Perspectives | Civil society

Kosovo’s civil society is a product of its post-war roots

By - 14.12.2016

The transition to democracy is never straightforward for any state, but in post-war Kosovo — initially under an international protectorate — the challenges have been multiplied.

The origins of civil society in Kosovo have to be explained by considering the roots of regional civil society as a basis, and in Kosovo’s case by highlighting the unparalleled trajectory of its development. The development of civil society in Kosovo followed a very different trajectory compared to Eastern Europe, but also compared to other countries in the Balkans, including countries of former-Yugoslavia.

According to the 2005 report titled “A Changing Society, A Changing Civil Society — Kosovo’s NGO Sector After the War” by NGO KIPRED: “With the rapid political and social transformations taking place in the late 1980s and early 1990s throughout former Eastern bloc countries, the concept of civil society entered into Kosovo’s political discourse just as it became popularized in other parts of the ex-communist bloc. It most meaningfully gained its substance with the emergence of Kosovo’s first independent, non-state controlled organizations such as the Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms (1989), the Kosovo Helsinki Committee (1990), and the Union of Independent Trade Unions (1990).”

The fall of communism in Eastern Europe was coupled with the beginning of the end of Yugoslavia, a process that was accompanied by continuous wars. The first initiatives for organizing a civil society in Kosovo during the ’90s, quickly found themselves under a totalitarian regime. At the time, Albanian society was subject to segregation by Serbia’s power structures, installed in Kosovo through violence.

Under these circumstances, civil society in Kosovo could not be developed and could not function in relation to the state. As a result, those organizations that were formed in the ’80s and ’90s cooperated closely with parallel institutions formed at the time by the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). So in this case civil society functioned only partially as it was left in somewhat of a vacuum. This was the fate of civil society up until 1999, when the war ended and Kosovo was placed under the administration of the United Nations.

Under an international protectorate

The international protectorate in Kosovo had its own characteristics, considering that its installation came in the context of Kosovo emerging from a war with a need to be administered. Ravaged by war, Kosovo had been completely destroyed in the institutional aspect as for more than a decade its government institutions had not functioned properly.

After the war, the administration of Kosovo was undertaken by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), a UN mission which undertook many duties, among which was the formation and functionalization of Kosovar civil society. The creation of a suitable environment for the formation of different non governmental organizations (NGOs) was an urgent issue, with the aim of filling the vacuum within societal life.

In the first five years alone, Kosovo experienced prosperity in the registration of NGOs. The 2005 KIPRED report stated that “from the 65 NGOs that operated in Kosovo during the 1989-1998 period, five of which were international, in the beginning of 2004, 2,300 local NGOs were officially registered.”

The functioning of NGOs in Kosovo was regulated by legal frameworks created by UNMIK in 1999, namely the 1999/22 ruling, and a number of supplementary administrative orders. This ruling defined NGOs as non-profit, independent from political parties and created with a legitimate aim.

In Kosovo’s case, the standard civil society-state relationship became the civil society-international power structures relationship because the state did not exit.

So UNMIK created the basic infrastructure for initiating the functioning of civil society, as within the process of building a democracy its formation and functionalization was foreseen as being inevitable. In a 2005 report by the Kosovar Civil Society Foundation titled “Analysis of Civil Society,” the role of the international community was defined as key in this regard: “The international community has clarified from the start that a diverse civil society in Kosovo represents a pre-condition and only this can guarantee the creation of a pluralist and participatory democracy; civil society must be a central part of all development policies in Kosovo.”

In this context, after 1999, Kosovo was the most open country in the region, and as a result of Kosovo’s openness to the world, sufficient space was created where different international organizations could act. Under these circumstances, different international organizations started to conduct their activities in different spheres. These organizations, with the aim of realizing their respective missions, often formed local organizations to turn them into partners or sub-branches. And since local organizations were in most cases formed under the influence of international organizations, the orientation of local organizations was largely dictated en masse in specific fields.

However, we must keep in mind the argument given by Besnik Pula in the 2005 KIPRED report, that “radical changes in Kosovar civil society cannot be attributed only to structural changes in the post-war period. The legacy of the ’90s also partially explains the durability of independent organizations in Kosovo, caused by war. In other words, diversity and pluralism were not devised in June 1999, but were simply reconfigured and expanded within new circumstances.”

The formation, functionalization and development of civil society in the circumstances of the international protectorate is very complex, as it has to do with an overall societal organization which is also very complex. In this particular case we need to focus on the relationship between civil society and international power structures. By analysing the relationship between civil society and the center of power, we can better understand how societies organize in general as well as about the level of democracy in that society. In Kosovo’s case, the standard civil society-state relationship became the civil society-international power structures relationship because the state did not exit. The protectorate, UNMIK, was the power in and of itself.  

In his book “Conditions of Liberty,” philosopher Ernest Gellner defined the role of civil society as follows: “Civil Society is that set of diverse non-governmental institutions which is strong enough to counterbalance the state and, while not preventing the state from fulfilling its role of keeper of the peace and arbitrator between major interests, can nevertheless prevent it from dominating and atomizing the rest of society.”

So the issue of who must be counterbalanced is further complicated. In the case of Kosovo, UNMIK was the decision-making political force, in its role as the protectorate. UNMIK could not be counterbalanced by civil society because UNMIK was only accountable to its headquarters in New York, not to Kosovar society, and even less so to civil society or NGOs.

UNMIK’s fear was that if Kosovo truly developed into a democratic society, it would undermine its own position in the country.

UNMIK knew that it had a duty to build democratic mechanisms, because otherwise it would be declared a failed mission, and the continuation of its existence would be senseless. On the other hand, UNMIK was interested in extending its mission, at least until another solution was thought up. So UNMIK’s only ‘weapon’ to defend itself against attacks from civil society, which could contribute to its failure and potentially threaten its existence, was to indirectly control civil society.

Besides establishing structures and means of helping the democratization process within the country, UNMIK also developed mechanisms that hindered such structures from materializing fully. Therefore, it would create mechanisms for democratization while also establishing undemocratic counter-mechanisms in order to temporarily block the surfacing of civil society values. However, as theorist John Keane claims: “without a defended and independent civil society, made up of autonomous public organisms, aims like freedom, equality and participatory planning … are only empty words…”

UNMIK knew that the transition from a communist society, with a backdrop of xenophobia and ethnocentrism, to a democratic one would be an uphill struggle. And acknowledging that the first victim of this struggle would be UNMIK itself, it therefore developed a strategy to postpone such struggles during its existence.

UNMIK’s fear was that if Kosovo truly developed into a democratic society, it would undermine its own position in the country. In this regard, the KIPRED report concluded that “the role of groups like KLDMNJ [Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms] and other independent voices in the media in condemning violence were completely overlooked by UNMIK, and instead, Western diplomats in Kosovo started to publicly stigmatize the whole of the Albanian population as responsible for the post-war violence.”

The history of democratization in other countries in Europe shows that a very undemocratic battle is needed to reach democratic power.

Transition to democracy

Since civil society in Kosovo was handicapped by being unable to counterbalance UNMIK as a power, it continued by embracing another mission that was no less difficult; that of promoting democratic values in Kosovar society.

In order to enable democracy, it is without doubt necessary for different groups within society to be organized outside the umbrella of governmental institutions. Governmental institutions in a democratic society cannot cover all spheres of social life and shouldn’t ever claim to be able to do so. It is civil society in particular that covers the spheres that governmental institutions cannot access, or which have a void that government institutions are unable to fill.

Whether organized groups have freedom of association and action is an indication of whether democracy exists within a country.

In his book “Tests in Political Sociology,” sociology professor Servet Pllumbi defines the role of NGOs along the lines that “they realize duties that are modest but not unimportant. Firstly, by enabling individuals to act as citizens to protect their own rights and freedoms. Secondly, by participating in discussions about different issues, like consultations for important laws, for developing strategies, and so on. Thirdly, by creating entities that can affect state policies and can apply group pressure on the government for certain issues.”

That is how civil society makes democracy more functional and also makes social life in general more prosperous. The main indicator of how far democracy prevails in a society can also be measured by the space in which civil society has to perform. In a society that claims to have a proper democracy, the birth of organized groups that are against the government and the power structures, and that do not agree with the existing order or aim to bring changes, is completely normal.

Whether organized groups have freedom of association and action is an indication of whether democracy exists within a country. If a group is against the government’s actions, criticizes the government’s work and opposes it through legal means, but gets persecuted for doing so, this can be seen as an indicator that a developed democracy does not exist within that country.

In her book “Democracy is a Discussion II,” Author Sondra Myers says that “in post-communist countries, it has become clear that civil society is what makes a democracy function.” When we say that different organized groups are one of the key agents that facilitate the internalization of democracy, we are mainly speaking about embracing the value of participation in socio-political life. Through these different organizations that make up civil society, a citizen manages to become a direct actor in socio-political life.

Among the many authors that deal with the issue of democracy, civic participation in political life is considered to be one of the key elements enabling a democracy to function and have legitimacy. In the meantime, the most adequate mediator between state and citizen is civil society itself.

In her book “What is Democracy,” historian Diane Ravitch states that “a healthy democracy depends on the continuous and open participation of all citizens, independent of their respective level of contribution.” In Kosovo, civil society carries out its role based on the concept of building democracy from the bottom-up. Considering that political conditions in which Kosovo found itself in after the war, it might appear that the model for building democracy from the bottom-up was inevitable.

Image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.