In-depth | Diaspora

Kosovo diaspora dreams of political change

By - 21.06.2017

The Kosovars abroad calling for a functioning social democracy.

“Osman loves Kosovo a bit too much,” says a close friend of the man that is an emblem of Kosovar diaspora activism. Once a so-called ‘illegal’ activist during the period of the 1980s student movements in Kosovo, and today a member of the Swiss Social Democrats, Osman Osmani’s political activism stretches back 40 years.

He was a prominent activist within one of Kosovo’s so-called ‘left-wing nationalist Albanian’ groups, whose activities led to the mass student protest in the spring of 1981. While some called for Kosovo to be given constitutional equality with the six republics that made up the former Yugoslavia and others for unification with Albania, Osman, a 24-year-old-law student at the time, called for a third option: the creation of an Albanian Republic within Yugoslavia that would bring together all Albanians within the Federation. For him, the right to self-determination for all Albanians within Yugoslavia needed to be in parallel with the struggle for social equality.

As the infamous Yugoslav secret service know as UDBA started a campaign of persecution against the activists, Osman escaped from Kosovo for good in 1981. He found shelter in Turkey, and by 1982 in Germany and Switzerland, where he found support amongst the first generation of Kosovar Albanian immigrants that had left due to economic opportunities, or persecution, during the 1970s.

Osman Osmani was a leading LDK figure in the diaspora during the ’90s but believes people within the party gave up on the fight for social justice after the war. Photo: K2.0 screenshot from Skype interview.

Initially moving from family to family, he eventually ended up settling in the canton of Schaffhausen, on the Swiss border with Germany where he still lives today. He quickly learnt the language and got a job as a waiter in a restaurant, then a factory worker and for another five years as an assistant in the United Swiss Railways. When a new wave of immigrants began arriving in the 1990s, as Kosovars escaped Slobodan Milosevic’s oppressive regime, Osman sought to assist in any way he could, supporting his family and friends back home financially, and working on the ground to help the newcomers deal with the Swiss authorities and asylum centers.

“This work gave me courage because I thought, ‘instead of getting too worried about what is happening with my loved ones in Kosovo, it’s better if I keep myself together in order to help relatives in Kosovo,’” Osman says.

What initially started as helping with translation work extended to Osman completing further studies in the field of social sciences and becoming a social worker for immigration issues. This period of working as an activist for immigrants’ rights further cemented his passion for social equality, a set of values that he is desperate to see in his country of birth.

In the early 2000s he joined the Swiss Social Democratic party, twice representing the party in the Assembly of Schaffhausen and today he is a representative of the Social Democrat Immigrants at the party’s central level. “It was about breaking the ice and entering politics, in order to be present in politics as an Albanian,” Osman says, highlighting that he wanted his engagement to serve as a message to others to integrate. “And make it known to the [Albanian] people that we need to get politically engaged here as well, not just through the associations and cultural life.”

"Also in Switzerland we have hostile political forces, but the consensus for the good of the country is always there and is never questioned.”

Osman Osmani

Despite integrating within his new home, just like many others from the diaspora Osman never stopped following developments in Kosovo and staying engaged through whatever means possible. As the country began the state-building process following the 1999 Kosovo war, the years that followed brought with them huge disappointment for Osman and other Kosovars watching on from abroad.

LDK, the political party that led the peaceful resistance during the 1990s, for Osman failed to recognize the need for an activism based on self-determination. While he himself had led the party’s first branch in Schaffhausen during the ’90s, he now thinks that LDK protagonists after the war ended up fighting more for their own personal gain rather than for the common good of the people. The other major party, PDK, which emerged from the KLA and former political prisoners on the left of the political spectrum, failed to stay true to their political identity and instead transformed into a right-wing party.

For a leftist political activist such as Osman, the Kosovar ruling class gave up on the struggle for social equality, while compromising a lot with the international community:

“The fight for power between the parties helped the politics of the international community more than internal politics. And even today it shows how destructive they are and they get together in coalitions just to share the bread between themselves and don’t work together for the good of the country. Also in Switzerland we have hostile political forces, but the consensus for the good of the country is always there and is never questioned,” Osman says. “UNMIK, EULEX, the EU, the U.S. — they follow certain aims that are legitimate, but their priority is stability and not democracy and development.”

“My political engagement in Switzerland wouldn’t have made any kind of sense if I didn’t see the same values in my birthplace.”

Osman Osmani

In 2005, Vetevendosje emerged as a political movement, which initially built its core ideology around resistance toward the international community and its policies in Kosovo, and against privatization of state-owned companies. Even by 2008 when Kosovo declared independence, Vetevendosje was firmly opposed to the Ahtisaari Plan, which paved the way for independence, as it saw it as a document that undermined sovereignty and contributed toward ethnic divides.

But Osman saw the new political entity also as a continuation of his struggle for citizen self-determination and social equality. In 2014, he entered the movement’s list of Assembly deputy candidates, though he didn’t receive enough votes to get elected.

“My political engagement in Switzerland wouldn’t have made any kind of sense if I didn’t see the same values in my birthplace,” Osman says. “Vetevendosje has been consistent in addressing the wrongdoings, such as privatization policies that have been demonstrated to fail and not bring any economic development. Problems they emphasized turned out to be very true, such as the politics of ethnicization of UNMIK and others. It has been showed that they don’t bring unity between people, but it creates separations and inequality.”

In the recent June 11 elections, along with many others diaspora voters, he endorsed Vetevendosje once again with his support at the ballot box.

The new generation

In 1986, three years after Osman received his political asylum in Switzerland, and three years before Milosevic revoked Kosovo’s autonomy that paved the way to a decade of oppression, Alban Baftiu and Meriton Mihovci were born in Kosovo. Both of them moved to Switzerland during their childhoods and are now amongst an estimated 800,000 Kosovars living in the diaspora, with around 150,000 believed to be in Switzerland alone. Alban went with his family at the beginning of the ’90s, while Meriton escaped during the ’99 war.

Meriton Mihovci believes that the values of Vetevendosje seemed a natural fit for him, having moved as a child to Switzerland, which he says has always enjoyed full self-determination. Photo: K2.0 screenshot of Skype interview.

The two young men belong to a different diaspora generation to Osman — they were still young when moving from Kosovo, and have therefore created different kinds of attachments with their country of origin. Shortly after turning 18, the Vetevendosje banner “No Negotiations, Self-determination” was enough for them to attract both to become activists with the movement, who say that their education and experiences in Switzerland taught them the importance of active citizenship, universal rights and the right to self-determination.

“The demand and banners in Kosovo for self-determination — for the country I was living in [Switzerland] that was something natural and sacred, and that’s why they had my support immediately,” Meriton says. Meanwhile, Alban adds that the philosophy behind the political movement of Vetevendosje was something that was part of growing up: “Back then, we emigrated to a country that has enjoyed full self-determination since its creation. So, inside and outside the home, the idea of Vetevendosje was always part of my vision as a citizen.”

When reflecting on Kosovo, Alban thinks about some of the values that his parents have instilled in him: identity, dedication, freedom, optimism and hope. Meanwhile, Meriton thinks about irregularities and injustices against citizens, the degradation of all important professions and the loss of social values. For them, lack of economic development and wellbeing for Kosovo’s citizens has shattered the diaspora dreams of returning to their homeland and disappointed those who returned after the war.

During this year’s election, they were amongst record numbers signing up to vote from the diaspora; the Central Election Commission approved 15,118 applications (and rejected 5,236) from diaspora voters in 57 countries, with the highest number of applications coming from Switzerland (4,618 approved and 814 rejected). The numbers may be small compared to the hundreds of thousands living in the diaspora, but it is a marked increase on the 2,000 diaspora voters that turned out in 2014. That year, around half of diaspora voters backed Vetevendosje, including Alban and Meriton.

Alban Baftiu is one of 4,618 Kosovars in Switzerland who successfully registered to vote in this year’s general election. Photo: K2.0 screenshot of Skype interview.

This time they went one step further. Like other activists and Vetevendosje supporters from Switzerland, Alban and Meriton both flew to Kosovo a few days before the poll in order to help the party’s campaign on the ground. For them, many Kosovars living in the diaspora live in countries where state-building was based on strong political, social, educational and health systems, characteristics that they say fit neatly with the program that Vetevendosje has offered.

Despite its nationalist discourse that has particularly called for unification with Albania, this time around the party focused on portraying a social democrat profile of itself. For many diaspora voters, Vetevendosje’s emphasis on a war on corruption and building a social state with radical changes to the welfare system is precisely what could bring Kosovo closer to the more developed countries in which they live.

Although the CEC still hasn’t presented the final breakdown of diaspora votes, there is widespread belief that a large proportion of these have once again gone to Vetevendosje, contributing to the party’s doubling of its share of the vote since the last elections.

A chance for change

Dafina Gashi* ticked Vetevendosje and sent her vote by post from Germany, where she is one of an estimated 100,000 Kosovars. According to her, for people living in the diaspora it is easier to vote for Vetevendosje as they aren’t affected by the nepotism that is rife in Kosovo’s broken governing system, with many citizens relying on ruling party connections to secure work.

“The jobs and everything else that we have achieved for ourselves [in the diaspora], we have done by relying solely on ourselves,” Dafina says. “This makes us see elections as a possibility to achieve a common good for Kosovo, without being based on our personal interests.”

When Vetevendosje published its ‘Priorities of the Republic’ in May 2017, as part of their election program, Dafina agreed with their social policies, such as progressive taxation and child benefits. Vetevendosje promised to pay 10 euros per month for every child up to the age of 15, which she says is a similar policy to one that has been successful in Germany.

“Vetevendosje has simple, concrete promises,” Dafina says. “It’s the same with local elections — until now, Vetevendosje has only had one chance to prove themselves. And they did, in Prishtina.”

"Whether I will continue to support Vetevendosje will depend on their performance in government and their ability to fulfill their promises.”

Suad Sadulahu

Similarly to Dafina, Suad Sadulahu, who lives in Sweden, thinks that Kosovo’s capital suffered greatly during the years of being run by LDK and “indirectly by PDK”; he believes this decline has been arrested since Shpend Ahmeti took over the mayorship.

Suad voted Lidhja e Demokratike e Dardanise (LDD), in 2007, a splinter party that had split from LDK; then FER in 2010, which attempted to attract a voter-base across the country, but failed to pass the five percent threshold. After some members of FER joined Vetevendosje, he switched his allegiance with them in the 2014 election, and stuck with them this time around.

“I am not an activist or a member of Vetevendosje, and the same goes for the other parties,” Suad says. “Just to be clear, I supported Vetevendosje in this election as I did in the last one. But whether I will continue to support Vetevendosje will depend on their performance in government and their ability to fulfill their promises.”

While he says he doesn’t agree with around 20 percent of Vetevendosje’s platform and actions, for him it is crucial that citizens vote for change.

“One thing that people in the diaspora learned based on the countries they live in, is that they need to give a chance to anybody to show themselves, either in the workplace or politics. Not to be stubborn voters of political parties that have failed to develop the country after so many years.”

Giving something back

Blerta Hoti’s dream of coming back to Kosovo in order to contribute to its economic and social development is linked to her dream for a global economic, political and social equality. When she moved to Brussels from Sweden in 2015 to work as an advisor to five Swedish Democratic Party MEPs she took with her a photo of Polac, her family’s village in Skenderaj.

"I believe that second generations are more interested in contributing more socially and economically, and not just on the basis of identity."

Blerta Hoti

Hanging on the wall of her apartment in the European capital, the image of her house sitting centrally in the Skenderaj skyline brings her memories of a life filled with love and joy that she had to leave in 1992, when she was six. Whenever she visits Polac, she is reminded of the opportunities given to her by Sweden and the need that she feels to give back to society.

“I was obliged to make use of the conditions that I have in Swedish society. I believe this insight has driven the decisions that I have made in life, regarding my studies, job and political engagement,” Blerta says. “Because it has to do with the right to organize through social processes that shouldn’t be taken for granted and that need to be used.”

Blerta sees herself as part of an increasing group of the new generation of Kosovar diaspora that are more progressive than older emigrants and more interested in contributing to the political development of the country.

“The first generations escaped from the violence, from the ethnic and identity suppression and are directed by fear of assimilation — they see Albanian identity in a more emotional way,” Blerta says. “Whereas I believe that second generations are more interested in contributing more socially and economically, and not just on the basis of identity. New generations don’t want to just go to Kosovo and act pretentiously with big cars or marry other Albanian people, and have weddings in Kosovo, but there is an increasing group that wants to contribute to a longer-term development, either for civil society, the public sector or the private sector.”

Blerta Hoti feels she has a responsibility to give something back to society, because of the opportunities she was given in Sweden. Photo: K2.0 screenshot of Skype interview.

Although she did not manage to register for this year’s election, Blerta believes that those from the diaspora that were able to cast their votes largely want a Kosovo without corruption and favor investments in the public sector and a functioning social welfare system. But she also believes that there are also those in the diaspora that support Vetevendosje on ethnic grounds as the party has traditionally rallied behind the Albanian flag. “A part of the diaspora can have this [affiliation] because they think that governments have sold Kosovo,” she says.

Blerta believes that Kosovo would benefit hugely from a return of many of its diaspora members, who are used to a strong rule of law. A country without corruption and with sustainable development would favor everybody, she says: both Kosovar citizens and those in the diaspora whose financial support helps to prop up Kosovo’s struggling economy.

Complicated relationship

People like Osman, Alban, Meriton, Blerta, Dafina and Suad are just a few of the thousands of Kosovar families living in the diaspora that collectively send hundreds of millions of euros back to Kosovo each year. Economic think tank Riinvest Institute estimates that around 700 million euros worth of remittances were sent in 2016 alone; the actual figure is likely to be significantly higher due to the prevalence of cash transfers that do not pass through the banks. Some estimates hold that one in three Kosovars live by remittances sent by the diaspora.

For Osman, there is a feeling that much of the solidarity shown by the diaspora community over the years has been in vain and today’s dependence on remittances for many that have remained in Kosovo has affected their ability to work.

“People became disappointed, knowing that money they gave for the three percent fund was misused,” Osman says, referring to the voluntary tax in the ’90s that was established to support parallel state institutions. “And later they focused only on sending money to their families, and people that they really trusted. How can one be innovative and prosperous when you have everything handed to you? [But at the same time] the salaries are low, the institutions don’t protect you, they don’t treat you well.”

The potential of diaspora remittances is an area that Vetevendosje has been very vocal on over the years and particularly during the election campaign; in its economic development program, the party envisages mobilizing the financial power of the diaspora through the so-called Sovereign Fund, which according to the party will ensure that Kosovars in the diaspora profit from their investments.

Suad Sadulahu believes it is time to change for a change in Kosovo as he says successive governments have let citizens down. Photo: K2.0 screenshot of Skype interview.

Another issue that caught the eye of many in the diaspora during the election campaign, was Vetevendosje’s pledge to address the issue of Green Card motor insurance, with car-owners currently forced to pay additional insurance premiums when they enter Kosovo because, despite years of government promises, Kosovo is not signed up to the Europe-wide insurance certificate.

“A state that is proud of the work of the diaspora when it comes to the last war and state-building, and on the other hand isn’t able to sign the Green Card in Brussels for foreign cars doesn’t need further comment,” Suad says. “A state that is proud of remittances from the diaspora but doesn’t enable them to vote in the embassy or consulate, but just a complex postal voting system, doesn’t need any further comment. People in the diaspora have suffered enough. It is time to show more respect and love towards them, not just because of remittances.”

The relationship between members of the diaspora and those who have remained in Kosovo has never been a straightforward one. While many of those living abroad have experienced discrimination in their adopted countries, particularly in recent years, they can also be looked down upon by their fellow Kosovars.

Blerta, whose own experiences of marginalization at times as an immigrant in Sweden have helped shape her hopes for a governing political entity that is inclusive towards the minorities, says that there have also been times during her visits to Kosovo when she has felt prejudice against her.

“There is this image, a form of frustration towards Albanians in the diaspora, that we were the lucky ones living in social and economical freedom, which we didn’t know how to use properly,” Blerta says. “That the diaspora has a backward culture and is motivated by preserving those affirmations of identity that are useless and that they don’t have enough solidarity with the Kosovar youth that remain isolated.”

Maybe I’m an idealist. I believe that the key to sustainable development in Kosovo is a social-democratic party that prioritizes economic, social and gender equality and is not based in ethnocentrism.”

Blerta Hoti

But she says that often members of the diaspora also have many misconceptions towards Albanians in Kosovo, reflected in beliefs that people in Kosovo aren’t democratic but corrupt: “There are many progressive groups in Kosovo, addressing injustices, corruption, bad governance. The progressive spirit is there and it comes from the grassroots. Actually I feel bad I am not there to be part of the feminist movement that take to the streets for gender equality but also call for workers’ rights and an end to corruption.”

As a firm believer in social democracy, she hopes for a Kosovar government that will commit to curbing inequality and that will focus on underprivileged groups.

“That is the dream for me,” she says. “Maybe I’m an idealist. I believe that the key to sustainable development in Kosovo is a social-democratic party that prioritizes economic, social and gender equality and is not based in ethnocentrism.”

Whether Vetevendosje can end up becoming that force remains to be seen and tested. But for now, many in the diaspora have invested in them their hopes of political and social change.K

* Gashi is a pseudonym as the interviewee asked for her real surname not to be used.

Feature Image: Courtesy of Blerta Hoti.