Monday, August 17, 2009

Monopolies of Violence and the Politics of Infrastructure in Albania

By Ariel

A few years ago I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Albania. I often sent dispatches home from my time there, and will occasionally post some of those dispatches which I think are still timely and will hopefully be of interest to our readers...

People newly arrived in Albania often remark on two things, which those of us who live here often over look; the fact that cafes are always filled, regardless of work hours, and the constant state of construction. Buildings are raised continuously throughout this country, little one or two story buildings in the country side, and massive apartment buildings, colloquially known as ‘pallati’s or “palaces.” These buildings sprout in cramped quarters and in fields, and around them ripples the not so faint signs of their construction, mounds of trash, and an ever present haze of dust and dirt. In a country with no other means of investment real estate is the preferred depository of choice for the nation’s capital. In Vlore especially, they are convinced that there is a market for these apartments, the usual suspects of people in other cities, Kosovar and Macedonian Albanians. They would rather not consider the possibility that a good portion of that money comes from people laundering dirty cash (though to be fair, I doubt that the new generation of buildings are built for that purpose).

All of this is background to one of the more unusual aspects of the politics of infrastructure which pervades Albanian life, which is the constant tearing down of illegal buildings. Such buildings are everywhere in this country, cropping up in the middle and at the outskirts of major cities. There is an entire police force devoted to monitoring and destroying illegal buildings (not that this is saying that much, there are far too many police forces in this country, Water police, Electricity Police, Building Police, Road Police, and City Hall Police, to say nothing of the normal police). The problem, in many ways, is what constitutes legal or illegal. This is not to dispute the fact that people here do build completely with out permit, its just that often there are so many jurisdictions that they got one permit, and didn’t bother with the rest, assuming they were ok. That or they pay off the right person. After all they never destroy the veritable fleet of hotels which illegally occupy, like large colorful blocky concrete meek-rats all staring out, row upon row, out to see, stretching along a good a good kilometer of beach front around Durres, and down the coast from Vlore. All too many buildings are legal, stamped and approved, despite large gaps between their existence and what is called for in the zoning code.

TV news stations, national and local, salaciously cover the destruction of illegal buildings, sometimes prior to the actual tearing down. In many ways this destruction is the only way that the government, on any level, can prove that it is enforcing the rule of law. Max Weber calls government “a monopoly of violence” and here where the country is governed by a politics of infrastructure, the destruction of buildings has not so much to do with the maintaining of any specific building code, but of the validation of governmental authority.

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