Artist and acclaimed ex-mayor takes on Albania

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 26, 2013 3:25 PM
Artist and acclaimed ex-mayor takes on Albania

By Benet Koleka

TIRANA (Reuters) - If outgoing Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha was one of the most resilient leaders of the turbulent Balkans, his successor after a Sunday election is its most colorful.

Towering over most of his countrymen, former basketball player and artist Edi Rama won international acclaim by splashing paint and cleaning up his native Tirana in a decade as its energetic mayor.

He once vowed never to wear a tie and described politics in the former communist nation as "the highest level of conceptual art".

But now having reached the top, Rama faces a challenge to take his success in the city to the rest of the country - rundown, poor and still governed by patronage and muscle.

A Rama-led Socialist alliance won a landslide victory in Sunday's parliamentary election, denying 68-year-old Berisha an unprecedented third term and likely ending a career that stretches back to the fall of communist rule in 1991.

At 48, Rama is young enough not to feel the weight of more than four decades of Stalinist rule, when Albania was the North Korea of its day, paranoid and closed off under dictator Enver Hoxha.

"Rama is a typical intellectual of 1980s Tirana," said Shpetim Nazarko, an analyst and publisher. "Compared to (Berisha), he belongs to another generation that did not grow up in isolation."

It was rebellion against his sculptor father, who sat in the communist parliament and once made a statue of Hoxha and a bust of Karl Marx, that saw Rama turn instead to painting.

As an artist and university lecturer, he was one of the first Albanian intellectuals to clamor for change in 1990 when loyalists of Hoxha, who died in 1985, began to teeter with the fall of communism elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

"A BALKAN ORIGINAL"

Rama moved to Paris, living the life of a bohemian, but when he returned to Tirana in 1998 to bury his father, he was lured into politics by Prime Minister Fatos Nano, leader of the Socialist Party, the successor to the communists.

Nano made him culture minister, but it was as mayor of the capital from 2000 that Rama really made his mark, painting its drab Communist-era buildings in bright colors, planting thousands of trees and tearing down makeshift buildings that made the city dirty, chaotic and in some areas resemble an open-air urinal.

Rama won three terms and in 2004 was named World Mayor by an international think-tank for local government. Tall and slim, with cropped grey hair and salt-and-pepper stubble, he was described as "a Balkan original" in a profile in The New Yorker.

He still prefers not to wear ties, when he can, but has lost the earring that he returned from Paris with.

While his fans say Rama made Tirana shine, critics complain he bowed too often to big business and failed to properly regulate construction.

In 2005, when Nano lost an election to Berisha, Rama became leader of the Socialists, the anti-communist maverick taking the helm of the regime's successor-party.

In 2007, when Rama ran again for mayor, Albanian newspapers published pictures of him in the nude on a beach in southern France. He railed against an invasion of his privacy, and was duly re-elected.

Two years later, when the Socialists narrowly lost again to Berisha's Democrats, Rama called protesters onto the streets. Four were shot dead by security forces, deepening the country's polarization between supporters of the two men.

Twice divorced, Rama married for a third time two years ago. He was derided by Berisha, who said his opponent took a new wife for each new election.

(Additional reporting by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit; Writing by Benet Koleka and Matt Robinson; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)