The Unofficial View of Tirana (95)


Policemen and special forces protecting the building site of the bunker, Sept. 21, 2015

by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

When I wrote a few quick notes on the construction of a bunker in the center of Tirana last week, I could not imagine the developments surrounding the building site. I must admit that my analysis back then was only scratching the surface of the multitude of problems – political, social, esthetic – that surround this object and perhaps I should have been more serious about it. So let me try to compensate for my laziness last week. First, a brief summary of the most recent developments. While the bunker, which is supposed to mark the entrance to the anti-atomic bunker underneath Skënderbeg Square, consisting of 60–70 offices, has now been surrounded by aluminum panels while the dome is being (re)constructed, one or more organizations of persons politically persecuted by the former communist regime, supported in part by the opposition PD party, have staged several protests, which has led to several interventions by the police forces. At the same time, the Italian Embassy seems to have protested against it, stating that the funds that were allocated for the reconstruction of the square did not include the construction of the bunker. As for the initiator of the project all we know is that it is being defended by Artan Shkreli, cultural monuments councilor (sic!) of the Prime Minister, who seems to get upset by water deposits on the square, but is totally fine with an enormous bunker a few meters further down.

Above short clip is the trailer to Elian Stefa and Gyler Mydyti’s project and documentary Concrete Mushrooms, which gives an overview of the construction and current state of Albania’s 750,000 bunkers (numbers vary) built all across the country to defend Albania against an invasion that never happened. They appear as an externalization of a deeply engrained political paranoia, in which the figure of the enemy is essential to steer resources and control a population, an allergic reaction of the landscape against the absence of movement and circulation of people, quarantined in their houses and villages. It is unknown how much the construction of those 750,000 has cost Enver Hoxha’s regime, but one can easily imagine the state of the Albanian villages had that concrete been used to offer suitable housing to the population, and the workforce employed in other, more productive areas of manufacturing; Albania might actually have pulled off being a locked-off autarchy. So in a sense the appearance of the bunkers was the first sign of the inevitable fall of the regime, its growing incapacity to allocate resources, and a prioritization of fear and paranoia over rational decision making. At the same time, the bunkers turned the entirety of the Albanian territory into a military space, a process that Paul Virilio described in his Bunker Archeology, a space symbolically prepared for a continuous state of exception. It is this history, including all its persecutions, incarcerations, and executions, that is activated by the emergence of the bunker in the center of Tirana.

The square behind the Ministries of Interior Affairs and Transport & Infrastructure where the bunker is being built has been an important site for the student protests in 1991 that led to the fall of the communist regime. The bunker marks the precise location where the square allows access to Rr. Abdi Toptani, leading directly to Skënderbeg Square, one of the main protest sites. Seen from the entrance of the bunker on the left side, the building currently occupied by the Ministry of Urban Development, back then housed important archives of the Ministry of Interior Affairs, and was burned down during the student protests. I have heard several stories that the building was in fact put on fire by the regime when the students assembled next to it to enter Skënderbeg Square, in order to mask their own destruction of possibly incriminating files. So the site is intimately linked with on the one hand the fall of the former regime (something the PD is eager to emphasize), and on the other the burning of archives, the still very problematic memory of the past.

PM Edi Rama opening “Bunk’Art,” Nov. 2014

Linked to this is the question of “opening the archives,” that is, offering a way for citizens to access the documentation amassed by the government’s secret police during the communist period. This opening of the archives itself was announced by Edi Rama while opening another large anti-atomic bunker last year, on a surreal stage with mini-bunkers painted with flowers. Bunkers inside bunkers, bunkers on top of bunkers, a veritable bunker fever one may say that accompanies the archive fever that continues to capture the Albanian media, as if the eventual opening of those files – the part that wasn’t burned, destroyed, stolen, falsified, etc. – would bring any solace. The political class wouldn’t be worth that name if they hadn’t already cleaned the archives from their own names and their family members’ and relatives’ over the last 25 years, and for those Albanians who will find that their uncle, neighbor, or classmate spied for the Sigurimi – often under intense threats of blackmail and imprisonment – the “truth” will offer no solace whatsoever. A lustration law that would finally remove all “communists” from public office will inevitably be instrumentalized for political revenge and maneuvering and will produce no catharsis or reconciliation, just another tool for the dirty and unsavory infighting of Albanian politics; any such legislation without a state of law is utterly useless and destructive of the fragile social fabric.

The ghostly presence of the bunker inside its compound.

Then what does this bunker mean? If anything, it signifies the discourse that the present Albanian government is using against its own population. A discourse that speaks of “action” against informality, “attacks” on illegal buildings, and a “war” on cannabis cultivation. Policy is often framed in military language to stress the urgency and to justify the often extraordinary measures and penalties imposed on the population for relatively minor infractions, while, at the same time, actively protecting a parliament and governmental apparatus that teems with people with criminal records, of unimaginable corruption, whose children flaunt their expensive vehicles on the streets of Tirana. If anything, the constant attack on society only exasperates the feeling of a complete lack of justice. Edi Rama repeatedly says that he has no “magic wand,” but that is of course an argument of weakness. It only logical that the multiplication of bunkers under Rama’s watch, opened, constructed, refurbished with cheap antiques, is nothing but an externalization of the defenses he is building up around himself and his government; not for the protection against the “internationals” that are appearing to lose their patience with his showy behavior and leak toxic reports on the crimes of highly placed governmental officials, but against his own population.

In a recently published and most revealing interview in the program Conflict Zone with Tim Sebastian, Rama stresses several times that Albania and the rest of the Balkans need to integrate into the EU in order to avoid the return of “the ghosts of the past.” In spite of considerable pressure by Sebastian, Rama refuses to divulge which ghosts we are talking about concretely – “we both know what they are” – and denies vehemently that mentioning such spectral violence amounts to a threat. But besides this point, what I find remarkable is that the “ghosts of the past” – let me list a few: war, genocide, total economic collapse, inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence, state terrorism – remain somehow unspecified as regards to who was responsible for them? If anything, wasn’t it the political class – Rama’s past and present “colleagues,” so to say – that were responsible for unleashing innumerable sufferings on its civilian populations, and is it not the same political class that now has the responsibility to make sure the “ghosts of the past” do not return? Claiming an absolute incompetence to contain those “ghosts” in the future lest Europe integrate the Balkans amounts, as far as I am concerned, not so much to a threat as to admitting political incompetence. And to drive the point home: if what we have to do, and be so super-duper careful about, are those “ghosts from the past,” why then is he rebuilding one of their abodes?

The militarization of the Albania territory that this bunker appears to imply is, at same time, a rather ominous reflection of the growing militarization of the entire EU in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. As several countries have reintroduced border controls and Hungary has even declared a state of emergency, deploying the army to “defend” the country against an imaginary or politically profitable threat. The bunker is an echo of this bunker mentality that seems to have grasped the European politicians, although it should be pointed out that these migrants or refugees that the EU seems so stuck on are in fact also the Albanians themselves. From June 2014 to June 2015, Albanians were the second largest immigrant group in Germany. So if this bunker – perhaps unintentionally – recalls the anti-immigration tactics deployed by our European neighbors, we should not forget that this bunker is aimed also toward us, the implied message being: Don’t you dare to leave the country.

Ironically, after the people started noticing the bunker construction and the first images had been spotted online, the bunker itself became surrounded by aluminum panels and even a cordon of policemen and special forces. From an object of defense it became an object that itself needed to be defended. It’s concrete birth into this world became something to be protected by the forces of the state, as if the very project of state building was at stake. So perhaps we can read the bunker also in this way, as an allegory for the governmental dictum të bëjmë shtet, “let’s make a state.” The construction of a state based on a constant attack on society while defending itself against any true political or juridical reform. While the politicians and judges hide in their own multi-million euro villas in the hills of Tirana, this bunker, at the entrance of the Ministry of Interior Affairs, will make sure their archives will never see the light of day, as in 1991.

A defense currently rehearsed by some of Rama’s supporters (or former opposition leader Berisha’s detractors, the difference is often hard to make) is that of a double standard. They point at Fatos Lubonja and Ardian Isufi’s Postbllok memorial down the boulevard, which contains, among other elements, a bunker, against which no one seems to be protesting. In other words, the new bunker would merely be used as a pretext to attack Rama’s government. There is definitely a truth in this observation, in the sense that the opposition is clearly linked to the current protests and fail, time after time, to come up with an intelligent analysis of the political situation, withdrawing in their own trenches of “Rama-Meta ik!” (Out with PM Rama and Speaker of the House Meta!). The comparison, however, is completely skewed. Postbllok first of all incorporates an existing bunker, excavating the space around it to show its subterranean architecture, rendering it, in a way, harmless and transparent. This intervention was further contextualized by the juxtaposition of several arches from the Spaç prison, one of the internment camps of the former regime (which, scandalously, has been reopened by the current government for mining activities by a Turkish company, which destroyed several of the historical prison barracks), and a piece from the Berlin Wall. The work was produced by two well-known and respected artists, who both have spoken out on numerous occasions; Lubonja, who recently received the Prince Claus Award for his commitment to speaking truth to power, and Isufi, who recently opened a thoughtful and risqué first-time exhibition of Enver Hoxha’s death mask. They carry openly the responsibility for their work and have done so in the past. To summarize as regards Postbllok: 1) intervention into already existing elements; 2) contextualization that facilitates and invites interpretation and reflection; 3) open and clear responsibility of the authors.

How different the case of the new bunker. First of all, we are not dealing with an intervention into an already existing structure that is recontextualized, but rather a fully and newly built structure, none of which suggests a consideration of the form, meaning, or function of the bunker in the communist period. Not only is it built on a historically relevant location, it is moreover dominant in the way that it imposes itself at the entrance of the square, literally defending the ministries on the right side. The adjacent elevated lawn with meandering pathway looks like an anti-tank obstacle as often seen in the neighborhood of embassies, with a trench dug through it. And finally, there is no apparent authorship. No plan or commitment has been voiced, and mayor Veliaj recently refused to discuss it in the Municipal Council. Artan Shkreli merely stated that the “work will continue.” What this work entails, no one knows. It is a bunker for which no one seems to be responsible, an after-effect of a budgetary allocation for infrastructural renewal. Even the municipality is unaware of the details, as with Rama governmental projects have the power to proceed without local approval. So whereas Postbllok attempts to render the past transparent, or at least accessible, the new bunker is on the side of opaqueness and inaccessibility.

It is useless to argue, as some commentators have done, that the bunker in our head is more dangerous than the bunker on the street. Once again, we are not dealing here with the reappropriation of an an already existing bunker in Albanian public space. It is not that the resistance against the bunker behind the Ministry derives from a fear to confront the past; it derives from an outrage that once again the past is turned in an inconsiderable, and highly problematic prop for façade politics.

The only argument that the government seems to be able to articulate against those many conceptual and ideological problems that, as I tried to show above, arise with the construction of a bunker in the center of Tirana, is that it will be for “tourism.” However, there is absolutely no inherent necessity to mark the entrance to the anti-atomic bunker on Skënderbeg Square with another bunker. In fact, it is a rather counterintuitive decision; a bunker is not supposed to be entered, it is should be defended against any intruders. The build a bunker as entrance suggests that whatever is in there is bound to return fire. And in fact it does, for is that not what past is continuously doing to us here? Shoot us in the back?

Perhaps – in fact, it is even highly likely – that this bunker is just the result of poor decision making. This may be excusable. After all, not every civil servant or politician can be expected to understand the sensitivities and complexities of his or her own history, right? But the response, or in fact the absence of any serious response, from the government against the many voices, not only from the opposition, protesting what is at least a tasteless intervention that destroys the image of an otherwise reasonably nice and open square, is not. How can we entrust this government with opening the dossiers, dealing with the archives of a totalitarian regime, when they are clearly unable to deal with its architectural heritage? If arrogant negligence and neglect are the only modes of response to society’s concerned voices, how do they ever think to build a “state of law”?

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.