The past three years have witnessed Albania brought low by the weight of two distinct, but equally destructive crises; the 2019 earthquake and the COVID-19 pandemic. The response to these crises has been shaped by top-down profiteering rather than grassroots solidarity.
In fact, the disorientation of the populace in the aftermath of both events has enabled Prime Minister Edi Rama to advance his pro-corporate agenda through non-transparent backroom deals and the granting of unusual concessions, all while clamping down on free press and resorting to violence to quell dissent.
Rama’s response to these dual disasters resembles a set of policies that Naomi Klein calls “the shock doctrine.” Put forward in times of crisis, shock doctrine policies aim at advancing market fundamentalism — the libertarian idea that when left unhindered, the market can heal all social and economic ailments. These policies generally advance the interests of corporations, shifting resources from the marginalized to the powerful.
Shock doctrine and the 2019 earthquake
On November 26, 2019 a 6.4 magnitude earthquake left Albania in a state of panic and grief, and parts of the coastal city Durrës in ruins. At least 51 people died and more than 3,000 were injured. The number of displaced persons soared to 6,000 and 7,900 buildings were registered as damaged countrywide.
Planned as only a temporary solution, tents were set up as living quarters for the affected families. More than 18 months later the situation remains dire for the many of the displaced persons. Despite the millions poured into relief funds for the catastrophe, hopes of being re-housed through government assistance are dwindling.
In her book “No Is Not Enough,” Klein states that the shock doctrine is enacted in times of natural disasters by means of reallocating land and resources from the poor to the powerful. This process is currently occurring in the areas most affected by the 2019 earthquake.
Hidden under the guise of development, the government’s reconstruction plans include the expropriation of individual properties in order to build multi-story apartment complexes in their place. Only companies handpicked by the government bid for the reconstruction tender and the winners were announced under dubious circumstances, creating suspicions that the results of the public tender had been decided in advance. The government also announced extraordinary tax benefits for these handpicked firms, leaving space for additional abuses.
This bonanza for contractors was accompanied by attempts on the part of the government to restrict the freedom of the press. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the Rama administration pushed forward an anti-defamation law ostensibly aimed at limiting the spread of fake news during the state of emergency.
The war against the media has long been one of the defining features of the current administration, and it appears that the situation created in the wake of the earthquake provided Rama with the perfect opportunity to strike boldly against it. The laws contained within the anti-defamation package intended to vest the state with the power to regulate online media, which would give the state direct control over what is published. This restriction is problematic because it directly affects the citizen’s right to access information and impedes the free flow of information.
Shock doctrine and the COVID-19 pandemic
As COVID-19 entered fully into the global consciousness in March 2020, forcing governments to implement restrictive public health measures, Rama saw a golden opportunity for self-aggrandizement; he decided to personally distribute all lockdown rules through his TV Channel, Edi Rama TV (ERTV). Albanians were forced to follow Rama’s personal social media channels to determine the legality of basic daily actions like taking a walk or buying groceries.
Rama then exploited the lockdown measures to abruptly demolish Tirana’s National Theater to the benefit of his favored developers. The 81-year-old theater was a historical landmark of the city, embodying its rich cultural and intellectual history. Before the demolition, the theater’s fate had been hanging in the balance for almost two years, as negotiations between civil society activists and the government went unresolved.
Shortly after implementing pandemic movement restrictions, the government deployed police forces to violently drag out activists who had been sleeping inside the theater. The bedraggled activists, choking on tear gas, watched helplessly as excavators turned the building to rubble.
The firm that designed the replacement for the National Theater is Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), a firm notorious for its greenwashing and gentrifying projects. More notably, the company in charge of construction is Fusha sh.p.k, an Albanian firm that in recent years has won 40 tenders in the municipality of Tirana. Mirroring the tender competition for the post-earthquake reconstruction, Fusha sh.p.k appears to have been the only bidder in the tender for the new National Theater, under selection criteria seemingly designed to restrict or completely eliminate competition.
A similar pattern of tenders with restricted competition and unusual concessions has been evident throughout the entire pandemic year. Rama’s intention to rapidly privatize public land and deregulate the corporate sphere are evident in various construction projects of national importance, such as the Vlora and Kukës airports. The bonanza for contractors and Rama’s incessant war against the media are all part of his administration’s attempt to not let a crisis go to waste. He may not have read Naomi Klein, but he is nevertheless operating under the logic of the shock doctrine.
Resisting the shock doctrine: What can be done
Albania’s most effective tool against the non-democratic seizure of the public sphere should be the collective memory of the fear and trauma that results from the absence of democracy. Still living with ghosts of their communist past, Albanians know the lengths powerful individuals will go to to consolidate their position, as well as the consequences that can result from one man’s ambition and paranoia.
Albanians also know, deep in their bones, the importance of dreams for toppling regimes. It was, after all, a dream that led to the 1991 student protests, which marked the starting point of the downfall of Enver Hoxha’s regime. So what is missing now? What is preventing the replication of those much-revered protests? Perhaps Albanians have forgotten how to dream. And without the willingness to dream, no meaningful change can occur.
The main suggestion Klein offers to resist shock tactics is to re-learn how democracy works. In times when our societies are steeped in crisis and our political leaders seem to offer no respite, it’s easy to disengage from politics completely, choosing to stay home and not participate.
But it is exactly at this point, when we find ourselves at the precipice of hopelessness, that we need to go back to those lofty promises of democracy, reminding ourselves that we have political power. We have the right to protest, occupy and demonstrate. Our leaders are not immutable, our futures are not predetermined. We need to dream big and out loud, in order to be able to effect any semblance of change.
Reclaiming our public lands
It is common to think of Albania as a country where social movements go to die. Indeed, every protest or manifestation of recent years has met the same fate. Police forces disperse peaceful protesters. Citizens’ anger and indignation quickly subside. Pervasive hopelessness has become the state of affairs during the last decade.
But I fiercely believe — or rather, dare to hope — that this is a misconception. Albanian civil society, however downtrodden and fearful, has shown itself capable of reversing harmful policies and resisting injustice.
There is no better example of this than the movement against the construction of hydropower dams on the Vjosa River in southern Albania. Years of civil society protest and organizing have brought the dream of a Vjosa National Park closer to realization. False claims by the prime minister about the negative effects of such a designation have been met head on by the stakeholders on the ground and the issue now has the support of well-known celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellie Goulding.
The fight is not over yet. The Rama administration has only agreed to designate the area as “protected” and not a “National Park,” which still allows for power plants to be built in the area. However, the attention this issue has captured, and the momentum it has managed to sustain throughout the years, signifies a clear victory despite the failures of other civil society initiatives.
The fight for the preservation of the Vjosa River is a success that provides lessons that Albanians need to keep close to heart. We need to allow these stories to propel us forward, to act as a springboard for future responses to crises. It is only through resistance that the shock doctrine can be prevented or reversed.
More than that, Albanians need to learn how to dream again. Powerful social movements are sustained not by the spark that creates them, but by the futures that they dare to dream of. And as Klein argues, it is exactly this “interplay between lofty dreams and earthly victories [that] has always been at the heart of moments of deep transformation.”
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.