Rama’s Theatre Plan Meets Critical Storm in Albania

Critics say Prime Minister Edi Rama's 'inspiring' plan to build a new Albanian national theatre is inspired mainly by a wish to hand the site of the old theatre to private developers.
 The National Theatre of Albania. Photo: Gjergj Erebara/BIRN

Albania’s Prime Minister, Edi Rama, said on Monday on Facebook that he will soon present a project for a new national threatre – which has been prepared by a “famous international studio” and is part of an “inspiring initiative for Public-Private Partnership”.

Critics have savaged the plan, however, claiming that the real aim of the government is not to build a better theatre but to free up land for high-rise towers in the priciest part of Tirana.

The current National Theatre of Albania is situated at the heart of Tirana city centre and covers thousands of square meters of public land.

The two-storey buildings were designed and constructed by Giuglio Bertè, an Italian architect, during the Second World War, and it has served as the national theatre since 1947.

The government and the municipality of Tirana claim the buildings are degraded, are of poor quality and cannot be properly maintained.

They plan to redevelop the area using a so-called Public Private Partnership, PPP, a controversial tool used by several governments to award public property for private use.

In February, the government asked actors to vacate the building, claiming they would soon be able to use another theatre elsewhere.

The actors protested and claimed the government had not given any explanation about what it wanted to do with the current building.

After being accused of attempting to “steal” the land, which is public property, the government retracted its decision and started “consultations about the new theatre building”.

“This proposal is a thinly disguised attempt to grab thousands of meters of lucrative public land, a fig leaf for a shameful plan to destroy the city’s history for private benefit,” Kastriot Çipi, a theatre director and one of the critics of the plan, told BIRN.

Çipi and other artists are fighting to renovate the old buildings using public funds and to not hand over the land for private developers.

Responding to criticism, Prime Minister Rama and the Mayor of Tirana, Erjon Veliaj, insist the government does not have enough money to renovate the old buildings, which is why they will resort to a “public-private partnership”.

Such partnerships, mostly known as concessions, are seen as controversial exercises. The IMF last week urged the government to “refrain from signing such contracts” due to the unclear benefits and costs for taxpayers.

“The government’s framework for selecting and prioritizing investment projects, and for assessing fiscal costs and risks, remains inadequate according to the IMF’s assessment”, IMF representative Jens Reinke told BIRN.

“Until this framework can be substantially strengthened, it would be best not to sign any new large PPP contracts. Also, we recommend that the government tender all projects and not rely on unsolicited proposals,” Reinke added.

Tirana has seen a number of cases when public land, including parks, has been privatized under unclear circumstances.

The government had been criticized lately for awarding scores of building permits in Tirana city centre, raising concerns about over-development and the destruction of the last few remaining green areas.

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