By Besar Likmeta | BIRN | Tirana
June 25, 2013
A hasty spending spree motivated by political ambition ahead of this year’s election in Albania created a series of monuments to controversial historical figures with questionable aesthetic value.
During the celebrations of the 100thanniversary of Albania’s independence last November, the authorities unveiled a series of statues and memorials aimed at celebrating historical figures that contributed to the country’s statehood.
The sheer number of monuments, more than 20, was the largest investment in commemorative art that Albania had seen in decades. The cost to the public of this state-backed initiative, however, remains unpublished and unknown.
However, the selection of the monuments and historical luminaries that were immortalised was carried out by politicians, who used the occasion to advance their agenda and reinforce their public approval ahead of parliamentary elections this year.
Instead of honouring the life-work of the personalities they embodied, the statues were turned into an instrument to further polarise Albania’s already poisoned political climate, while advancing the newborn nationalism of Prime Minister Sali Berisha.
“The government’s keenness to invest in new monuments during the independence centennial was motivated by Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s efforts to cast himself as a nationalist ahead of the elections,” says Ben Andoni, editor of the cultural supplement of the daily Gazeta Shqiptare.
A statue of King Zog was erected in the boulevard that bears his name near the railway station in Tirana, while a statue of Albania’s founding father, Ismail Qemali, was moved out of the national museum and placed in a park near the offices of parliament.
Another statue of Qemali was erected in Independence Square in the southern city of Vlore, while a bust was unveiled in the city of Durres.
Qemali was the Ottoman statesman who presided over the proclamation of Albania’s independence in Vlore in 1912, during the First Balkan War following the sudden collapse of the Ottoman empire in Europe.
Zog was the military commander who seized power in Tirana in 1924 and had himself proclaimed king in 1928, ruling Albania until Italy invaded in 1939.
The statue of his arch-enemy, former Prime Minister Hasan Prishtina, whose assassination Zog ordered in 1933, was erected in another square only a few hundred metres away.
A memorial to the 100th birthday of the Albania state, modelled as a house split in two, the work of architects Visar Obrija and Kai Kiklas, was erected in Tirana’s central Youth Park.
Meanwhile a steel double-headed eagle, donated by an ethnic Albanian businessman from Macedonia, was placed at a roundabout at the entrance to the city. A bust of Kosovo guerrilla leader Adem Jashari was also replaced by a statue of the deceased fighter.
The last statue, which was unveiled on December 8, commemorated Azem Hajdari, a Democratic Party MP and anti-communist youth leader, killed in 1998 in circumstances still shadowed in mystery.
The government’s grand design
It’s unclear what the monuments have cost in total. The government has published a figure of some five million euro for the independence anniversary, which included parties, parades and concerts. Some of the works were paid for by local municipalities or financed by local businessman.
However, the investment in public art is the largest made since the collapse of the communist regime in 1991.
The regime, which ruled Albanian for nearly half a century, invested heavily in monuments to prompt its Marxist ideology and the personality cult of former dictator Enver Hoxha.
The massive statues of Hoxha, Stalin, Lenin and working class heroes which once adorned Albanian squares were scrapped after the collapse of communism.
Although local observers don’t expect the same fate for the monuments erected during the independence centennial, they underline that the politicisation of the selection process has alienated many Albanians.
They are unlikely to become meaningful to future generations, analysts suggest, because of the ideological and administrative chaos that characterises Albania’s government and its institutions.
“[The monument-building spree] promoted controversial and divisive political figures, highlighting the ideological disarray of Albania’s elite,” said Andoni.
Albania does not have a specific law that spells out criteria for the erection of monuments. For a monument to be constructed, it has to be approved by the local city council, and municipalities bear the costs and provide guidelines for artists.
However, the selection and funding of the majority of monuments unveiled during the centennial celebrations was carried out by the central government.
The government set up a ministerial commission which selected the historical figures that would be honoured and eventually had the final say on the artworks approved.
The commission, headed by Prime Minister Berisha, included several ministers, central bank governor Ardian Fullani, the head of the academy of sciences, the head of the Albanology Institute, the director of the state archives and the head of Albania’s national library.
According to Andoni, the commission not only excluded from the list historical figures that were considered leftists, but also approved artworks that have little respect for the orthodoxies of commemorative art.
“Some personalities like Bishop Fan Stilian Noli and Bajram Curri were excluded as left-wing politicians,” Andoni said.
“Meanwhile King Zog is portrayed as a conqueror in ceremonial military clothes, while we all know that he abandoned Albania at the eve of the Italian invasion and is considered by many to be a traitor,” he added.
Noli, a former prime minister who was the founder of the Albanian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, led the so-called democratic revolution in 1924. A poet, historian, translator and writer, he tried to reform Albania’s than feudal political system by imposing social reforms. However, Berisha has increasingly branded him over the past year as a coup leader and communist, while hailing King Zog for his successes in strengthening the Albanian state, often overlooking his tenure as an autocrat and the assassination of political foes.
Statues and Kalashnikovs
Berisha’s attacks against Noli and his praise for Zog came after the January 21, 2011 riots in Tirana, when four opposition protesters were killed by the Republican Guard.
Berisha declared that the riots were an attempted coup d’état by the Socialist opposition, building a historical analogy with Noli’s revolution against Zog’s government in 1924.
According to Andoni, Berisha has also promoted the erection of several monuments and statues dedicated to slain Democratic Party MP Azem Hajdari in order to serve his political needs.
Hajdari was a student activist who led the protests against the communist regime in 1991. A controversial political figure, often at odds with his own party and Berisha, he was killed on September 13, 1998 in Tirana, outside the Democratic Party headquarters.
Berisha immediately accused the former Socialist-led government and its Prime Minister, Fatos Nano, of ordering a political assassination.
The next day his supporters stormed government offices with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades, seizing some institutions for a few hours before withdrawing under international pressure.
“By blowing out of proportion Hajdari’s myth, while he is still a figure with shadows, Berisha has not done him any favours,” Andoni maintains.
The opposition, which had no say in the selection process for the centennial monuments, has also accused the government of poor planning and ignorance.
“I have never heard of a government that unveils a project for a monument and then looks for a place to install it,” complained opposition leader Edi Rama, when Kiklas and Obrija’s project was announced as the winner of a competition in April 2012.
Andoni agrees, arguing that many of the monuments unveiled during this period were installed in the wrong place and sometimes poorly executed.
“This is mainly because of the short notice before the competitions and the rush to erect them,” he said.
“Monuments that have been produced to glorify certain individuals or serve political systems have often not withstood the test of time,” he warned.