In-depth | Protests

A year of protest

2018 in Kosovo was crowded with protests.

By - 31.12.2018

 

The year we are leaving behind was characterized by protests, marches, strikes and symbolic actions. Many syndicates, non-government organizations, collectives and political parties raised their voice over a diverse range of subjects and demands. Some achieved their goals, and others will likely try again next year. Above all, voices were raised! But which voices?  

Labor issues often saw people out on the streets. Unemployment remains a key problem for citizens, and even the employed aren’t always to be envied. During the year, syndicates and non-government organizations protested, marched and went on strike to demand improvements in working conditions, higher wages, and above all, safety at work, after 19 workers died in their places of work and hundreds of others were injured in the past year.

Femicide and domestic violence also shook the nation throughout the year and in just about every city in the country, protests and marches were organized, calling on the justice system to respond and protect the lives of women. The economic situation of women was not excluded from these protests either.

 

 

 

The justice system also faced protests. At the beginning of autumn, Prishtina’s squares were full of protesters who for weeks publicly expressed their demands for improvements to Kosovo’s judiciary after a scandal broke out over investigations into the number of people listed as war veterans.

Politics weren’t left aside either. As it has done in previous years, Vetëvendosje continued with protests and actions in 2018. On the penultimate day of September, they organized protests against one man: President Hashim Thaçi. They demanded that the president stop discussing ‘correcting the border’ with Serbia and called for his resignation, arguing that he is working against the interests of the country.  

People also marched for human rights. Members and supporters of the LGBTI community marched in the country’s second Pride Parade, which was held under the slogan ‘In the name of Freedom,’ and demanded institutions fulfil their responsibilities so as to allow people to express their identity freely and to enable equal rights for all.

No matter the motives and demands, protests, marches and strikes are seen as some of the healthiest undertakings for maintaining democracy. Here, K2.0 looks back at this year’s protests, to see what were the causes of their organization, how they went, what demands were issued and how influential they were.

 

At the start of the year, Prishtina consistently found itself with some of the worst air quality ratings in the world, with Air Quality Index measurements taken at the U.S. Consulate in Dragodan frequently showing levels of air pollution described as ‘unhealthy,’ ‘very unhealthy,’ and even ‘hazardous.’ At the end of January, a group calling themselves ‘the citizens’ called a protest, demanding that action be taken.

On January 31, hundreds of protesters wearing face masks gathered in front of the National Theater beneath placards reading: ‘Breathing, seriously damages your health,’ ‘It’s only the air you haven’t privatized yet,’ and ‘Helm’ (‘Poison’). Above the sounds of heavy breathing amplified by a loudspeaker, they called on institutions to take immediate steps, declaring that polluted air is endangering the health of citizens.

The protesters demanded a ban on burning coal for heating, a restriction on gas emissions from cars, and the distribution of gas masks for citizens, threatening further protests.

 

The same day as the protest, at a joint press conference, the Municipality of Prishtina, the Ministries of Environment and Spatial Planning and Internal Affairs and the Kosovo Police announced that measures would be taken. Roads in central Prishtina were closed and traffic coming into the city was banned for two days, while the sale of coal was also temporarily halted.

However, with the return of winter, December has seen Prishtina once again register appalling air quality ratings. Hazardous levels have returned, and on Saturday, December 3, a peak Air Quality Index measurement of 456 topped January’s previous high of 431; any measurement over 301 is considered hazardous. January’s measures have not been re‐implemented, but a ban on the free distribution of coal for KEK workers has been.

 

 

In 2017, workers at the Kosovo Energy Corporation (KEK) held protests organized by the New Syndicate. Their request was clear: the wages of all workers at the energy giant to be increased by 100 euros. However, their demands were ignored.

Representatives from the syndicate, which was formed in 2015 and has 2,000 members, promised that they would hold a general strike in the new year, potentially causing a crisis in electrical energy production. The syndicate insisted that workers risk their health every day so that KEK can provide energy to Kosovo citizens while operating at a profit, and that conditions must be improved to reflect this reality.

On February 9, hundreds of KEK workers occupied Zahir Pajaziti square holding up banners that said “We want higher wages,” “We love life too,” and “The culprit for KEK’s condition must face justice,” while in front of the government building, a banner saying “Government, wake up!” was held high above the crowd.

An ultimatum was set for February 16, threatening that the syndicate would hold a strike after this date. The following day was Kosovo’s independence day, a day of celebration, on which the management of KEK and the government would be faced with a strike from workers who produce the country’s electrical energy.

 

On February 15, the KEK Board of Directors took a decision to increase the wages of all workers by 100 euros, with all votes in favor minus one abstention. After increasing the wages, the corporation, which adds 25 million euros to the state budget every year, stated that this decision would not influence its finances, and as such, taxes for electrical energy consumption would not be increased. On Independence Day, Rita Ora held a concert in the center of Prishtina, without any issues.

The wage increase kept KEK workers at ease for about seven months. But since September, the union has started to once again cause headaches for the KEK management. The New Syndicate added more demands, as 387 workers will retire in 2019 and 2020 and this will lead to a total of 800 workers that the company will no longer have.

In addition to this, KEK workers are also demanding the implementation of The Labour Law and the Collective Agreement which includes “payments for weekend work and night shift work, full compensation for medical leave, compensation for work outside the weekly schedule, as well as the traditional payment for the ‘13th month,’ which originates from Yugoslav policies.  

If KEK doesn’t accept the demands of workers, the start of 2019 could see more protests by energy production workers, and perhaps even Independence Day celebrated in darkness.

 

In March, the “We march, not celebrate” collective marked International Women’s Day with a large demonstration.

“I don’t want flowers, I want an employment contract” read one of the banners held up during the march, which circled around the center of the city and ended in front of the government building. The difficult economic situation for women was one of the key issues opposed by protesters; employment among women in the active workforce was recorded as 12 percent in the second quarter of 2018 by the Kosovo Statistics Agency.

Protesters demanded that women’s right to property be strengthened, that they are not discriminated against in the workplace, that women take up at least 50 percent of decision-making positions, and that maternity leave be respected.

However, the main issue the march addressed was violence against women, a recurring theme this year. In the first six months of 2018, 628 cases of violence against women were recorded. The marchers called out the names of Diana Kastrati, Zejnepe Berisha and Donjeta Pajaziti — some of the women that have been murdered in cases of gender based violence in recent years. They demanded that the justice system take reports of domestic violence seriously, that the police act quickly against them, and that courts be more severe in their punishment of femicide.

 

Violence against women continued throughout the year, with institutions often accused of failing the victims. In Gjakova in August, Valbona Nrecaj and her young daughter were murdered by her husband, Pjeter, who refused her demand for divorce. Nrecaj had reported cases of domestic violence to the police previously, and called the police on the day of her murder, seeking protection.

Protests were held all over the country, from Kaçanik to Ferizaj, Gjakova, and Prizren, and later in Gjilan and Rahovec. Ultimately, demonstrators gathered again in Prishtina holding up banners that read “Institutional violence” and “Stop this,” directly accusing Kosovo’s institutions of failing to protect women.

In another case, on November 5 in Prishtina, a man beat his wife and daughter. After the case was reported to the police, he was arrested. However, after being interviewed by the prosecution, he was freed. This case also incited reactions, with people accusing institutions of failing to do their job.

 

Unlike in most previous years, International Workers’ Day, May 1, was marked with workers’ protests. The Union of Independent Syndicates (BSPK) gathered hundreds of workers in Prishtina to call for better working conditions.

Protesters demanded that the government implement the Labor Law and increase the minimum wage to 250 euros, as well as for relative wage controls and adding additional payments for workers who face risks in the workplace.

“Today, we are one! Today, we are together — all syndicate federations, all workers. Although here we are not many in number, we transmit the message in the name of all,” said the Head of BSKP Avni Ajdini in his speech. At the end of the protest, in front the government building, an organization called Beyond the Wall exhibited an installation dedicated to the 24 workers that had died in the workplace in the previous 24 months.

 

Protests against the death of workers were also held in October. On October 6, Milazim Bajraktari from Istog died while working on the construction of a building in Prishtina. He was the 18th worker to die in Kosovo in the 10 months that had passed since the start of the year.

The situation of workers was described as a “a state of war” by Beyond the Wall, who called a march on October 10 between the central squares of Prishtina. Through these protests they highlighted that in the last five years, 93 workers had died in the workplace, and in their memory, they placed 93 yellow helmets at Zahir Pajaziti square.

At the end of October, another worker died in the workplace. He was working on the construction of the Arben Xhaferi highway as an employee of Bechtel Enka — a company which was awarded the public tender for building the Prishtinë-Shkup highway. Multiple employees of this company have died in the workplace through the years, and there have also been multiple injuries.

 

“You’re the pishpirik!” shouted hundreds of protesters gathered in Prishtina’s squares in response to Prime Minister Haradinaj’s insult directed at former special prosecutor Elez Blakaj, who was investigating the inflation of war veterans’ lists. It was estimated that around 19,000 people were illegally benefiting without having been part of the war.

On August 15, Blakaj handed in his resignation. The former prosecutor claimed that Reshat Millaku, head of the Special Prosecution, had limited his work in the investigation of the veterans’ lists, and had declined the indictment which Blakaj had prepared for the case. Millaku said that this was done as a result of technical errors.  

Moreover, Blakaj claimed that Head Prosecutor Aleksandër Lumezi had rebuked him for interviewing President of the Assembly and leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), Kadri Veseli, as part of the investigation. The former prosecutor also accused his superior of pressuring him when he raised the indictment for the Pronto Affair in 2016, in which high level officials of PDK were accused of influencing the employment process for public positions.

The affair kicked off a series of protests against interventions in the justice system.

 

The first protest was called via Facebook on August 20 by an organization called Protestoj, created in 2016 to demonstrate against the political culture in Kosovo that members of the organization and their supporters believed was revealed by the Pronto Affair.

In the call, the organization highlighted that the protest was “organized by citizens” and that among other things, they demanded “the resignation of Chief Prosecutor Lumezi and a vetting process in the justice system.” Later, Protestoj also demanded snap elections, under the suspicion that politicians had intervened in the justice system, violating its independence.  

Hundreds of protesters gathered, supported by non-government organizations and deputies from opposition parties. Demonstrations lasted for three weeks, with protesters reiterating their demands and insisting that the only way they would stop was if all demands were met.

However, none of their demands were met. Lumezi remains chief prosecutor and no vetting process has been conducted, while Blakaj’s indictment was rejected by the Basic Court and returned to the prosecution, where on December 7th it was re-sent to the court after completion. The coalition government continues on as a minority government, with Haradinaj as its prime minister.  

 

On September 29, came the biggest protest of the year. Vetëvendosje, together with thousands of citizens, protested in Prishtina’s main squares opposing President Thaçi’s role in the ongoing dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, as well as the idea of including an exchange of territories in the final agreement between the two countries.

The president was accused by Vetëvendosje head Albin Kurti of working against the interests of the country and exploiting residents of the Presheva Valley, Bujanoc and Medvegjë. Furthermore, while on the same day President Thaçi, under high level protection, made a visit to Ujman Lake, Kurti accused him of planning to give this lake to Serbia, along with other strategic areas.

 

According to Kurti, the protests and high number of protesters showed that the people were against “this president’s adventures, acrobatics and dangerous games.”

Featuring banners that read “No state with thieves,” “Down with Hashim Thaçi,” “Trepça is ours,” and “We want no secession,” the opposition party protest was also attended by independent deputies of the Assembly, as well as deputies from the Democratic League of Kosovo who had come out independently, since their party did not officially support the protest.

Only one meeting has been held between Thaçi and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vučić since the protest. Many meetings have been cancelled, with the dialogue coming to a complete standstill after a 100 percent import tax was imposed on products from Serbia by the Kosovar government. The subject of discussions between the two states remains as unknown as ever, while a final deal still seems distant.

 

On October 10, a Pride Parade was held for the second year running in Prishtina, this time under the slogan ‘In the name of freedom.’ Members and supporters of the LGBTI community gathered in Skënderbeu square with music, flags and banners before marching to Zahir Pajaziti square, where speeches were made and a dance party broke out.

Freedom was demanded for people who have no opportunity to free themselves from social and family pressure: “freedom to be ourselves, to live a life of fulfillment, with love and success,” insisted the organizers of the Pride Parade.

Under police protection, activists publicly expressed that they continuously feel discriminated against and threatened. According to them, members of this community are leaving the country because they do not feel safe. In the name of freedom, they demanded that institutions do not deny anyone their identity, that they offer equal opportunities and fulfil their duties to ensure basic human rights.

 

Politicians, members of international institutions and activists from other countries in the region also came out to support the demands of members of the LGBTI community. President Hashim Thaçi, Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj and Assembly Head Kadri Veseli were all absent, although they did express their support through press releases.

But despite their stated support, it seems that institutions are not fulfilling their obligations.

In April, Blert Morina, director of the Center for Equality and Liberty (CEL), sought to change his name and gender in his documents. His request was refused by institutions that are responsible for these issues, a decision seen as a violation of the law and of Morina’s human rights. Morina and his legal representatives sent a complaint to the Constitutional Court, asking the institution to review the constitutionality of the decision to deny his appeal.K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.