One-on-one | Activism

WAITING FOR THE BUSES

By - 18.05.2016

Citizen-activism initiative founder says pressure must continue on institutions to bring about change.

After months of political mud-slinging, a solution to the longstanding deadlock over the reformation of urban traffic in Prishtina seems to be in sight. Following a marathon debate in Prishtina’s Municipal Assembly, deputies earlier unanimously agreed to support a motion backing a proposed loan deal to help pay for regeneration of the capital’s transport system, including the purchase of 51 new buses.

The motion confirms that the Municipality will act as a guarantor to a 10 million euro loan deal with the European Bank for Development and Reconstruction (EBRD), and proposes that the agreement now be sent to the government for the required signature of the Ministry of Finance.

Today’s progress comes after pressure was applied on politicians through an initiative launched last week on Facebook by citizens of Prishtina. Per Prishtinen (For Prishtina) has urged politicians to take immediate steps to overcome the stalemate in reforming the city’s public transport system.

The initiative’s first campaign, “Sign it Minister,” involves a petition urging Minister of Finance, Avdullah Hoti, to sign an agreement that would see the government act as an additional guarantor for the EBRD loan. An in principle agreement between EBRD, the government, the Municipality of Prishtina and the company Trafiku Urban, was signed back in August 2015.

However, until today, there had been little progress on the deal, with the Municipality of Prishtina and central government both blaming each other for the delay. The transport issue has formed a key source of political tension between Hoti’s LDK party, who previously controlled the Municipality and who form one of the coalition partners in central government, and Vetevendosje, who took control of Prishtina in 2014 when Shpend Ahmeti was elected mayor.

Ahmeti, who included urban transport reforms as a key election pledge, has accused Hoti and Prime Minister Isa Mustafa of “sabotage,” arguing that the Municipality had already done its part, and the delays have been deliberate and politically motivated from central government. Referring to the Law on Publicly Owned Enterprises, Ahmeti has repeatedly asserted that all that was required for public enterprises to take decisions over large spending projects was the authorization of the enterprise’s decision makers and the signature of the mayor — both of these things happened back in October 2015.

However Hoti has insisted that the ball was in the Municipality’s court, suggesting that the agreement first needed to be ratified by the Municipality of Prishtina’s Assembly before it could be signed by the Ministry of Finance, and subsequently ratified by a two-thirds majority in the Assembly of Kosovo. After months of political wrangling, the issue finally went before the Municipal Assembly today, although it is still unclear why it took so long for this step to be taken.

Before today’s headway was finally made, Ahmeti claimed that he has been calling for a meeting with the EDRB and the government to discuss how to overcome the stalemate for a month, but that the government had rejected the meeting.

With the path seemingly having been paved for Minister Hoti to now sign the agreement, K2.0 spoke with Per Prishtinen initiator, activist, Krenar Shala. He sheds light on the aims of the Per Prishtinen initiative, the reasons for the “Sign it Minister” campaign and potential future steps that civil activists can take to encourage improved regulation of the capital’s urban traffic system.

K2.0: What has been the objective of your “Sign it Minister” campaign?

Krenar Shala: This campaign not only aims to raise awareness of citizens regarding traffic in Prishtina, but also to put pressure on the authorities, in this case, the Ministry of Finance, so that they sign the loan guarantee from the European Bank for Development and Reconstruction. We have information and have also seen documents which were signed by the bank, Trafiku Urban shareholders, the Municipality of Prishtina and the Ministry of Finance, and specified all the details about further procedures. The Ministry of Finance has in principle accepted the agreement, although because of political calculations, the Ministry of Finance is not signing the document that would provide new buses for Prishtina.

Seeing past examples, I believe that non-partisan pressure yields successful results.

Unfortunately LDK does not want things to go well for the Municipality of Prishtina because they lost power there thanks to their bad governance. Now they think that they can come back to power, but if traffic reforms happen, they will not do so.

The aim is for all citizens of Prishtina to mobilize and not let this subject slip away from the party debates. The aim is to make people engage in practical issues, because we can see that political parties hold their narrow interests in high regard.

Why is this initiative important?

We witness traffic in Prishtina and people complain about how it takes them an hour to get from A to B, when in fact it should take them 5 minutes. This has irritated the citizens a lot. I think we are fortunate that no socio-psychological analyses have been conducted to measure the stress of drivers in Prishtina’s traffic, because those results, coupled with the pollution produced by the current buses, would cause a political earthquake.

In 2013 the local government was changed to transform the city. The transformation has many faults and we are unhappy, and as a result, this civil society group thinks that one of the most important projects promised by the current local government must progress, because we as citizens of Prishtina cannot be the victims of this tribal doctrine of ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face.’ We are interested in regulating traffic and fully implementing all promises made by the Municipality of Prishtina.

What is different about your initiative and how do you ensure that it does not simply remain another Facebook campaign that doesn’t go further?

We have had a few cases in Kosovo in which civic pressure, organization and advocacy helped to achieve results. The first example is that of the [University of Prishtina] rector, and the other was [former deputy Prime Minister, Aleksandar] Jablanovic’s dismissal. I believe the third example will be this one, although I don’t think there will be massive protests.

On the other hand, I think that it will be evidence that Kosovo’s citizens are active and are not content only with independence, because it is not enough. It must be implemented and evident at a grassroots level; we must build on the state and treat more tangible issues. In the past seven months there has been much attention directed towards the Association [of Serb Majority Municipalities] and [border] demarcation agreement [with Montenegro]; meanwhile we have forgotten problems that are close to home and part of our everyday routines, problems that make the lives of citizens particularly difficult.

Today we have seemingly seen a step forward in the public transport stalemate. What is the future of the campaign “Sign it Minister”?

Our aim is to get as many signatures; we have not set a limit. We plan to use other forms of pressure. I think civic pressure for this cause will not let us stop this initiative.

When the Minister signs it, the pressure will be on the Municipality because they are mainly responsible for regulating traffic. Obviously our campaign will not stop after the signing of the agreements. Our campaign will stop when we see that urban traffic is completely regulated in Prishtina. So, whoever is in power, we will hold them to account and in this case the Municipality is mainly responsible, but the ball is currently in the Ministry’s court. The moment the Ministry signs the guarantee, the ball will be in the Municipality’s court, and pressure will continue to be put on them through advocacy and others means.

The approval of the request by the Municipal Assembly is a step forward. Although now the next step is approval by the government… So our cause has not ended yet. We must continue to pressure them until we get the Minister to sign it.

The petition will keep on circulating, and our cause will continue until we get the Minister to sign, because things might get dragged on again, so our cause cannot end today.

What other issues will the Per Prishtinen initiative seek to advocate for?

The other issue on the agenda of this cause is the approval of the Law for Prishtina [according to the Constitution and the Law on Local Self Government, the capital city should be regulated with a specific law that gives it enhanced competencies compared to other cities in Kosovo]. Pressure must not be halted until our citizens see essential changes in our traffic.

Your initiative has been supported by Vetevendosje. Can your cause be interpreted by others as party politics?

I think our cause has a very civic, concrete and pragmatic aim. The fact that a civic cause exists is a problem for some, and they attempt to sabotage whatever civic initiative. These tendencies do not stop us, and we will continue on our civic journey, because we know that the majority of Prishtina’s residents would benefit from regulated traffic, no matter what political affiliations they have; the Minister’s family would benefit too, because they also live here. We will continue to lead this awareness campaign so that we can get him to sign the guarantee, as the Ministry of Finance has already agreed to do.

I think there are no neutral individuals because we are all political citizens, but we are not affiliated to parties, and this matters. Meanwhile, I call on all citizens to be political. The fact that you pay taxes makes you a political citizen. So it is a question of whether you are politically active or not. Such initiatives are not only about regulating traffic, but also leading by example so other individuals then organize causes that are pragmatic and in the interest of citizens.

Pressure inflicted on authorities by citizens can never be negative. It always has a positive side.K

This interview was conducted in Albanian.

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