Perspectives | Protests

Make 2017 the Year of Resistance

By - 30.12.2016

After this most difficult of political years, it’s time for engagement and action.

By 2016, the “official” story of contemporary Kosovo has become well ingrained in the mainstream discourse: Kosovo is a captured state, with endemic corruption, lack of a rule of law, a politicized judiciary (and most other public institutions for that matter), high unemployment, high poverty, poor education, a disregard for human rights, nepotism, the list goes on.

These descriptions have become entrenched as how Kosovo is defined — be it by representatives of opposition parties, civil society or through the abundant day-to-day exchanges of citizens on social media.

While such a list of state symptoms would seem to provide more than enough grounds for large expressions of public discontent, some of the more large-scale protests of this year instead focused on the ongoing deadlock over the border demarcation agreement with Montenegro.

Serving as the basis for gathering people on the streets, messages associated with it centred on “calling for a sovereign state,”” or “demanding an end of widespread corruption.” However, by and large, such protests did not achieve to materialize specific demands that translated to the day-to-day struggles of everyday life.

On the one hand, the protests regarding the demarcation agreement gathered the greatest numbers of people. And, in many ways, it became the central issue of this year’s political life, causing non-functionality of the Assembly, large-scale protests, and was even introduced by the European Commission as a condition for Kosovo’s visa liberalization process. Failure to pass the demarcation agreement through the assembly as well as other failed conditions meant visa liberalization did not materialize either. This confirmed that Kosovo, with its 1.8 million people, will continue to remain an isolated ghetto of Europe well into the new year.

On the other hand, this year can be remembered as something else as well, if we choose a different way to reflect on it. While 2016 might have been a year when, in almost all spheres of public life, no tangible progress was felt, this year another reality was taking shape — one of numerous citizen-based activism and initiatives, organizing or protesting for issues of equal rights and socio-economic well-being.

A year of protest

In fact, 2016 was also one of the years with the greatest number of diverse initiatives, as citizens gathered, protested and articulated dissent in a variety of ways. So, for now, let’s just take the time to reflect upon and acknowledge a few.

In mid-January, former Trepca miners protested in front of the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare for not receiving their state pensions for two months in a row. Similarly, a month later, workers of the school cleaning services in the municipality of Peja protested when their salaries went unpaid for two months.

Throughout a significant part of the year, the Independent Federal Union of ElektroKosova protested in front of the government building. The Union were seeking the implementation of the General Collective Agreement of Kosovo, as well as their continued overseeing of the assessment of the privatization contract of KEDS, in order to ensure that all jobs are kept.

On May 1, to mark International Worker’s Day, around 50 citizens that were part of the voluntary group “Raise Your Voice” marched from Zahir Pajaziti square in downtown Prishtina to the government building with the slogan “Forgotten by the state, oppressed by the boss” in protest of the consistent violations of their rights in the workplace. On the same day, firefighters staged a hunger strike in the municipality of Drenas, again demanding better working conditions.

That is why the “small” movements are important and carry weight. These issues are often treated as being on the periphery of public concern, and all too often today, the individual or small group responsibility and ability to overcome structural inequalities is disregarded.

Meanwhile, though February 26 of this year will be better remembered as the day Hashim Thaci became President in the third round of voting by the Assembly, it was also the 685th day of protest and hunger strike by the former workers of the Steel Tube Factory from Ferizaj. That day, they were removed from the square in front of the government building as part of the police action that removed the four-day protest camp of hundreds of opposition protesters demanding the resignation of the government.

The camp had initially been organized by the Assembly’s three unified opposition parties, but it attracted a great number of citizens with no strong affiliation to any political party as well, drawn by the novelty of the protest’s organization, but just as determined to share a platform through which they wanted their discontent to be heard.

This year also witnessed a wide range of marches and protests against gender-based violence, homophobia, violence against journalists and infringements on freedom of speech. And well into the summer heat, a series of citizen mobilizations took place following the release of a series of wiretaps involving now former-PDK Assembly group leader, Adem Grabovci, which confirmed the levels nepotism, abuses of power and patent disregard for the responsibilities of political office at the very top of Kosovo’s largest political party.

A total of 14 protests were organized. Although they generally gathered anywhere between 100-500 people, its significance was that it emerged out of a young, citizen driven initiative grounded on values and principles of responsibility, and points to the fact that a new, distinct citizen activism is possible.

On several occasions during the “large-scale” protests regarding the border demarcation agreement or the marches calling for the resignation of the government, I would hear many statements of disenfranchisement. Such sentiments were not only with regard to developments within the country, but also toward the types of issues that most generally tend to dominate the national debate — issues concerning corruption, economics or nationalism, rather than how those translate into daily life.

That is why the “small” movements are important and carry weight. These issues are often treated as being on the periphery of public concern, and all too often today, the individual or small group responsibility and ability to overcome structural inequalities is disregarded.

But in many ways, it is precisely the issues these “small initiatives” raise that encapsulate the foundation of the discontent that is precisely based on the grander themes that we have adopted within our daily discourse. That is why the power that individual and collective agency can hold should not be shrugged off or measured through numbers; the focus should be on the root cause of the protest, and why the issue demands attention and activism.

That being said, this year is also ending in more agitation, as the citizen-initiated protests seeking justice for the death of the 26-year-old activist Astrit Dehari, who died in suspicious circumstances while in state detention, failed to have all of their requests fulfilled. The Assembly did convene for a special session after 24,000 signatures (14,000 more than the 10,000 required) were secured. But the results of their discussion failed to request for an independent investigation, which has been at the core of the protests due to the initially contradictory statements made over the death of Dehari, as well as in light of the recent contradictory autopsy reports.

The whole playout of this case has left many increasingly feeling that the value of one’s life in this country does not matter beyond a political maneuver for the elites. This sentiment will by no doubt continue to follow us into the new year — whether over political, economic, and social freedoms and rights, as they transcend into the value or worth of one’s life.

The latter is not exclusive to Kosovo, but something that connects citizens across political systems. With the continuous rise of increasingly populist rhetoric and sentiments, and the rise of European right-wing parties run on the politics of protectionism and division; or with the upcoming US presidency with a man who ran on a platform of misogyny, fear, nativism and racism, many are left fearing whether their individual liberties are at risk.

The fallout from the prevalence and success of this political rhetoric has already materialized into a sense of uncertainty that many citizens genuinely face; the numbers of hate crimes in post-Brexit Britain and post Trump-elect America have reportedly increased, Meanwhile, the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria and the ineffective and inadequate response to it by world powers will forever remain a stain on humanity’s consciousness and has created a sense of powerlessness for citizens across the world.

Powerlessness, infringements, and outright violations of individual liberties are also just as much a part of political realities in our neck of the woods. Our societies in the region have increasingly sunk into democratic-authoritarian regimes (as many have come to describe them), and oligarchic leaders. This year just reconfirmed their rule — whether through elections or clinging on to power through adversity, as they maintain their firm grip on institutional and economic life.

Hope in civic action

As I reflect on these unsettling trends within the both a local and global context, it reminds me of a personal encounter that I would like to share.

This year I had the opportunity to travel to some film festivals with a documentary I had worked on about the 1990’s parallel education system in Kosovo. As someone who had grown up during those years, I had long been drawn to further understanding what drove people on an individual level on a daily basis, year after year, to ensure that some kind of normality went on. While the quality of education during those years has suffered, for me it still spoke to a form of individual and citizen organization, shaped around values of solidarity and recognition of education as the basis of society.

If we take our liberties for granted, give up on fighting for them, or fail to acknowledge the abuses of others’, we risk becoming simple spectators to democracy.

Following the screening of the film in Sarajevo, a young Turkish woman approached me in tears. It was the beginning of August, a month after the failed Turkish coup, following which the government introduced a traveling ban on academics from universities across the country. Many sought ways to leave in fear of being wrongfully accused. One of them was the woman I met.

As we talked, she explained how the story of segregation in Kosovo during the ‘90s reminded her of the struggles for human rights citizens in her own country were facing. As a Turkish woman, she was engaged in educational programs with Kurdish youth in her country, which was also one of the reasons she sought to leave, as she was concerned for her physical well being.

At that time, with no certainty over when she would be able to return to her country, the stories of segregation, but more importantly, civic resistance, appeared to offer her some kind of solace and renewed belief in the power of individual and collective agency.

Within such a small, isolated, personal experience, I was emotionally reminded of the power that stories can have in transcending a sometimes overwhelming reality. And that too often today, the individual or small group responsibility and ability to overcome structural inequalities is disregarded.

As we are wrapping up the last month of the year, many have been wishing for a quicker end to 2016 — a year that has become synonymous with tragedy, suffering, discontent, disenfranchisement, frustration, and anger. Wishing an end to 2016 is one way to sarcastically try to shrug off the shock of this year’s events.

The feelings of uncertainty over the state of political, civil and individual freedoms, or of sound socio-economic well being, which citizens across political systems worry over, are not merely microcosms of political disagreements. They are rooted in observations and experiences of political developments that on one hand, seem to be headed toward increased exclusionary, nativist, populist policies in western Europe and the US, and on the other hand, toward strengthening and reinforcing oligarchic systems of government in the Balkans.

We head toward 2017 facing such prospects —a year in which the uncertainties of 2016 will continue to take shape within political projects. As calls for “sovereignty of the country” in Kosovo will continue to be made, let’s remember that democracy is sovereignty of and by the people.

Regardless of whether next year democracy will take place in the streets or in voting ballots, or both, resistance will be up to individual and collective engagement, consistent scrutinizing and determination to hold authorities accountable — our strength lies in the power of individual and collective agency of citizens. If we take our liberties for granted, give up on fighting for them, or fail to acknowledge the abuses of others’, we risk becoming simple spectators to democracy, not actively part of it, which ultimately will undermine whichever cause we stand for. Let’s ensure 2017 is the year of continued resistance and engagement.