Why you should care

Because if there’s a city in dire need of a shake-up, it’s this one. 

Tirana is one of Europe’s poorest capitals. Outside the touristy city center are abandoned buildings, unpaved roads, cobwebs of electrical cables, and Roma children picking trash. So when I walk into the mayor’s office, my first thought is, “I must have gotten the wrong place.”

The room looks like the central spread of a design magazine — old maps as wallpaper, sculptural lamps, artwork. Sitting in a Swedish-looking armchair is the recently elected Erion Veliaj, who, in his blue cardigan and jeans, fits the décor perfectly. He is, he says, being deliberately modern: His first act as mayor was to repair the clock tower in the city’s central square. As he puts it, “I wanted to show the people of Tirana that we will no longer be stuck in time.”

For some, being mayor is all about ribbon-cutting, but this 36-year-old wants to change the face of Albanian politics — and he’d like to be the new, gleaming image. Using social media and a custom app, Veliaj crowdsources grievances in real time, from pictures of potholes to 140-character rants on poor garbage cleanup. Whichever subject people post, like and share the most gets tackled first. And he’s got plenty to choose from. Tirana has about 420,000 inhabitants, and more than 300,000 of them follow Veliaj on Facebook (about 100 times as many followers as the mayor of tech-savvy San Francisco).

He’s a very different breed of politician.

Fatos Tarifa, former Albanian ambassador to the U.S.

So far, this bottom-up style is proving popular. Despite being the last candidate to enter the mayoral race and campaigning almost exclusively online, Veliaj won the June 2015 elections with 53 percent of the vote. Soon after, Veliaj noticed a lot of online complaints about the state of public kindergartens, so during the summer, he mobilized the private sector and raised $2.2 million to repair the city’s 31 preschools. “He’s a very different breed of politician, an example of what’s possible after 25 years of failed democratic transition,” says Fatos Tarifa, a political scientist and former Albanian ambassador to the United States.

But that was only one item ticked off Veliaj’s endless list of urgent to-do’s. He still has a long way to go to deliver on his electoral promise of updating the infrastructure of a city crippled by 40 years of communist dictatorship. Here, running water comes only three times a day. Veliaj has also promised to create jobs for Tirana’s youth, which is currently trapped between a 34 percent unemployment rate (the national average is 28 percent) and a minimum monthly wage of $175.

It’s ironic to paint Veliaj as a man of the people as he sits in his Vanity Fair–like office sending smiling selfies to his 40,500 Instagram followers; indeed, many call him vain or selfish. “He mostly copies the style of President Obama,“ says Ilir Kalemaj, director of the international relations program at the University of New York Tirana. “I think he uses social media as a means for self-promotion and generating media fuss.”

Veliaj’s life was not always this glamorous, though: Growing up in post-dictatorship Tirana, he experienced firsthand the bite of poverty. After his father’s death, his mother couldn’t provide for him and his young brother, so 13-year-old Veliaj trekked for three days into neighboring Greece, where he lived as an illegal immigrant before finally jumping the pond to study political science at Michigan’s Grand Valley State University, with help from an uncle in Greece. “I still remember what it is to fear the police,” Veliaj says. Now, he hopes his use of social media may provide something corruption-riddled Albania dearly needs: accountability. Veliaj says people, like children, “need to see to believe” — which is why he’s ditched memos in favor of public Flickr accounts and runs his weekly staff meetings while riding around the city in a van.

The young mayor also thinks it’s time that Tirana rises its standards to mirror those of other European capitals. “If something is not good enough for Berlin, it’s not good enough for us,” he says. He boasts of having close relationships with foreign mayors, like Ada Colau of Barcelona, with whom he’s working to designing better public markets, and Flavio Tosi of Verona, the city after which he’s modeling Tirana’s new system of sustainable waste management.

To be sure, not everybody sees Veliaj’s constant travel positively — especially the some 300,000 people who live in rural areas of greater Tirana. In early January, thousands were evacuated after severe flooding inundated their homes. Veliaj, meanwhile, was in Sri Lanka attending an economic forum and urging his constituents, via Facebook, to stay at home. Gerti Bogdani, a member of Parliament for the right-wing opposition, says Veliaj’s behavior was irresponsible: “He is there to raise taxes but not to provide help when needed.”

Still, others already see Veliaj as Albania’s next prime minister. “He has the youth and the energy to captivate the country,” says Tarifa, pointing out that Albania’s current prime minister, Edi Rama, was also once Tirana’s hotshot mayor. Veliaj says he is only thinking about his current job. Regardless, Tarifa argues, “There is so much stuff to fix in Albania that even if he only manages one small thing, he will be a hero.”

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