The Unofficial of Tirana (97)


PM Edi Rama at the opening of his exhibition in Galerie Michael Schultz, Berlin. [Photo from Rama’s Facebook]

by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

Once upon a time a young man ventured to hold an exhibition in a museum. He offered the museum a curator, well-known artists, and a bag of foreign money. Many times the young man visited the museum to discuss all of the aspects of the project with the good people who worked there in threadbare, under-funded conditions. And many times this young man met the director of the museum, who, having chased away the homeless mother and child sleeping in the corner under his window, surrounded himself with all the art works he loved, namely, his own. Each time the young man entered to discuss the legal framework, budget, bureaucratic procedures, or planning issues concerning the exhibition, the director pulled out yet another pile of collages, drawings, or paintings, submitting them to the young man’s gaze. “They fit well with the theme of your exhibition, don’t you think?,” the director suggested, “Do you like them?” The young man tried to be diplomatic and nodded, mumbling a non-committal “Interesting,” and hoped the works would soon disappear in their drawer. It was a delicate situation: if he was too enthusiastic, he might be forced to look at more of them, or maybe even commit to include them in the exhibition; but if he seemed dismissive, he might damage the fragile relation with the institution that had allowed him to proceed with his work. And so, like everyone else whose fate it was to meet this director who used his office to push his own work onto anyone he could lure into his lair, the young man made some vague promises about future possibilities, quietly praying he would finally be able to escape and get to work.

Like the young man in this completely fictional account, it seems to me that using one’s public office to promote one’s private artistic ambitions is at least in bad taste. If a high state official were a welder of profession, and would use his position to make some money on the side fixing some tubing here and there, this would raise various eyebrows. So Swedish Prime Minister Stefa Löfven is mainly seen holding speeches and signing important documents. If a high state official were originally an actor, and would somehow decide to appear in a feature film while in office, this would be considered unfitting to his position. So Arnold Schwarzenegger only reincarnated as the Terminator after his term as Governator of California was over. Yet somehow, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama thinks that these precepts of good taste do not apply to him. Because he is a “winner.”

He won in April 2015, when he opened an exhibition entitled “Calendar Flowers” in Galerie Michael Schultz while in Germany to meet the Prime-Minister of Baden-Württemburg and visit the Mercedes Benz Museum.

PM Edi Rama opening his exhibition at Galerie Kampl, Munich. [Photo from Rama’s Facebook]

He won again in September 2015, when on an official mission to meet the Prime-Minister of the German state of Bavaria Horst Seehofer in Munich, he opened a solo exhibition of his drawings entitled “Daily Drawings” in Galerie Kampl.

PM Edi Rama opening his exhibition at the Jao Tsung-I Academy, Hong Kong. [Photo from Rama’s Facebook]

And most recently, he gained another victory while on an official visit to Hong Kong to meet Governor Leung Chun-Ying and attend the Hong Kong–Albania Trade & Investment Forum, opening his exhibition “Calendar Blossoms” at the Jao Tsung-I Academy.

So a pattern seems to have emerged this year in which official events in foreign countries provide a practical opportunity for the prime minister to open solo exhibitions in private galleries. ABC News, an Albanian media station often linked to the opposition (and of which two journalists were recently scandalously harassed by the police, leading even to concern at the OSCE) sent journalist Vincent Triest to Berlin to figure out the current price of his drawings, which appear to hover around €1500 a piece. We are looking forward to his wealth declarations of this year to know how much he sold at these prominent venues.

Basically PM Edi Rama is doing the same tasteless thing as the museum director in our little story: using his public office to revive his personal artistic career. Any argument that his private “profession” is fully separated from his public position doesn’t hold; for he himself has often spoken of the two as intimately linked.

Albanian cultural diplomat Fate Velaj working on what he mistakenly refers to as a “total work of art.” [Photo from Velaj’s Facebook.]

Rama’s advocates refer to his inner motivations, and the proverbal unstoppable drive of the artist. In the rather ridiculous words of Fate Velaj, full-time dandy, Rama’s “adviser for cultural diplomacy and Albanian European Renaissance,” and creator of colorful and utterly harmless abstracts: “We should not forget that Rama is an artist and in the deepness of his conscience he wants to remain like this and resolve struggles … in the most artistic way possible.” Words that maybe would have made sense 150 years ago, but nowadays do very little to mask the bad smell of conflicting interests.

This questionable behavior has recently led to more critical voices speaking out in the Albanian media. Speaking for Balkan Insight, artist Ardian Isufi stated that “instead of promoting Albanian art in the world, he finds ways to promote his own work,” and in a lengthy article entitled “Artist or Prime Minister, that is the question!,” Mimoza Koçiu wonders “how as a prime minister of a poor country, he sees the promotion of his own profession as an integral part of his official duties,” rightly pointing out that “art has its own costs and that a state function makes it all a bit easier. An artist–prime minister doesn’t have to worry about customs or transportation costs of his own works and as a result his first profession easily becomes part of the official ceremony.” Koçiu also points out, as I have suggested before, that he used the visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to give his own office a makeover and baptize it the Center for Openness and Dialogue. So Rama’s strategy goes both ways: using politics abroad to further his art, and using art to further his neo-Blairite politics. Indeed, of this strategy one of the best examples remains the COD.

Edi Rama, Arrigo Sacchi, Gianni De Biasi, and Alistair Campbell in front of Thomas Demand’s Sign (2015). [Photo from Rama’s Facebook.]

That this institution is better called, pace artist Gentian Shkurti, “Center for Openness and Monologue,” was once again affirmed when this month Rama invited British spin doctor and BFF of former UK Prime Minister and notorious war criminal Tony Blair, Alistair Campbell, to the COD to promote the Albanian translation of his new book Winners. Now I didn’t read the book, nor do I suggest anyone else do to so, but according to an earlier post on Campbell’s own website from 2014, “Edi Rama is likely to feature in the new book as he has been a winner both in sport and politics – I think he is the only current PM or President who has played international sport for his country.” And more recently in The Daily Beast:

For example, outside the Balkans, people are often stumped by Edi Rama. I’ll tell you why he is there. He is the prime minister of Albania; more relevantly he is the only current head of government in the world to have played sport for his country. He was on Albania’s national basketball team, so a good man to talk to about one of the central themes of the book—what can sport teach us for politics? Answer, as I know from my own experience trying to hold a political team of competing egos, agendas, and ambitions: a lot.

What Campbell fails to mention is that Edi Rama is not just the only head of government who has played sport for his country, he is also the only one that uses his position to save his career as an artist (according to his bio, his last solo exhibition outside Albania before the ones in 2015 was in 1997, when he still lived in Paris). In any case, Campbell’s visit didn’t only bring a new self-help book, because ironically Edi Rama, who currently faces a European Commission Progress Report full with “corruption,” a public debt soaring to 75% of GNP, stagnating tax income in spite of widespread punitive actions agaist so-called tax evasion, student protests against a clientelist education “reform,” etc. etc., is not “winning” at all. So several weeks after the opening of a governmental website headed by the word transparency in the all-time Albanian favorite Impact typeface, whose function is to consistently deny any allegations against the government made by either the opposition or independent media channels such as (with the ironic effect that anything that is not denied on that website gains an aura of legitimacy), Rama decided to use Campbell’s visit to launch a new, mid-mandate campaign with the inspiring title “Let’s clean Albania even further.” (When I imagine “Germany” instead of “Albania” I can already hear the boots.)

And thus, motivated by the resounding success of his policies, his skyrocketing artistic career, and no doubt with the whole-hearted support of Britain’s most renowned parasite, Rama has recently decided to reintroduce “libel against high officials” as a “crime against the state,” arguing as follows:

This legalislative initiative comes at the proposal of the Prime Minister. The reason for this provision is that of penalizing anyone who, abusing the freedom of speech, spreads on purpose, in any way or manner, libel against a high state official or elected person, of such a nature that it charges the latter with facts that the penal code considers criminal. (My emphasis and semi-legalese translation.)

Oh irony of ironies! Because this is what Rama wrote on his Facebook at the beginning of this year, when he marched with three colored pencils and four religious representatives through the streets of Paris.

This is one of those historical moments when each of us who believes in tolerance and the freedom of speech can give a hand or raise their voice, to stop the effects of the violence which threaten all our freedoms. […] Many of us considered the caricatures of Charlie Hebdo insulting, racist, or provoking on purpose. Together with the prophet Mohammed, Charlie has also taken aim at Jesus Christ, the Pope, emigrants, Jews, nuns, and much more. But the freedom of speech is easy to support until the moment that we are asked to rise up to prevent the oppression of the freedom of speech that doesn’t suit us. Precisely in the value of this moment lies also the unlimited value of freedom in the world that we have chosen, the free world. (My emphasis.)

The incongruency and outright cynicism of Rama’s attempt to get rid of opposing voices, even if outright slanderous, which they indeed sometime are, is dispicable. It fits all too painfully with the way in which free speech has been curtailed in other countries in the region, and it is a complete scandal that such a proposal would come from someone, claiming to be an artist moreover, who should be all too familiar the effects of the politics of censorship on society. It doesn’t matter how many spin doctors you decorate yourself with, this is not and must never be “winning.”

PS On November 12, a day after the legal proposal became public, Rama’s “transparency” website published the following “truth about the legal proposal about libel,” accompanied by a large black-and-white photo of opposition leader Lulzim Basha:

The Democratic Party [sic!] claims that the new legal proposal for the criminalization of libel aims to attack the free press and the opinion of each civilian toward the ruling coalition, prosecuting the latter ones in criminal court. […]

Contrary to what the DP claims, and as the Prime Minister has affirmed, it only seeks to criminalize libel ex officio, for any case in which the accusations made by a representative elected by the people or of a parliamentary political party are accusations that are criminally disturbing for the public opinion. As the formulation of the legal proposal seemed to leave space for misinterpretation, including the media in its objective, the legal proposal has been withdrawn to be reformulated in a way that doesn’t create any type of unclarity. Different from how it can be misinterpreted, the legal proposal did not aim to protect the representatives elected by the people or parliamentary political parties from libel, but on the contrary, to place these latter one before their legal responsibility to  prove with fact accusation. Prime Minister Rama clearly expressed the reason and objective of the request to criminalize libel ex officio by representatives in his speech during the parliamentary session of February 12, 2015: “We will seek as soon as possible the criminalization by law of libel ex officio in each case that the accusations made by a representative elected of [sic] the people or of a parliamentary political party are accusation that are criminally disturbing for the public opinion.” (My emphasis and translation).

I do not know what is worse. Formulating a law that protects all high officials from libel, or retracting it while saying that its aim was to shut up the opposition. No doubt, to be half-bakedly continued.

About the Author:


Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei is a philologist, director of project bureau for the arts and humanities The Department of Eagles, and runs multilingual publishing house Uitgeverij. For Berfrois he writes a regular series on the state and concept of Albania, where he lives and works most of the time.