Edi Rama Is Building Bridges to Europe—or Nowhere

As an artist, he dreamed of the West. As Albanian prime minister, the West is letting him down.

By , a Balkans-based journalist, and , a print, TV and radio journalist mainly reporting on southeastern Europe.
Albanian prime minister flashes victory sign.
Albanian prime minister flashes victory sign.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama flashes a victory sing as casts his ballot at a polling station in the village of Surrel, near Tirana, during a parliamentary election on June 25, 2017. GENT SHKULLAKU/AFP via Getty Images

TIRANA, Albania—When he goes to high-level meetings with surly Eurocrats in Brussels wearing sweatpants, colorful socks, sneakers, and a matching blazer, the message he wants to send is clear. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama could not care less about what those photographed next to him think about his attire.

TIRANA, Albania—When he goes to high-level meetings with surly Eurocrats in Brussels wearing sweatpants, colorful socks, sneakers, and a matching blazer, the message he wants to send is clear. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama could not care less about what those photographed next to him think about his attire.

“There is never enough respect,” the recently reelected prime minister told Foreign Policy in his office in Tirana, Albania. “Too much effort has been made in defining or presenting Albania as a dark reality.”

Rama is alluding to the negative reputation Albania has in much of Western Europe as just another backward, former communist nation desperately trying to transition into modernity. Such prejudices are, on one hand, somewhat expected. Albania, after all, has been one of the continent’s most isolated countries for much of its modern history.

That fact also informs the central mission of Rama’s career—indeed, of his entire adult life: to bridge the chasm separating his country from the rest of the continent. It is an existential as much as a political goal.

“I found myself trapped in politics as a daily activity through a dark twist of the universe,” he explained from his eccentrically furnished office, with its self-drawn wallpaper and gray bust of former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln peering into an open tome of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s worst tweets. A prolific painter, arts professor, and activist prior to entering politics, it is easy to believe Rama when he says a life of politics was never his aspiration.

But it is also fair to ask what Rama has accomplished with the political power he has acquired—and why, after eight years as prime minister, his opponents say his flamboyant presence primarily serves to distract from his increasingly strong grip on government reins.

The stereotypes Rama is obliged to combat stem from his country’s period as the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania. The southeastern European nation began the Cold War period as a typical Warsaw Pact state but broke with the Soviet Union after Moscow strayed from Stalinism when then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev came to power. Albania found an ally in China, a period that led to it being caricatured as a Maoist paradise in Western press. Both China and communist Albania agreed Moscow had turned revisionist, and Albania became the Chinese Communist Party’s only close friend in Europe.

That fell apart when Enver Hoxha, Albania’s then-leader, grew wary of what he saw as a thaw in China’s previously strained trade relations with the United States in the late 1970s. In his book Reflections on China, Hoxha said, “they must not take much account of principles” when collaborating with the United States to undermine Soviet social imperialists.

In short, Albania’s communists thought their party was the manifestation of socialist exceptionalism of the highest order. The rest was a sort of self-imposed international isolation. Perhaps the best illustration of this is Hoxha’s request to not invite any foreign dignitaries to his funeral in 1985—no one was communist enough to deserve to be there. The clampdown on information about the outside world was so severe that, four years later, many Albanians were unaware of the revolutions happening along the Iron Curtain and did not know the Berlin Wall had fallen in November 1989.

Yet the communists could not entirely suppress the people’s desire for connection. In the 1980s, Rama was at the Academy of Arts in Tirana and yearned to see the paintings he was studying in person. So the towering 6’7’’ art student became part of the national basketball team. “Do you know why I played basketball?” he asked, his voice tinged with incredulity. “At the art academy, the history of art stopped being visual for us in the 19th century.” The last image he recalled being used in the lecture was Gustave Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio.”

“And then, lights on, no more slides, and the professor’s just talking about how spoiled petit bourgeois kids named themselves impressionists [and] started to turn their back on the people and on the war of classes,” he said, recalling his wish to see the paintings of those his professors deemed “reactionary, schizophrenic psychopaths” like Vincent van Gogh and “Pablo Picasso, the devil in person.”

During a trip to Vienna with the team in November 1984, he escaped from the hotel and walked for hours to the Kunsthistorisches Museum—only to find it closed. Rama’s next chance was in 1989 in the German city of Osnabrück, when he was an assistant professor at the Albanian art academy in addition to a basketball player. He begged the German interpreter traveling with the national team to drive him to the Weserburg Museum of Modern Art in Bremen, where he saw “a beautiful sculpture of [Auguste] Rodin and half of a painting of Picasso, so I said, ‘oh my god. I can’t believe it.’”

“When I came back from this trip, I left basketball,” he added. “Then the 90s happened, and everything changed.”

Although Rama was always outspoken as an artist—party apparatchiks once had to monitor him painting a museum mural in 1987 for fear of him introducing “reactionary” elements to it—his first taste of politics came when he was an arts professor. He supported students and democratic activists who started pushing back against communist rule by joining them on the streets in the early 1990s.

Albania was the last European country outside of the Soviet Union to become democratic, and its process of shedding communism likewise differentiated itself. The ruling communist Party of Labour voluntarily gave up Marxism-Leninism and said it would gradually lead the country toward a more open relationship with Europe. In the 1991 elections, the Party of Labour, which had been in power since 1944, ended up winning the elections, in part because it maintained a loyal electoral base. Only in 1992, after the elected communist government collapsed, was the head of the Democratic Party elected to power.

After participating in the movement for democracy, led by intellectuals disappointed by the slow pace of democratization and demanding a proper multiparty system in the mid-1990s, Rama decided to spend his newfangled freedom by traveling, living abroad, and painting—and mainly living off of sold paintings. “I was living in Paris at that time. I decided to stay there, to not come back.”

The death of his father in 1998 brought him back to Albania, which is when Albania’s Socialist Party, a successor of its communist party, asked him to become minister of culture. He said yes. “For months, I couldn’t get peace with myself, why I accepted. But then, politics is like a drug. You get addicted.”

“I never wanted to get involved in politics as a daily activity. I always cared about saying things, always followed what was happening, but not as a contender of anything, but as a professional troublemaker,” he recalled.

After a two-year stint as minister of culture, he became the mayor of Tirana in 2000 and launched a massive rehaul of the drab socialist-era parts of the capital—painting many of the bare concrete facades in bright colors and quirky patterns as well as tearing down illegal construction that had mushroomed in the first years of the free market. During this period, he became significantly more influential in the Socialist Party, slowly transitioning his public perception from a general celebrity to a personable, even cool, politician.

He lost the 2011 local election by an extremely slim margin of 81 votes, only to secure a massive victory for the Socialist Party with his “Renaissance” platform, a name likely chosen because it reminded voters of the Albanian National Awakening, a period throughout the 19th and 20th century during which Albanian culture, politics, and society thrived like no previous moment in history.

Rama became prime minister in 2013, and this year, he became the only person in Albania’s democratic history to be elected to the position for a third mandate. Rama’s main challenge these days is to inch the country closer to European Union integration.

The professed goal of the EU’s expansion policy is to “bring the continent closer together.” But the emphasis of negotiations with Albania focuses on a rigorous set of economic and political reforms. Plenty of Albanians believe the EU is more interested in forcibly reforming Albania than in welcoming it into its club. Indeed, when concrete progress toward enlargement gets delayed over and over again—and it becomes clear internal EU strife is mainly to blame—it’s easy to wonder whether this club is something the country should be striving for in the first place. In June, the EU once again delayed launching nitty-gritty negotiations, the last step before membership, with Albania and its neighbor North Macedonia.

This is where we get back to Rama’s sweatpants in Brussels. “To answer your question about my clothes, I told you, I didn’t want to adapt my taste to a politically correct costume,” he explained. “You are who you look like.”

“Europe is becoming more and more a victim of its own way of functioning. In a space where you have I don’t know how many elections happening at the same time and where politicians lead by polls and not goals, the inner dynamics of these countries become more important than consensus-building by enlargement.”

Even as Rama is getting tired of dealing with the EU’s obstinance, many Albanians are tired of being reduced to “the Rama Show” abroad. Critics say he allowed the country’s vast resources—including its significant coastline—to fall into the hands of moneyed elite while regular Albanians continue to suffer or leave the country in large numbers for better opportunities in the West.

“Europeans have little to no knowledge about Albania,” explained Edlira Gjoni, head of the Impact Centre nonprofit in Tirana. “Many officials who visit Albania think that Edi Rama is a great political leader and that we Albanians can’t realize how good of a politician he is when we criticize him.”

There is an evident disconnect between how Albania sees itself and how the rest of Europe or the world sees it. This is best captured by Albanians’ relationship to religion. Albanians in the country are roughly divided with about 10 percent being Roman Catholic, around 7 percent being Eastern Orthodox and about 59 percent being Muslim. As Albanians often painstakingly try to explain to foreigners, religion has never been a part of their contemporary national identity, and many of them are actively secular or even atheists. (In part, this is because the abolishment of religion was a key part of Hoxhaism, which declared Albania the first atheist state in the world.) As a result, certain strains of populism across the EU—such as intense ties to a Christian identity expressed across the union—make little sense to Albanians and have no equivalent in their country.

Albanian identity often also makes little sense to other Europeans. Gjoni recounted an incident of hosting European Parliament members in the country who walked around the modern capital and asked her why more women weren’t “wearing hijabs.” “When I follow debates at the European Parliament about Albania, I am fascinated and shocked by how little people know about Albania and how many prejudices the people who will decide our fate in the European Union have about us,” she explained. In his effort to bridge the gap between Albanian and European identity, Rama often claims “the religion of Albanians is Europeanism.”

Lea Ypi, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said most countries that do not play an oversized role in global, or even European politics, need to know more about the world than the world knows about them. “This may be typical of small nations—small nations have to be aware of large nations more than the other way around because for the former, it is an existential matter, a matter of survival in the chaos of history,” she said.

Until the world, or Europe, catches up with Albania, they might have to be satisfied with having the most out-there politician leading their country. In his own words: “The great thing about this country is that it’s never boring, and I hope it will never be.”

Una Hajdari is a journalist focused on identity, nationalism, and conflict in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, particularly in former socialist countries. Twitter: @UnaHajdari

Aleksandar Brezar is a print, TV and radio journalist formerly based in Brussels now mainly reporting on southeastern Europe.

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