Prime Minister Edi Rama of Albania

TIRANA, ALBANIA — At last July’s summit in Trieste, Italy for the Berlin Process paving a way for integrating Western Balkan states into the European Union, Edi Rama, the prime minister of Albania, appeared in a suit and a pair of white and red-striped Adidas sneakers.

There were government heads, foreign ministers and economic ministers from six Balkan nations and representatives of EU states laying the groundwork and committing to reforms to enable entry into the EU, which is important for the stability of the Balkan region, and in particular to Albania, a small, poor country trying to recover from its history of isolationism.

Yet amid the politics of the summit, those red-striped Adidas didn’t go unnoticed.

“I was practically the biggest news of the summit,” said Rama, half-jokingly. “The French president said he liked them so I sent him a pair of Adidas when I was back home. But for him I chose white with blue and red stripes, to make a perfect match to the French national colors.”

The 53-year-old Rama, who also wears Adidas pants and jackets, isn’t your ordinary head of state. He’s an artist, has a keen interest in fashion and he stands six-feet, five inches tall. He played on Albania’s national basketball team until age 27. “We didn’t play a lot because we were an isolated country. I left because I was totally focused on this anti-regime movement and then Albania opened up and I just wanted to see the world. We were much better in women’s volleyball.”

Rama said he never planned to be a professional politician though he was a politically active anti-Communist. He still draws, incessantly, even during meetings and phone conversations. “It’s like doodling. My people are used to it. Sometimes, with people who don’t know me, they feel like, ‘What is this is all about? Why I am doing that?'”

Apparently, doodling helps him focus. “In a way, yes,” he acknowledged. “When I became minister of culture, my first public office experience, I had to go to the council of ministers and I could not really concentrate on what they were saying. There were long hours of meetings and I was all the time drawing on the decree decisions.”

One time, the minister of education who sat next to Rama at the council’s round table, said he had to show him an art collection. “So I went to see him and saw a portfolio full of my drawings. I was very surprised. It was also very sad that he had taken them,” Rama recalled. “I said to my assistant, this guy stole all my art and my assistant said, ‘Don’t worry, because you have tons of it here.’ Privately, she kept all the things that remained on my table during the day. I was not even aware I was doing all this. I told her to continue collecting them.”

Prime Minister Edi Rama with his wife Linda. 

Entering Rama’s office in Tirana, the capital of Albania, there’s a basketball hoop above a doorway — regulation height, he assures — and his desk is in a room covered in wallpaper adorned with his spirally, colorful, abstract doodles. “It’s what my hand does while I am doing other things.”

He’s wearing jeans, a white button-down shirt and Adidas. “I dress up for official events sometimes and I like to combine being in a suit and sneakers. Adidas I love.”

He breaks out a tie, printed in one of his intensely colorful designs, which he gives as gifts. He’s not commercializing his designs — not yet, at least. “I always say I have a third life. The first is artist. The second is politician and the third will be a mix. I want to be designing shirts and pants and socks, little things, not as a business, just very much for myself and people I like. Not mass production. But who knows? Anything can happen.

“I am very much interested to see how fashion people develop ideas. Their visual ideas are sometimes amazing. I love, for example, Yamamoto. He fascinates me. He’s very creative. But there are many. I was very much surprised by the creativity of Jean-Paul Gaultier. He’s very courageous, provocative and very new, or Vivienne Westwood. There was a time she was breathtaking, or Alexander McQueen. With these designers, we really don’t know where fashion ends and art continues.”

In Albania, “We have some very good artists, fantastic opera singers and we have some great musicians. And we have good designers, but of course they are very local. They are small.”

Apparel and footwear together represent 40 percent of Albania’s exports, or about 500 million euros annually, according to the Tirana Times newspaper. There are about 500 Albanian manufacturers that boast short lead times, the ability to deliver small, flexible orders (primarily finished goods) for Italy, Greece and Germany.

“We produce here for many big firms — Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, many of them,” Rama said. “Our labor force is still very cheap. Labor costs are lower than everywhere else in Europe and it’s cheaper to produce here than in China.” He also said Albania’s low corporate taxes and location in the middle of Europe — near Italy, Greece, Germany and Turkey — make the country an attractive business partner.

Becoming part of the EU “will take time,” Rama acknowledged. “It’s about what shape Europe is psychologically and financially.” It’s also about bringing about reforms, overcoming concerns regarding corruption and worker conditions, to meet EU standards. Typical factory workers only earn about 160 to 170 euros a month and many manufacturers depend on foreign aid.

Rama said Albania’s economy grew 3.5 percent last year and should grow 3.8 percent in 2017. “We are ambitious. We want to go beyond 5 percent. We are preparing a major plan of infrastructure investment. We need direct foreign investment, especially in tourism, which is growing but still low.”

While Croatia is filled with tourists, Albania just to the south is hardly on anyone’s radar, though it has beaches, antiquity and is inexpensive. “We came out of isolation less than 30 years ago so it takes time,” Rama explained. “What you hear about Albania is not very intelligent, but when you come, you love it and you want to come back. It’s a country that has not been known for many years. It is a small country. We are turning slowly but steadily. More and more tourists are coming and they will speak good things about our country. Our hospitality is famous. Foreigners here never had a problem and the food is very good. Albania was the only country in Europe that had more Jews in the country after the war than before. No Jew was released to the Germans. Most of the Albanians that took in Jews hid them as members of their family.”

Rama projects a youthful, relaxed image, which is important for a country with a population that’s largely young and largely looking to live elsewhere in Europe or the U.S., where they sense better futures. He’s brought a fresh spirit and openness to a country with a history of suppression.

“For 50 years, we were totally isolated under a very brutal dictatorship. It was a Communist country but not like others, meaning we were isolated from both the East and West. The Soviets were traitors. China also became the traitor. Our Communism was more like North Korea. During this isolation, we were told every day, every night, everywhere, that our biggest enemy was America [which] became this strictly forbidden apple that everybody wanted to bite,” he said.

In 1991, demonstrations forced the Communists out of power. “When we were free all this propaganda against America turned us probably into the most pro-America country in the world. We might even be more pro-America than some states in the U.S.”

Though Rama, a member of the Socialist Party, protested Communism, “I didn’t have political ambitions at all. I became minister of culture by brutal accident and not by processing the idea. I became part of the anti-Communist movement. As an individual and an artist, I was seeking my own freedom, and then when freedom came, thanks to also the student movement, I didn’t want to get into politics. I never wanted to. I kept doing my art. I became famous and a public figure because of my political activism. I was sort of a Michael Moore. What do you say about him? He’s not a politician but he’s engaged in politics. I always believed that a citizen, being a public figure through art or whatever, has an obligation” to get involved.

Rama was living in France working as an artist when his father died and he came home for the funeral. “I never imagined this would also be the funeral for me as an artist full-time.” A government official asked him to become minister of culture. “It was out of the blue. The prime minister was shuffling his government, and I said yes, and without really thinking I became minister of culture.”

In 2000, he became mayor of Tirana, a post he held for 11 years. “The city was broken. It was full of illegal buildings and garbage everywhere. It was a very gray, disturbing city,” he recalled. He ordered the dreary Communist-era apartment buildings to be painted in bright colors and stripes. “It was a zero budget, political action” that changed the way people regarded the city and to some extent themselves.

In 2013, he became prime minister and was re-elected last June by a wide margin. But he will always be an artist. A year ago, he exhibited at the Marian Goodman Gallery in Manhattan. Next year, he will exhibit at the Galerie Michael Schultz in Berlin and in the Frankfurt Modern Art Museum.

“I started to draw when I was two or three and I never stopped.”

An Edi Rama doodle on his office calendar.  George Chinsee

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