Print | Public Space

Letter from the editor

By - 03.06.2013

A take on the importance of public space in today’s Kosovo and across the globe.

When we launched our Sex issue in December, it was met with an attack from a group of radical Islamists, hooligans and self-proclaimed morality police. They mobilized via bigoted, racist slurs and acted out of their self-proclaimed legitimacy to bring to our society what they consider “order and control.”

What followed was a string of reactions from government and international community representatives — fulfilling the responsibility to provide security and upholding the rule of law — and the ombudsperson and civil society organizations (providing voices against violations of free speech and human rights). Meanwhile, sensationalist media coverage and uninformed public reaction surrounding the event was marred by hate speech and ignorance.

This incident was similar to so many other cases in the past 13 years amid Kosovo’s “democratization,” cases in which the liberties of individuals or groups have been acted on violently based on the self-righteous and promulgated convictions of others in attempts to impose rights of authority, control and action.

Today in Kosovo, we need to rethink public space not merely as the physical space around us, but as the venue for producing and providing a critique in pursuit of a free dialogue.

Among these was the destruction in December of World War II memorials and Serbian graves in retaliation to Serbia’s forcible removal of the monument to the martyrs of the Liberation Army of Presheva, Medvegja and Bujanoc, in Presheva, south Serbia; the March attack on activist Nazlie Bala, who advocated for the recognition of those women raped during the 1999 war as a legal category in Kosovo’s existing legislation on war veterans, invalids and civilian victims; and a number of attacks on journalists for reporting on fraudulent politics and businesses. What all these cases have in common is the failure of the judiciary to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Today in Kosovo, we need to rethink public space not merely as the physical space around us, but as the venue for producing and providing a critique in pursuit of a free dialogue. Our discourse for the past 13 years has been infiltrated by the criticisms of corrupt politicians, fraudulent politics, malfunctioning institutions, captured economies, failures to implement legislation, and discriminatory international policies. While such a critique must be fostered for the purpose of improving our democratic life, no substantial change will take place until we come to truly embrace what participatory and free public debate in a democracy means.

That is why in this issue we look at public space as central to how struggles of participation, civil rights, equality, liberty and even memory are negotiated. No true democratization of our societies will occur unless we take a firm look at what we expect from democracy as well as what we give in return. Public space offers a meaningful entry point to that discussion.

When speaking about public space, it helps to provide a retrospective analysis of the socio-political and economic transformations leading to the rise of modern industrial cities and their implications. We also outline the emergence of modern concepts of suburban expansion and what that tells us about community values. And we detail the battles fought for social control and political domination; see our cover story, “Dissecting Prishtina,” and profiles of Gjakova, Prizren, Mitrovica, Prishtina, Tirana, Zagreb, Sarajevo, Skopje and Novi Sad.

Whether pointing to urban planning flaws, calling on citizens to demand change, utilizing public space as a point for congregation or proposing solutions, our stories continuously unravel the tangle between those who govern — and how they govern — and those who are due to participate in such spaces. Because, ultimately, such relationships also speak to how physical structures in public space are made to enable or limit public participation. These structures especially reflect the citizen’s role in the particular social or political system. For example, our stories on socialist monuments in Kosovo and memorials from the 1999 war confront the continuous attempts to locate and contest their origin stories, and our articles serve as reminders of clashing narratives of authority over who (de)legitimizes and how.

That is why it’s important to look at public space through the prisms of protest, participation, legitimacy, and even exclusion. These are discussions we place on the global platform of social movements around the world, in places where public space serves as a venue to mobilize and to negotiate politics. These examinations reference the precedents of French rebellions, and they look at how Prishtina’s 1981 student demonstrations challenged the former Yugoslav regime, transforming into a resistance and a call for independence.

Our inquiries end up in the transformative movements of recent years — Occupy, the Arab Spring, Chile’s student protests — where they have not only challenged participatory politics and channels of expression, but altered the roles of citizens as well.

This issue highlights the many artistic interventions and performances that bring criticism and commentary to the streets and new public venues in cyberspace. Through their novel forms and interpretations, these creative works seek to reclaim the spaces we create, inhabit, use, live in and communicate through.

I want to reiterate the theme of justice. This is our goal if we want to break the hold on captured public space and the public realm. When speaking about public space, one man needs to be remembered: my uncle Rexhep Luci, an architect and director for urban planning in Prishtina. Despite his murder in 2000, he is still called “the only man with a true vision for Prishtina.” His work in post-1999 Kosovo focused on establishing urban order amid the chaotic and illegal transformations that were suffocating our city then and still do so today. His death brought that vision to an end.

Time and again, I have heard his death called the turning point of post-war, liberated Kosovo — the moment at which the international community lost its grip on restoring rule of law, and when many Kosovars realized their participation and influence were under attack and were threatened with elimination. Many injustices followed Rexhep’s murder, and among them is the fact that this crime remains unsolved.

In these respects, the killing of my uncle has continued to haunt our memories of the city; even recalling his death has inhibited our willingness to rebuke repression and tempered our personal and collective influence.

In memory of and with respect to his life and work, we can aspire to an open and transformative public space. Through that work, citizens can reclaim their rightful place. I hope this issue is a contribution to that effort.

Illustration by Driton Selmani.

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