On March 11, 1981, in the University of Prishtina student dining hall, a plate was smashed on a table. The explosive act came as a consequence of years of ill-treatment and dire living conditions. This small act of protest set off a chain of events that led to the declaration of a state of emergency.
Many families in Kosovo have a demonstration story: A youngster sneaking out of the house and joining a mass of pulsing energy intent on change, perhaps naive to the force and peril they are vulnerable to, perhaps not. The stories are handed down from one generation to the next, a fabric stitched with small deliberations that help resituate the sense of power.
In the years and suffering that followed 1981, a few figures would distinguish themselves as pivotal to Kosovo’s road to statehood. Zahir Pajaziti, Fehmi Agani and Ibrahim Rugova joined Skenderbeu in being immortalized in Prishtina’s center.
Under the watchful eyes of its liberators, Prishtina has enjoyed independence and endured the strictures of failing leadership. The path to effective self-governance has often been hindered and blocked in the interests of an increasingly wealthy political minority.
Only days before, mobile phone footage emerged of a protester dragged and beaten after daring to voice opposition to the formation of a new government. Former UNMIK chief legal adviser, Alexander Borg Olivier, offered his concern at the development.
Having also served as legal adviser to President Hashim Thaçi, he admitted his current advice would be that the Kosovo Constitution implies the need for an election.
Perhaps more troublingly Olivier highlighted a “lack of political culture” in Kosovo, a statement as worrying as it is vague.
In the short clip, burly figures with no insignia are seen chasing the young protester down. As they get a hold of him and strike him, a passing woman physically intervenes and implores them to let him go. A small act of protest.
Protect the statues
These developments will not have come as a surprise to the watchful gaze of Prishtina’s bronze heroes. For the last twenty years they have borne witness to one political misgiving after another. But in the aftermath of a public election being sidestepped, it seemed they could bear to look no longer.
If, as the epithet goes, all good art is political, then last week saw this exemplified in Prishtina.
Those waking up in Prishtina on Tuesday may have noticed the blindfolded protection their statues had been afforded. Behind this ingenious protest was the artist Flutra Zymi.
She explained her act as contemporary art turned reality. “These monuments were erected in honor of our fallen heroes, and each time we pass them we remember their sacrifices so that we, today, can be free. I do not want them to see what is happening, I am ashamed.”
Although Flutra’s courageous act is likely to inspire onlookers, Alexander Borg Olivier’s words allude to a growing concern. A “lack of political culture” is a somewhat damning indictment of a nation that is home to the youngest populace in Europe.
Do youth want to create a political culture?
For many of Kosovo’s youth it is a sense of hopelessness that has precipitated a distance from political developments. Many are disinclined to engage with a process that often overlooks them.
In 2016 an U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funded study on “The Role of Youth in Political Entities” in Kosovo was carried out. In its conclusion the research cited the responses from civil society organization members in underlining that “the role of youth wings within political entities is generally only symbolic.”
It goes on to state that their “general impression about the youth wings was that they are structures created to recruit new members and bring votes for the political entity, and they have little to no impact on the decision-making processes.”
The findings make clear that youth involvement is encouraged only to attract votes, relegating any possibility of influence from Kosovo’s younger citizens.
In April 2019 the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) office in Kosovo presented the results of its youth study. The work attempts to give evidence on the perception and opinions of Kosovar youth. The study highlighted that the most important concerns of Kosovo’s youth are corruption (81%), increasing poverty in society (74%) and social injustice (68%).
The study also found that only 10% of young Kosovars feel that their interests are “well” represented in national politics. As a result, only 13% of youngsters consider themselves interested in politics in general.
These findings illustrate the sense of frustration that is felt among Kosovo’s youth, but they certainly do not overlook the possibility of change. It seems, if you listen closely enough, that Kosovo’s youth are offering up ideas.
Art as a catalyst to protest
Flutra Zymi explained that her gesture was not initially her idea. She had overheard youngsters talking about it in passing, and she wanted to follow through for their sake and for the sake of a whole generation in Kosovo. She also expressed gratitude to those that offered practical assistance, perhaps suggesting that there is a willingness for change.
In recent weeks we have seen people around the world engage in protest, attempting to lend a hand to a necessary process that they believe may enact change. There have been physical and symbolic endeavors by people attempting to play their part. This past week has seen small but significant attempts in Kosovo, these small acts of protest can have revolutionary effects.
Flutra Zymi says: “I dedicate this act to my son and his generation, who should never give up on a better world and equal rights for everyone.”
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.