Visionary mayor of Tirana achieving major success in transforming Albania’s capital city

The heat and bright colors are reminiscent of Havana, the dust and traffic of Cairo, the low houses of Piraeus’s Drapetsona district in the 1950s and the glass-fronted office blocks of Kifissias Avenue in Athens, but the large number of Mercedes Benz cars do not recall Germany, since there are many more of them in Tirana of 2005. Minarets coexist with Orthodox and Catholic churches. Lawns and freshly planted trees line the shores of the Lana River, where huge trees from the Hoxha regime were cut down under Sali Berisha’s government to make way for thousands of illegally constructed buildings that housed the country’s underworld. Mayor Edi Rama has seen to the razing of all these buildings, stopped the trade in women, drugs and contraband cigarettes, planted trees and had all the facades along the riverbank painted in bright colors. The parks are now filled with thousands of people of all ages, mostly young people and children. Half of them speak Greek and over half speak Italian. A second city is being built on the periphery of the old town, along with dozens of shopping malls and homes. Tirana is now a haven for building contractors, mobile telephone companies and foreign banks, but also for its residents who are proud of the transformation. Rama is the star of the show, and he knows it. Perhaps the tallest and certainly the most popular man in Albania, he is a man of many gifts and has great passion for Tirana. He is an artist who took his paints and brushes to an entire city. A dark Knossos red is the prevailing color at Tirana City Hall; a plaited string of garlic hangs in the entrance – «against the evil eye» – says his secretary, Ermione Tsimou, an ethnic Greek who studied with Rama at the Fine Arts Academy. Rama comes out to greet us, introducing himself as «Edi» and shows us into his office. On his desk is a swatch of paint colors. What does the return of Sali Berisha to the premiership signify? It is clear that the Socialist Party did not get the votes we expected. Of course I did not expect the left to be in opposition but at the same time I think it is my duty to realize why the people voted as they did. Of course the left is in the majority, but the right will be in power, partly because of the system but mainly because the left is divided. Do you think Berisha’s return will affect your work? I hope not, for the city’s sake, because Tirana has for some years been the main source of good news about Albania, since there is generally not much good news from Albania. This is not the early 1990s, when we had to deal with absolute anarchy, the absolute absence of a state and the mistaken vision that was in the hands of Sali Berisha. Now we are in the process of stabilizing relations with Europe, the World Bank and other international organizations are monitoring our economy, and there are amazing changes in the media. In the 1990s we had just one independent newspaper which was destroyed by Berisha’s gangs in 1997, but today we have so many television and radio stations and newspapers and certainly this time he will be watched very closely and so will not make the same mistakes. On the other hand, I am convinced that he is not the person to lead Albania where it needs to go, he is not the prime minster this country needs and he does not have a democratic culture. But I think that we should give him the chance to show what he can do, because if he is prime minister, it is because the people voted for him and so the opposition will have to be of a different quality to Berisha. We should not jump to conclusions, but when we do draw them, they should be just. What is your dream for Tirana? You are improving the city, but some say it is just a facelift. It is ridiculous to say we are just looking at appearances, because that aspect accounts for just 3 percent of the budget. We have carried out many public works, we have widened most access roads to the city, knocked down more than 2,000 illegally constructed buildings, created about 300,000 square meters of greenery when five years ago there was not even one square meter. We have set up a public lighting system, because that also did not exist five years ago. So our work is more in the nature of a battle. Even the appearance of the city is related to that battle. I don’t understand why people have a problem with that. Appearances are a very important part of life. I see Tirana as a beautiful woman who was shut up in her home for years and at some point decided to dress up and go out. The appearance of the city was just our first move. When I took over five years ago, we had a lot of ambition and no money. So we decided to start with the colors, as they were cheap and could make a difference. Then we changed the taxation system and collected six times more taxes without putting a burden on the people, since the previous system was completely corrupt. When I took over, one third of the money was from taxes and two thirds from the government, now it is the other way round. We also receive gifts and loans from various organizations, banks, the European Union… What is the next step? We have begun a very interesting process of architectural events; we held a competition for the city center which was won by a famous French firm and we are preparing another three international competitions, also for the city center, and are now ready to begin the final phase of the Big Tirana Plan, a major project with the help of a famous Dutch firm, so we will have many famous European architects. Is Tirana a safe city these days? Of course. Tirana has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe. There is no problem, you can walk around at 3 a.m. without fear. What can one do at that hour? Are there any bars, night life? Of course. There are some places where you can stay out until very late, until morning. When did you decide to run for mayor? In 2000 we had elections, and I was proposed for mayor. At the time I was not in the Socialist Party, I was independent and I agreed because I wanted something more hands-on than being a minister. All the major decisions I have made I have made very quickly and I have never regretted anything. I don’t worry about regretting something, just about what is ahead of me. What’s done is done. I feel lucky when I see how many problems and difficulties other people are facing. I am not complaining about my fate, I am fine. And your fate is still ahead of you, since you are just 40. Forty-one, to be precise. Life can change in the next second, you never know what will happen. Extract from an interview that first appeared in the September 4 edition of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement.