Edi Rama has been the Mayor of Tirana since 2000, and leader of the Socialist Party of Albania since 2005. He is the son of a sculptor popular in the former regime, a former basketball player, and an artist himself who lived and worked in Paris in the mid 1990s.
At the time of the communist regime's collapse, Rama was a professor at the Albanian Academy of Arts. Initially put off by the political scene that formed in the early 1990s Rama preferred commenting from the outside, writing articles while continuing in his role at the Academy. In 1995 he moved to Paris on a scholarship. Returning for a visit in 1997 he was attacked by a group of thugs with a metal pipe, an incident that almost cost him his life.
In 1998 Rama returned to Albania again, this time for his father's funeral. An unexpected call from Prime Minister Fatos Nano who addressed him as "Mr. Minister of Culture" brought an end to Rama's life as an artist. He accepted Nano's offer to join his council of ministers but did not join the Socialist Party.
In October 2000 Rama was elected to the office of mayor of Tirana, ending the Democratic Party's 10-year control of the city. He had run as an independent candidate, supported by the Socialist Party. Rama took over a city whose infrastructure had collapsed, laws had become meaningless, and the city's public parks were crammed with illegal buildings. Rama says:
"The city was like a train station where everybody was looking how to avoid staying there; where everybody was trying to leave this train station by any means; where everybody was taking care only of their own place and not of their surroundings. So, building a new consciousness was a big deal."
When Rama became mayor, he was confronted with a budget that did not match his ambitions, so he found new ways to bring about change. His project to repaint old facades around Tirana in startlingly bright colours made him famous.
"The colours were an instrument. I've chosen out of a need, the colours were not an aesthetic or artistic operation. Colours were political action, and colours were the sign that something different was possible, and people got it."
Many of the new mayor's most visible policies were aimed at transforming Tirana's appearance and atmosphere. Rama teamed up with students to clean neighbourhoods, parks were restored, trees planted, pavements repaired. The Clean and Green Project created 96,700 sq meters of green land. But nothing symbolises the break with the old, grey Tirana as vividly as the brightly coloured buildings.
"The country seems to have overcome its years of Communist rule by painting buildings in the most unimaginable colour combinations. They are purple and orange, chartreuse and burgundy, and bright green and red. And these are not just individual houses. An eight-storey apartment was painted a vivid yellow with green stripes and blue and red squares up the side. New highrises were equally colourful, often painted in five or six different colours…"
(Michael Geller, Albania revels in freedom of colour chaos October 6 2007)
Rama's efforts aim to create a sense of pride and identification with the city of Tirana:
"After communism and the events in 1997 people were lacking a sense of belonging to the country. There was a rage against everything that was a state building because it was perceived as property of the enemy… We are trying to make people understand that what is public is also yours."
(Edi Rama quoted in "You've got to tear this old building down" an International Special Report Article)
Rama has faced criticism but his support among Tirana's inhabitants earned him re-election in 2003 and 2007. He was chosen as World Mayor 2004 and was included in Time Magazine's list of European Heroes 2005. He joined the Socialist Party of Albania in October 2003 and replaced Fatos Nano as its leader in the wake of the party's electoral defeat in 2005.
Edi Rama is eager to contribute to a new perception of Albania:
"Tirana has become the good news from Albania and has changed the image of the country. People that come here are surely surprised, because the stereotype is very strong, and is very different from the reality. And it's nice to see foreigners coming and being amazed, just amazed."