New protest in Albania over National Theater demolition

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FILE - In this Friday, Apr. 26, 2019, file photo, people walk past the National Theater of Albania in Tirana. Albania demolished its crumbling National Theater, which opened during World War II, above which sparked protests by artists, backed by the opposition, who wanted the theater to be renovated and condemned the $32.4 million price tag to build a new facility. (AP Photo/Gent Onuzi, File)

TIRANA – Albanian artists and opposition party supporters gathered for a second day Monday to protest authorities' demolition of the crumbling National Theater building in the capital, which has triggered strong political tension amid a major heritage debate.

Defying a lockdown ban on mass gatherings, a few thousand people gathered near the Interior Ministry, close to the site of the building, to support the artists in their protest against Prime Minister Edi Rama's center-left government.

Artists and intellectuals addressed the crowd, denouncing the theater's demolition and pledging to continue protests until Rama's government is overthrown. They are planning a new protest Wednesday.

The theater was knocked down Sunday despite protests, although police had to first pull a group of artists and some opposition leaders away from the late 1930s Italian-designed building in Tirana before heavy machinery started to bring it down.

Artists belonging to the Alliance for the Theater Protection had pressed for the renovation of the old theater building which they consider a national heritage.

Albania's center-right main opposition Democratic Party condemned the demolition Monday, calling it a “macabre crime and flagrant violation of the constitution and the law.”

Participants in Monday's protest also voiced opposition to the government’s lockdown rules. Strong police forces were deployed at government buildings near the site where the theater had stood, which include the prime minister’s office and parliament too.

Edmond Budina, one of the leading Alliance activists, called for the resignation of Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj, urged President Ilir Meta — who has also strongly criticized the demolition — to dissolve parliament, and the people to start a civil disobedience campaign.

Rama, a former mayor of Tirana, says a new 30 million-euro ($32.4 million) theater will be built in its place — a modern design by Danish architects from the Bjarke Ingels Group.

It’s not clear when the project to build the new theater will begin. Initially, a local construction company was going to build and fund it in exchange for the government giving the firm a nearby land plot to build towers on it. But the government abandoned that plan because of protests, and the construction of the new theater will now be funded by Tirana’s city hall.

Mayor Veliaj said earlier Monday that the old building “could not be renovated as a contemporary theater because the existing structure did not have the proper measurements.”

He added that in three months the municipality would launch procedures to get a loan, and would hopefully start construction later this year.

“The new theater will be at least three times bigger in space and (will use) modern technologies,” he added.

Official performances in the building were stopped after the decision to demolish it was taken two years ago. But members of the Alliance for the Theater Protection defied authorities to stage performances there up to earlier this year.