Perspectives | Democracy

‘Copy paste’ Independence Day

By - 16.02.2017

As Kosovo marks another Independence Day, it has many familiar problems — but it can start to move beyond them if citizens are placed at the heart of the country’s democracy.

Another year, another independence anniversary.

As we mark nine years of being recognized as an independent state, gradually the festive celebrations have been fading away, as has the novelty of the day itself. In principle, such a waning of sentiments should not necessarily be seen as disheartening. It is only natural that with each passing year, the glorifications and zealousness that were initially witnessed will gradually drift away.

However, much of the source of such detachment is elsewhere; in fact, it has become increasingly rooted in a sense of disenfranchisement, disappointment and discontent more than anything else. Independence Day, so far, has failed to materialize into a tradition of widespread festivities — regardless of the meanings and memories that it triggers for different people. It’s a bleak picture to paint on the anniversary of independence. But to ignore such narratives today would mean to ignore the very shattering realities that many in our society face and struggle with on a daily basis.

So, does this anniversary solicit a particular need for debate or has it been exhausted? Has February 17 turned into just another day for ranting over the disappointments and problems this country continues to face? Have we tired of having to continuously repeat the same problems over and over again? If this day calls for a reflection of the type of state and republic we have been building, are there truly significant changes that can be traced or seen?

Many believe that without substantial change within the political class, prospects of significant change are slim. And by and large, the past nine years have seen the same political texture from one government to the next. Be it PDK-led or LDK-led, the ruling coalitions have not been based on principles of policy, ideas or political vision. What has brought them together has been more the prospect of personal gain through public positions than any sense of dedication or allegiance for turning a country with just 1.8 million people into a state that is both economically and socially sound. Meanwhile, the dominant opposition voice through Vetevendosje has equally failed to offer a more comprehensive political vision and alternative that goes beyond issues of ‘territory’; one that transcends to social causes.

‘Fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ might be more recently coined terms elsewhere, but their existence as concepts are not necessarily novel in Kosovo.

Along the spectrum, the political battle occurs predominantly along divisive polemics, regardless of the issue at hand. As a result, today we live in a society that is increasingly polarized — one where fact-based opinions, or even the prospects of individual, independent thought, rarely serve as the basis for common conversations. Facts have lost meaning, politics has become synonymous with “personal interest and benefit” and almost everything is viewed from the prism of political affiliation. It is the polarized political “us” and “them” — and whoever falls outside such a discursive scheme is shrugged off, disregarded or targeted on spurious grounds.  The tendency to devalue any opposing argument, sometimes even for the mere purpose of refutal, has turned public discussion into a constant abuse of political fact, political power and political authority.

‘Fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ might be more recently coined terms elsewhere, but their existence as concepts are not necessarily novel in Kosovo. Sure, the acceleration of online websites and the use of social media have given increased rise to the dissemination of ‘fake news.’ But ‘alternative facts’ have been part of the rhetoric of the political class here for years.

The ongoing political saga over the border demarcation process with Montenegro is a point in case, where the political feud of words, and arguments and counter arguments directed back and forth, have added more vagueness and ambiguity to the whole process, than any sense of clarity. Whether we speak of the the promise of 200,000 new jobs, of public health insurance, or of an education system fit for the 21st century, to name just a few examples, Kosovars have heard repeated promises across a wide range of issues, and many seem to have given up on expectations for the fulfillment of a sustainable republic.

As another anniversary is marked today, the same promises, the same political class, the same ‘copy paste’ independence.  

A crisis of citizenship?

If we zoom out from Kosovo, then we see that similar discussions over divisiveness and polarization are taking place all around. To quote a recent review of an essay “Citizenship and loyalty” by French philosopher Yves Michaud, today “there is neither a crisis of democracy crisis, nor one of identity. The only and real crisis is that of citizenship.”

He was commenting on the specific political climate that prevails in France, where an exclusionary politics that runs on the rhetoric of fear and hatred, has become embedded into a part of society, and has de facto led to a rise in communitarianism. Similar populist and rhetorical sentiments have been finding fertile ground elsewhere as well, be it across Europe or the United States. But what Michaud emphasizes through his remarks is the need to return to what it means to be a citizen — that is, a member of a political community, be it a city, a state or the world.  

Citizen-focused issues have rarely dominated or become the focal point of our daily political conversations.

What particularly stands out in his review is the emphasis on “citizenship crises.” In Kosovo, too often we have focused on democracy and identity, while neglecting what ultimately forms the fabric of both — citizenship. The “citizenship crisis” in Kosovo should not be mistakenly equated, measured or thought of in terms of citizen engagement. In fact, the beginning of the new year bared witnessed to a solidarity initiative —  as not seen in some time —  for collecting and distributing a range of basic necessities for families in need across the country as winter temperatures dropped below minus 20. This was a citizen-driven initiative for citizens’ wellbeing; a response to the failures of government institutions.  

Citizen-focused issues have rarely dominated or become the focal point of our daily political conversations. When in October of last year, K2.0 launched the online campaign #podumedite (#IWantToKnow), as a way of initiating a policy and issue driven debate amongst citizens and their representatives, the majority of questions raised pertained to services — be it in the health, public or social sectors. So regardless of what the dominant political voices, whether in parties or the media, try to convince us is the ‘next, most pressing political issue,’ many Kosovars are concerned with the politics that affect their wellbeing.

The “citizenship crisis” in Kosovo today is that a “nine-year-old kid” can own an iPhone with 4G and connect to YouTube to watch Kosovars win a Bafta award for a movie that speaks to a global issue of forced migration and refugees; at the same time, they can follow an online discussion on how Kosovars at home are being denied Schengen visas — a reminder that they are from the only remaining country in Europe whose citizens are barred from traveling freely. And, that same “nine-year-old kid” will also have to wonder whether the next day they will be able to have water to bathe in or drink, or clean air to breathe. Again, to name a few issues.

We have to remember that democracy can take on many forms and shapes. An oligarchy, as the one present in Kosovo, is not necessarily exclusive and it doesn’t necessarily exist independently of democracy. What can truly distinguish a democracy is the extent to which citizenship is recognized as the most intricate and important part of its fabric. So, 3,288 days after Kosovo declared independence, and especially on the many more anniversaries to come, Kosovo should demand to be a republic defined through citizenship — for and by the citizens.K

Featured image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

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