Tirana (69)


My first Albanian Proces-Verbal…

This is the story of a theft. A few months ago a friend of mine visited Tirana with his husband. Let’s call them A and B. As I was having an afternoon coffee with A, B skyped A from their hotel to tell him his phone had been stolen. I was slightly surprised, as phones don’t get stolen frequently in Tirana, except for on a few known spots, mostly the cruising areas behind the Palace of Culture or in the park behind the Sheraton Hotel. B was still a bit shocked and didn’t want to get into details over the phone, so A returned to his hotel, and I went home. A few hours later I got a phone call from A who was with B at the police station close to my house, to make a report. Naturally, no one in the station spoke English, so I was called upon to translate for them. I arrived at the police commissariat #1 around 19:00, and found a policeman blocking may entrance. I waived to my friends inside and once it became clear that I was the “translator,” I was allowed in. A and B were waiting in the hallway, were no distinguishable action was going on. An officer came to ask B through me what had happened, what the perpetrators had looked like, and so on. B had been walking in the park behind the Sheraton and had talked with some guys who, at some point in the conversation, had stolen his phone and then left. The officer looked at B, and then A, and the me, and understood what had happened, why B had been there, and how the phone had been stolen, but didn’t say anything. He asked B if whether was married, who responded affirmatively. Fortunately, the officer didn’t ask him to whom. “Did we get outed in front of the police?,” A asked. “Not yet,” I responded, “but I think he knows what’s going on.” The officer left saying that someone would come to the station to type up the official report.

Continue reading…

The Unofficial View of Tirana (68)


Apparently, Albania speaks to the imagination and the imagination must be defended. Quite some time ago I wrote an extensive reply to a post of a certain Timothy Lachin in Lacanian Ink (repost on his own website). Now, upon founding out about my little text after googling his own name, Lachin has found it necessary to post a response, in an attempt to clear his name. I tried to reply to his critique of my writing an a comment to his post, but as he has deemed it necessary to remove it, I include it here below (it doesn’t make sense unless you read Lachin’s text first…).

Continue reading…