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Tirana's chaotic square becomes island of pedestrian calm

TIRANA (Reuters) - The once chaotic central square in Albania’s capital Tirana has been transformed into a car-free oasis of trees and fountains which the ruling Socialists are using to press their case before parliamentary elections this month.

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Billed as the biggest pedestrian square in the Balkans by Tirana mayor Erion Veliaj, Skanderbeg Square was paved with slabs of stones from all parts of the country to symbolise national unity after a 13.5 million euro ($15.1 million) makeover.

“This is the square of our national and European identity. It is also the square of equal citizens, not the square of power as it was conceived,” Prime Minister Edi Rama said as it was officially reopened at the weekend.

Opposition leader Lulzim Basha argued the money could have been better spent on other projects in one of Europe’s most impoverished nations.

The square was the hub where streets converged until late Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha reshaped it with a palace of culture and then a national museum and 15-storey hotel.

Hoxha’s own statue was toppled from the square by angry crowds of Albanians in February 1991 as the country ditched communism and embraced democracy, coining the phrase “to the square” for any rebellious movement against authority.

The square covers 60,000 square metres and has 100 fountains.

“When we make big plans and we make them together, we Albanians make great things,” mayor Veliaj said.

Fittingly given its history, the square is once again at the centre of Albania’s political divide.

Campaigning in the northern region of Diber, Basha said the money spent was equal to five years of their region’s budget and could have paid for 10 new schools in Tirana.

A former mayor of Tirana, Prime Minister Rama had promoted a project to make the square a pedestrian area.

After he lost the municipality in 2011 to opposition leader Basha, his rival ditched that project, repaving the street around the perimeter and causing traffic chaos in the morning rush.

($1 = 0.8935 euros)

Reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by Keith Weir