Edi Rama ne TIME Magazine- Europe EditionRebel
a mayoral makeover
salvaging albania’s blighted capital seemed impossible—until mayor edi rama came back to town
Mention Albania, and you are likely to remember little more than the scenes of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing there from war-torn Kosovo in 1999. Six years on, it’s time to take another look—thanks largely to Edi Rama, the iconoclastic mayor of Albania’s capital, Tirana. He’s used his outsized personality (and physique) to transform his hometown and, with it, much of the country’s politics. “It’s like Tirana got out of bed after a long time, as a beautiful woman,” says Rama, who towers over his countrymen at nearly 2 m.
The beauty starts on the surface. Within weeks of being elected to City Hall in 2000, Rama began hiring painters to coat Tirana’s gray, drab façades with dazzling colors, reminiscent of Marseilles or Mexico City. Today parts of Tirana, a city of about 650,000 people, resemble a Mondrian painting, the blues, yellows and pinks a shattering break from Albania’s 45-year grim isolation under a communist dictatorship. But Rama’s efforts are more than cosmetic: he has repaved streets and imposed tight controls on the chaotic traffic. Earthmovers have smashed through hundreds of ramshackle buildings and hauled away thousands of tons of concrete. More than 4,000 new trees now shade the spruced-up public parks. And it’s all been accomplished on a budget of “nothing-point-something,” he says, or more accurately a tiny $67 million or so last year. In 2004, he was chosen as the world’s best mayor by City Mayors, a London-based advocacy organization, in its annual global contest.
For Rama, 41, remaking his city has been as much about art as politics, echoing his experience as an expatriate painter in Paris. When he returned home in 1998, he had little ambition to be a politician, and no training. He was drawn into government by old friends. “It’s both the chance and misfortune of our generation,” he says. “We weren’t prepared for being politicians in a democratic system.”
Indeed, his critics accuse him of ramming through his ideas with little regard for conflicting opinions; political analyst Fatos Lubonja says the capital might as well be renamed “TiRama.” Rama has heard it all. “I don’t pretend to be an angel,” concedes Rama, who has survived two attempts on his life. He argues that his single-minded style is well-suited to a country emerging from long stagnation. “I’d never become mayor in Switzerland, where you have to have a referendum to go to the toilet,” he says. “There I would stay in my studio and paint.” Rama is running to be the Socialist Party leader in elections this December, and is a strong contender for Prime Minister in national elections in 2009. His revamp of Tirana, he vows, “is not the end of the revolution. It is only the start.” —By Vivienne Walt. With reporting by Altin Fortuzi