Protests, pain and cutting through past propoganda

An in-depth look into unrest in Kosovo, brought to violent expression in February 2015.

A mining rights/privatisation issue was married with demands for the sacking of a Serb MP following a comment after an ice-throwing-at-pilgrims incident in Gjakova. The comment: “Savages in Djakovica have ruined the holiday for people who came to their houses that were burned [after the war in 1999],” immediately stirred tensions. Kosovo police arrested two members of opposition movement Vetevendosje for throwing ice at the bus. Protests throughout Kosovo spread in strength arriving in the capital Prishtina Jan 24th and 27th where a smaller section became violent. 160 people arrested on the 27th are set to face prosecution in the courts. Apologies from Communities and Returns Minister Aleksandar Jablanovic were not accepted and hints that it,"may be desirable," to depart  his position by PM Isa Mustafa finally led to his dismissal Feb 3. His comments were described by a young business owner in Prishtina as: "unforgivable," and Ambassador Jacobson as "immature." Opposition arguments ran that Jablanovic represents an extension of Serb state apparatus and denial of "Kosovo history". Following the first protest Serb Mayors in the North expressed fear of escalation, but their wording, including use of the phrase 'Kosovo Metohija,' (a once extensive estate of the Serb Orthodox Church) and arguments about numbers of missing were perceived as counter productive. 

Mining ethnic division? 
Recently stepping down as leader of  Vetëvendosje! (VV), Albin Kurti has historically acted as a political activist, placing himself at frontline in passive aggressive stances on multiple issues. He proclaims non violence and protest involving him have previously ended in confrontation and ultimatums. According to Kosovo 2.0 Kurti repeatedly stated that the protests were not, "against Serbs in Kosovo, but against a government that serves Serbia’s interests". The focus of recent protests was said to be the resignation of Jablanovic and nationalsation of Trepca mine but Kurti also gains political ground in discrediting the Government after his party, fairly or unfairly (VV disagree with constitutional court decisions), lost a place in the new coalition Government. The undercurrents of VV rhetoric have be perceived by some commentators to be revolutionary. Deleted twitter comments attributed to the current deputy PM Hachim Thaci ridiculed the opposition movement as marxist anti-government, academic and out of touch with modern diplomacy and it's realities. Though members of the Government face multiple yet unproven accusations they are periodically dismissed by those in power as chatter.

Internationals are criticised for constantly looking at issues through the prism of ethnic difference, rather than condemning straightforward racist sentiment. Racist or ignorant, what lies at bottom of the Gjakova incident may well be unresolved grief. People need closure, to bury the missing dead. Denial of the extent and whereabouts of those missing from the conflict fifteen years ago exists across ethnicities and a confused numbers game ensues. Denial in discussion can run as extreme as: X ethnicity killed X ethnicity to make Y ethnicity look bad. Certainly 'collaborators' and moderates were killed during 98/99, but this does not provide sufficient cover for denial of the deaths significant numbers of people.
The Prishtina/Belgrade working group on missing persons maintains the pressure to find remains. Holding it's 38th meeting in November the group appealed for increased engagement by all authorities.

The initial incident, this time

The precursor to recent protests occurred when Orthodox pilgrims were prevented, via ice throwing, from attending Christmas commemorations at their Church in Gjakova, a town severely hit in the war. The town has many members of Kosovar Albanian family still missing; though some recovered bones have reportedly not been buried, as a statement of solidarity, until they all are. The bus carrying the pilgrims was said to have war criminals on board, and Serb Minister Alexsander Vulina was prevented from traveling with the party following a letter from current mayor Mimoza Kusari Lila that said: “Don’t come if you are not ready to apologize for crimes and genocide.” To date the writer has not established names of any of the accused on the bus but former mayor Gjokica Stanojeviq was alleged to have been among them. The pilgrimage is a focus for an annual protest by the NGO 'Mothers Call' at which stone or ice throwing at the bus, likely by young men, occurred. The "savages" comment is claimed to be directed at stone throwers but was perceived, and amplified by rumor, to be directed at the whole group. Confusion was exploited for political gain when VV aligned with mothers of the missing on the first mass protest in Prishtina since independence in 2008. A repetition of the instigating incident — misslile throwing — followed in Prishtina, this time damaging the glass facade of the main Government building. Protagonists were alleged to be 'football fans,' though at the second protest they were clearly young men — in their teenage to mid twenties. An attack on a Serb TV crew at the first protest attack was widely condemned by all parties. According to email conversations with a Serb community member concern and tension spread to Gracanica. The mothers of the missing, the miners union and UCK veteran groups later withdrew support for VV protests because of the violence. Some claim this was under political pressure; the net result though, was a perceivable reduction in ethnic tension.

The NGO European Center for Minority Issues in Kosovo (ECMI) summed up the volatility of generic ethnic tensions in political rhetoric thus:
Whatever the outcome of these developments, the ethnically framed controversies over Jablanović unveil that national tensions in politics can easily mobilize the general population as a venue to vent broader frustrations with the poor socio-economic situation and prospects and perception of widespread corruption.
The Government and especially the police have taken the brunt of the anger. Police were widely commended by international observers for displaying a proportional and professional response, but incidents of stepping beyond professional role were picked up via posts on You-Tube. Eyewitness observation of the young men throwing missiles revealed faces of malevolence and grievance. Others were clearly opportunists looking for a fight. Some looked worn down and disenfranchised. Speculations regarding the violent element having being payed to cause disruption have been voiced, but remain unproven. USA Ambassador Jacobson gave an interview in which she suggest 200-300 people were involved and that international observers in the police control room had judged the police response to be, "completely appropriate to the conditions".
The international observers, who were in the Command Center during the protest, have judged the police response to be completely appropriate to the conditions. - See more at: http://media.unmikonline.org/?p=48599#sthash.ddR9I6Uq.dpuf
Ambassador Jacobson: The violence should be blamed immediately on those people who were throwing the rocks, who broke up the glass on the Government building, who tore up Skanderbeg square, who destroyed a restaurant and attacked its owner, those individuals – and I think they are 200 to 300 of them – are to blame for the violence. The international observers, who were in the Command Center during the protest, have judged the police response to be completely appropriate to the conditions. Anywhere in the world, if a crowd starts to become violent and throwing rocks, then the police have to use the methods that they have to disperse the crowd. So, I think we should focus the violence on those people who immediately perpetrated it. - See more at: http://media.unmikonline.org/?p=48599#sthash.ddR9I6Uq.dpuf
Ambassador Jacobson: The violence should be blamed immediately on those people who were throwing the rocks, who broke up the glass on the Government building, who tore up Skanderbeg square, who destroyed a restaurant and attacked its owner, those individuals – and I think they are 200 to 300 of them – are to blame for the violence. The international observers, who were in the Command Center during the protest, have judged the police response to be completely appropriate to the conditions. Anywhere in the world, if a crowd starts to become violent and throwing rocks, then the police have to use the methods that they have to disperse the crowd. So, I think we should focus the violence on those people who immediately perpetrated it. - See more at: http://media.unmikonline.org/?p=48599#sthash.ddR9I6Uq.dpuf
Ambassador Jacobson: The violence should be blamed immediately on those people who were throwing the rocks, who broke up the glass on the Government building, who tore up Skanderbeg square, who destroyed a restaurant and attacked its owner, those individuals – and I think they are 200 to 300 of them – are to blame for the violence. The international observers, who were in the Command Center during the protest, have judged the police response to be completely appropriate to the conditions. Anywhere in the world, if a crowd starts to become violent and throwing rocks, then the police have to use the methods that they have to disperse the crowd. So, I think we should focus the violence on those people who immediately perpetrated it. - See more at: http://media.unmikonline.org/?p=48599#sthash.ddR9I6Uq.dpuf

Some in Prishtina are unimpressed by all the current political offerings; a young barman said: "There is always hope, the person who will lead Kosovo in a  good way is yet to be born." Since Albin Kurti's return to the grassroots of his party important figures within VV, as is typical in Kosovo, are now aligned on familial lines (cousins). A grossly simplified understanding of underlying politics at play can be characterised as: Neoliberal V Nationalist Socialist. The coalition party currently in power is aligned with the international community and Kosovar designs for a multi-ethnic state. Ethnic harmony too, is something the opposition groups say they want, but while backing widespread sympathy for Kosovo-Albania unification, a key part of the Greater Albanian Nationalistic cause. People across parties in Kosovo carry war trauma, Kurti himself was imprisoned in Serbia. An elder member of Shpend Ahmeti's family died in police custody. As it can take upto four generations to relive war trauma it is consciously and unconsciously manifest in all political discourses. To bond together as a profoundly tribal society common enemies will be recreated for some time to come yet. 
VV hold the international community and it's numerous institutions responsible for clientelism and over extension in Kosovo affairs. They want the so called peace-builders to go home, and suggest the repression of Milosovic has been replaced by the repression of international Governance. The international community in turn fears the joining of Kosovo and Albania fifteen years after intervention will further fuel Greater Albania feeling, causing further internal ethnic tension and conflict in neighboring countries. The international community has laid out the European road map to peaceful integration of all countries in the region. But some citizens are skeptical of the speed and pressure to privatise that accompanies global forces such as European integration. Mistakes made in Greece provide salutary lessons.
All ethnicities have legitimate concerns: fears around continued privatisation of national assets, poverty, self perpetuating corruption and criminality, clientelism, mass under & unemployment, and a large young population squeezed by restricted visa requirements and high interest rates.  Closure too is required, to bury the missing dead.
Similarities between left and right political dynamics here today and with the 1980's economic upheaval in the UK and Europe exist — but with an added and incendiary ethnic element. People of all ethnicities have legitimate concerns: fears around continued privitisation of national assets, poverty, corruption and criminality, mass under and unemployment, and a large young population squeezed in by visa requirements. If a young person wants to start a business in Kosovo they face bank loan rates of 13.5%. Privatized electizity prices for some have scaled to half a person's salary, and collection methods have become vigorous. During the confrontation on Jan 27th a young, Masters qualified telecommunications engineer, voiced solidarity with those less fortunate than himself,  "When we see politicans doing nothing it kills us, We have no hope for the future".

'Escapees' are now reported to be leaving the country 'illegally' enmasse via Serbia and Hungry. Since December 2014 40% of illegal Eurozone entries have come from Kosovo — far exceeding immigrants from Syria and Afghanistan. The present Government has only been formed for a month or so but an enormous backlog of frustration and political retribution has built up. Albin Kurti acts as an intellectual role-model, come martyr, for those disillusioned by lack of progress, and will be determined to hold oppositional stances while the political profile of VV is raised considerably.

Post communist left wing politics are embedded in in the intellectual discourse of Kosovo yet still await mature development into successful political power. Previous attempts to form a new left wing party 'New Spirit' failed, but lead members, including the current major of the capital, combined with VV to achieve populist support; other parties — Socialist Party and People's movement of Kosovo followed. Left wing mergers have worked in Greece, but this rise to power could be some way off in Kosovo, without the emergence of a charismatic new leader able to take mainstream support. Kosovo is a very different country to it's Hellenic counterpart. They may be facing similar issues, but in dealings abroad Kosovo is not recognised by Russia or China so cannot signal switching allegiances — such as Greece with  Europe: if you don't play ball on our debt we know we have other friends. All the same, if the energy of Kosovo's young generation continues to be thwarted by lack of opportunity the roots of popular uprising will only grow deeper.
Small section of Albanian missing
Serb missing
Propaganda from the past

Meanwhile life has quickly returned to normal on the streets. Young Serbs continued to visit Prishtina with the NGO Youth Initiative for Human Rights and met with the man at the center of the storm —Jablanovic. They seemed convinced, but disturbed by his ignorance of  war time events in Gjkakova. Mindsets created by war-time propaganda remain embedded in the  psyche and will take generations to displace; visitors comments included the following: 

"There are millions of people who are ignorant, and it makes me cry." 

The long term effects of propaganda has frozen the perceptions of the population, particularly older people, afraid to question dominant narratives. Speakers continued:

"They [speakers parents] are so much in the dark about the war in Yugoslavia. They are shocked."

"They see me as someone who betrays the Serbian interest, they only see one side, the state enforced opinion on them."

"Jump from the balcony, at least then I can collect your body." (Young Serb on first  announcing his intention to travel to Prishtina)

The first casualty of war being truth, legacies of perceptions manipulated by past information flows are likely to effect all sides.  One young person succinctly summed up Prishtina Belgrade rhetoric thus:

"We hit the reset button every ten years," [on nationalistic agendas]

Scheduled protests for Wednesday 4th Feb were cancelled following Jablanovic's dismissal, but the next pretext for confrontation, will no doubt, lie just around the corner.
Police line in-front of Skanderberg statue, before violence erupted, Jan 27th, Prishtina
Ambassador Jacobson: The violence should be blamed immediately on those people who were throwing the rocks, who broke up the glass on the Government building, who tore up Skanderbeg square, who destroyed a restaurant and attacked its owner, those individuals – and I think they are 200 to 300 of them – are to blame for the violence. The international observers, who were in the Command Center during the protest, have judged the police response to be completely appropriate to the conditions. Anywhere in the world, if a crowd starts to become violent and throwing rocks, then the police have to use the methods that they have to disperse the crowd. So, I think we should focus the violence on those people who immediately perpetrated it. - See more at: http://media.unmikonline.org/?p=48599#sthash.ddR9I6Uq.dpuf
Friends soak up the scene following the protests

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