The Unofficial View of Tirana (84)


From left to right: Minister of Defense Mimi Kodheli, Speaker of the House Ilir Meta, President Bujar Nishani, Prime Minister Edi Rama at the National Martyrs’ Cemetery in Tirana. Kodheli, Meta, and Rama with Remembrance Poppy

by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

It already seems quite some time, but about two weeks ago Albania celebrated its 102nd Independence Day and the 70th anniversary of the Liberation. According to a long-standing tradition, these two national holidays were celebrated separately by the ruling Socialist Party and the opposition Democratic Party, according to an unending quarrel as to when the last German left Albania, on November 28 or 29, 1944. Recently, historian Bernd Fischer claimed that in fact the last German left on December 4, which was in turn heavily contested by Paskal Milo, etcetera. Why the fact of the last German leaving ought to determine the symbolic date of national liberation is beyond me, but I’m sure it’s very important to someone.

Prime Minister Edi Rama at the anniversary of the liberation of Tirana, with Remembrance Poppy

What I found more interesting this year was the appearance of the so-called Remembrance Poppy emblems on the jackets of Prime Minister Edi Rama and Speaker of the House Ilir Meta, which seems to have passed unnoticed in the media at home. (Actually, I checked my archive, they were there last year as well, but I simply failed to notice them then.) These poppies are mainly a British phenomenon, aimed at commemorating the soldiers fallen in the First World War, and, supposedly, by extension, those of any war whatsoever. I tried my best to find images of other European leaders wearing this British imperial symbol, but I could only find thousands of images of Brits showing off this red flower, except the Minister of Defense, Speaker of the House, and Prime Minister of a country called Albania, which, the last time I checked, has never been part of the Commonwealth.

Front row, left to right: President Bujar Nishani, PM Edi Rama, Minister of Defense Mimi Kodheli, the latter two with Remembrance Poppy, during a military parade.

So let us try to unpack these surprising images carefully. The Wikipedia page notes that outside the British Commonwealth, the Remembrance Poppies have only been worn in Hong Kong (former part of the Commonwealth), in Pakistan by direct descendants of WWI veterans, and, surprisingly, in Ukraine during Victory Day 2014, when poppies were worn by Ukrainians against the customary Ribbon of Saint George, which had become associated with pro-Russian separatists. According to a Forbes article entitled “Poppies Vs. Ribbons: The War of Symbols Between Ukraine and Russia” from May 14, 2014, the Ribbon of Saint George had become associated with Soviet or Russian imperialism and had therefore been replaced by pro-Ukrainian supporters by the Red Poppy, “the European symbol for war victims.” The word “European” here masks the fact that actually the symbol is entirely British, and therefore, if anything, a sign of British imperialism.

Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, and John Major with poppies on Remembrance Sunday

The Remembrance Poppy commemorates the fallen soldiers of the British Empire–Commonwealth during the First World War. In other words, it explicitly excludes any other victim from the act of commemoration except for those who were in active military service; it excludes women, children, civilians in general. It is a militaristic symbol that glosses over the common victims of war. Its symbolism supposedly derives from a poem written by Canadian physician Lieutenant Colonel McCrae in 1915, entitled “In Flanders Fields,” which starts as follows: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row, / That mark our place; and in the sky / The larks, still bravely singing, fly / Scarce heard amid the guns below.” The question is, however, what made the red poppy specifically resonate with the British need for a symbol to commemorate its fallen soldiers: why a poppy and not something else, a ribbon, a medal, a tulip, etc.?

If anything, the red poppy, as an image, recalls the commodity that caused the British Empire to wage war against China no less than two times during the 19th century, the First and Second Opium Wars, in a violent attempt to force open the Chinese market to Western commercial interests, more specifically, the capitalist–imperialist “right” to sell opium to the Chinese population (and drug them into submission). The sentimental backstory of a Canadian doctor (of course Canadian, of course a doctor) and his poem composed in the Belgian fields of death here only serves to hide the uncomfortable fact that the Chinese prohibition on opium imports, harvested from the same poppy fields that the global “War on Drugs” is now trying to eradicate in Afghanistan, was precisely the reason to wage war. In this sense, this seemingly innocent red flower is a symbol of military aggression, and not commemoration, which appears to be something the Ukrainians nationalists very well understood. But did Rama do so, too?

Now that we have established that the Remembrance Poppy is a) a British and not a European commemoration symbol; b) commemorates only soldiers and not war victims in general; c) has therefore a subtext of military imperialism and capitalist expansion as evidenced by the Opium Wars and the appearance of the emblem in Ukraine earlier this year; we can start having a look at the precise function of this emblem on Edi Rama’s suit.

First, we could have a look at the relations between the British Empire and Albania during the war that the Remembrance Poppy is supposed to commemorate, the First World War. Albania declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912 and Britain subsequently became the host of the traumatic London Conference of 1913, in which the Albanian territories were partitioned and a nephew of the Romanian Queen was flown in to establish a principality subservient to te Six Great Powers. Moreover, it was in London that further plans were made for the total partitioning of Albania after the war. So much for good intentions. Although the Albanian Communist Partisans were allied to the Allied Powers, including Britain, during WW2, it is not all that clear that this alliance would have fared well in the aftermath of that war, had Enver Hoxha not explicitly distanced himself from Britain and established a Communist state. In Greece, the Communist partisans openly welcomed the British armed forces, and were in return massively slaughtered, after which the Brits helped to install a military dictatorship, with well-known consequences. So much for war alliances. In other words, it is at least problematic, I think, for an Albanian head of state to wear a British Remembrance Poppy at a moment of commemorating both Albanian independence (which no British politician really seemed to have cared about), and Albanian liberation (the same).

So if there is no intimate bond of friendship between the UK and Albania, forged during WW1 and WW2, why then, that Remembrance Poppy on Rama’s suit? If we observe closely the images that Rama himself has let into the world of the commemorative activities in November (all above photos were taken from his Facebook), we may notice that President Bujar Nishani, who always manages to look surprisingly bad on Rama’s PR propaganda, does not wear the emblem, nor did I spot said flower on the suits of any members of the opposition party. In other words, it seems that the Remembrance Poppy is only worn by the members of the Socialist Party. Now, the only link between the Socialist Party and United Kingdom is, as I have already pointed out many times, is Tony Blair, Rama’s official councilor.

Tony Blair presiding over the Albanian Council of Ministers

I don’t want to suggest, once again, the extensive influence that Blair has on Albanian economic policy, basically redoing Third Way neo-liberal politics Balkan style. But let’s look at a recent op-ed, entitled “Is Democracy Dead?” (my answer: it was never alive), in which Tony Blair signals a certain “malaise” with democratic politics, and, instead of the old recipe of “transparency and honesty,” suggests a regime of “effective decision-making and strong leadership.” In other words, a decisionist approach to politics in which efficacy and opinion-poll driven, seemingly anti-ideological policy are the cornerstones. Nothing we did not yet know form his time in office as PM. This decisionism is compounded by an utter, and naive, belief in technology: “Technology alone could transform the way education and health care work” (my emphasis). The only problem that democracy faces, according to Blair, is therefore an “efficacy challenge.” Pure, unadulterated management speak:

The answer to this democratic malaise may be partly a change in the relationship between governing and governed. People have to accept that governing involves difficult choices, and politicians ought to be respected for making them, not abused. It may involve changing the rules — for example, allowing greater interchange between the public and private sectors. It may be that parliaments need to function differently. In some countries, there may even be need for constitutional changes.

I cannot even start to unpack this paragraph stuffed with this most problematic politico-trash: useless, empty banter, nearly as devoid of meaning as the continuous insistence of Rama on his art-politics, which is seriously starting to piss me off. If anything, Blair’s rhetoric is fully concordant with the line of Rama’s government’s politics, as far as I have been able to follow it over the last few years. Only a few days ago, the government announced the privatization (or liquidation of all state interests) of the Albpetrol, the state petrol company, Albtelekom, the state telecommunications company, and INSIG, a large insurance company. Police stations are being equipped with computers to allow citizens to interact with a neutral and seemingly incorruptible eternal officer. Reform in every sector is pushed forward, as if reform and change were values in themselves, just as Blair claims. Albanian parliament indeed functions differently, and constitutional changes are made on a regular basis. Should it then surprise us that a symbol that has no relation whatsoever with the celebration of the sovereign Albanian state, the Remembrance Poppy, appears so intrusively without raising any eyebrows or at least causing a moderate political scandal?

About the Author:

Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei is a Dutch philosopher, writer and conceptual artist.