Edi Rama: Artist-turned-premier keen to lead Albania into Europe

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  • Edi Rama
    Albanian politician
  • Sali Berisha
    Sali Berisha
    Albanian politician

Tirana (AFP) - Albania's artist-turned-prime minister Edi Rama, who was heading for a second term on Monday, wants to transform his country from a poor Balkan state into a modern member of the European Union.

"Albania is our homeland and Europe is our future," he said in an interview with AFP on the day he first came to power in July 2013, borrowing a phrase from former French president Francois Mitterrand.

A tall former basketball player who went to art school in Paris, Rama entered Albanian politics in the late 1980s, just before the fall of communism in what was then one of the world's most isolated countries.

The ambitious son of a sculptor and a doctor, the 52-year-old has often hailed the EU as a project of "peace and prosperity" -- one that could help keep peace in the Balkans.

In 2014, Rama became the first head of an Albanian government to visit Belgrade in almost seven decades. His Serbian counterpart at the time, Aleksandar Vucic, returned the courtesy the following year.

- Bitter rivalry -

A casual dresser who regularly sports a three-day beard, Rama has expressed a desire to make his country "a modern state ruled by law," and last year he began to reform its notoriously corrupt judicial system.

He has brushed off claims from his opponents on the right of links to organised crime, offering to retire from political life if the accusations are proven.

Rama has a long-running and bitter rivalry with Sali Berisha, a former president and prime minister and the former leader of the Democratic Party, who still wields huge influence over the centre-right party.

The two had a falling out as students over an ideological dispute, but their enmity deepened in 2009 when Rama claimed that an election he lost to Berisha was neither free nor fair.

Socialists supporters took to the streets for months of anti-government protests and four were killed in clashes with police.

Political analyst Alexander Cipa described the Rama-Berisha rivalry as a battle of wills between two proud men who "played for survival in a confrontational political scene marked by fifty years of communism and a difficult transition".

Rama has also ridiculed Berisha's successor as head of the Democrats, Lulzim Basha, saying during this year's election campaign that he was "only good for putting people to sleep".

- Modernising mayor -

Rama, who was mayor of Tirana from 2000 to 2011, set out to transform the impoverished capital into a lively modern city, sprucing up drab communist facades with brightly coloured paint.

The initiative won him awards and praise from the Western media, even though the renovation concerned only a few streets in the centre of a city struggling with galloping and chaotic urbanisation.

An active Facebook and Twitter user, the multilingual Rama has also made art an instrument of political communication and enjoys exhibiting his paintings outside Albania.

"I would say that I am still an artist and I'm trying to use politics as an instrument for change," he once said.

The premier's office is filled with his own artworks.

He has two sons, one with his current wife Linda, an economist, and another from a former marriage with a famous Albanian actress.

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