TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanian police clashed Sunday with opposition supporters who were protesting the demolition of the country’s crumbling National Theater building in the capital.
Police pulled a group of artists and some opposition leaders away from the building in Tirana early in the morning before heavy machinery started to bring it down. The country is in a lockdown because of the coronavirus outbreak and no mass gatherings are allowed.
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.
The government’s decision to destroy the old National Theater, built by Italians when they occupied Albania during World War II, was opposed by artists and others who wanted it renovated instead. Workers started building the theater in 1938 and finished it the following year before it opened as a cultural center in 1940. Albania’s government took the decision to tear it down two years ago and shuttered it. Actors and artists continued to use it even after that despite the dilapidated condition of the theater.
The theater had many names over the years. When it first opened, the Italians named it Savoia, and then during the German occupation it was called Movie Theater Kosova before being renamed the People’s Theater during communist times and finally the National Theater.
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.
Hundreds of protesters continued to stay near the site of the demolished theater as they tried to break through the police cordon. The demonstrators chanted “Down with the dictatorship!”
Later in the day, police tried to move a group of young people sitting on a boulevard close to the site. Officers used pepper spray and took away some of the demonstrators, and police also tried to stop local television crews from reporting on it.
Opposition leaders joined the group and pledged to stage a sit-in with them in solidarity.
President Ilir Meta denounced the move of the left-wing government of Prime Minister Edi Rama as “a constitutional, legal and moral crime.”
In a Facebook post, the prime minister compared old and renovated views from the capital, saying, “They cannot stop Tirana!”
A statement from the European Union office in Tirana deplored the demolition of the theater at a time when they had called for negotiations with civil society, and for political parties to avoid “an escalation of the situation.”
Police said 37 people, including a journalist, were briefly detained before being released and reminded that mass gatherings were prohibited because of the virus outbreak.
Two policemen were injured and television stations showed a bloodied citizen too.
Television footage showed Monika Kryemadhi, leader of a small opposition party and wife of the country’s president, being put into a police van. The position of president is mostly a ceremonial post in Albania. Kryemadhi was later freed.
The leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Lulzim Basha, urged residents to topple the government over the theater’s demolition.
Basha called on all citizens to start nationwide protests “to get rid of this bandit and this great evil,” adding that demonstrations would be held “respecting hygienic conditions.”
Albania, which earlier this year got approval from the EU to launch full membership negotiations to join the bloc, has been in a tense political situation since last year when opposition parties left their seats in the parliament.