Today’s demonstration, “Kundër Hajnisë” (“Against the Thieves” in Kosovo dialect) went off without a hitch. I, being the good, rule-respecting Fellow I am, stayed out of the action, but luckily my office building is 100 feet or so from the where the stage was set up, and I had a good view from the balcony. A bit after noon, a throng of protesters and members of the Vetevendosjë! (“Self-determination!”) party carrying banners and flags, and blasting deafening whistles, marched down the pedestrian Mother Teresa Street in central Pristina, stopped across from the government building, and cheered and booed accordingly to the words of a couple of guys standing up on a grandstand with bullhorns. Police had set up barricades and were standing by, but no rubber bullets were fired, no tear gas was thrown, and the ambulance drivers there at the ready could have gotten an afternoon nap. After the rally everyone went back to work (or back to their usual café, basically the same thing).
Why does this merit a blog post, then, if nothing was remarkable? Because in Kosovo public political demonstrations are virtually taboo, which I think is disappointing in a country with such visible government corruption. I can’t comment on Vetevendosjë!’s platform (it was a bit disconcerting to see nothing but Albanian flags when the party, as I understand it, is supposed to be about Kosovo’s, not just Albanians’, self-determination), but there’s no doubt that a public statement against graft is necessary in a place where corrupt institutions are holding back the hopes and talents of Kosovo’s young generation. So I thought it was great to see a peaceful public action that addressed a legitimate public issue.
But that doesn’t seem to be the mainstream sentiment. All week, signs announcing the rally had been going up around town, and I heard people talking a bit nervously about it. Vetevendosjë! has held a reputation as a trouble-maker since its massive 2007 rally got out of control and resulted in the death of two demonstrators.
It’s easy to see why people who have been through Kosovo’s history of the last two decades would be wary of anything that could spark public violence. But peaceful public assembly should be a favorite instrument in an activist’s toolbox, and it seems like it’s time more politically-minded people in Kosovo cultivated it. I’m of the opinion that rallies, protests, peaceful civil disobedience, etc, can be galvanizing, inspiring, and most of all useful, tools to keep institutions in step with the public’s wishes. So it was especially disappointing to hear that, apparently, one of the main voices responsible for discouraging public demonstrations is American: U.S. Ambassador Christopher Dell, who as the representative of the U.S. government is very influential (or “like the voice of God” as one activist I talked to put it) has apparently spoken out against such rallies. (I couldn’t find any direct statements backing this up in a quick Google search, so admittedly this is hearsay…)
When I first arrived in Kosovo and was trying to decide how we could get the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian advocacy quilt I’m helping to produce have the most impact, the first thing that I thought of was to stage a rally (or several rallies in multiple towns) and use the quilt as a powerful visual statement to go with a speech or two by Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian women leaders. A Roma journalist I went to for advice suggested that we make the quilt’s creation into a public action – to have women spend half a day sitting and stitching in a central square, forcing residents to notice their presence and their message. Both these ideas were quickly squelched. I was told that Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian women wouldn’t understand the point of such an action, wouldn’t want to make such a public statement. The director of the NGO Voice of Roma even said that he would fear for the safety of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian women demonstrating in Pristina. Given what I know of the Kosovo Women’s Network’s demonstrations on controversial women’s rights issues, I hope that those fears would be unfounded, but I’m really not sure.
As an outsider, I felt that it wasn’t my place to push the issue, especially if a demonstration would be in any way dangerous, but it’s hard to accept that these communities don’t seem to be ready to make a visible public stand for their rights. I can respect a culture of non-confrontation, but culture shouldn’t be an excuse for being voiceless. Without greater visibility of women from these communities, there’s zero chance of their acceptance. It may certainly be true that I don’t have a nuanced enough understanding of the situation to see why public action is a bad idea – it could be the case that these communities aren’t ready to back up such an action with a real campaign; that the cultural exhibitions that have been becoming more frequent are the best way to start; that working through the usual political channels will be effective. And public demonstrations of course aren’t the end-all solution to powerlessness. But it seems like women actually getting out into the streets and speaking out for themselves would be a great way to gain some momentum – and why leave out a potentially useful tactic? I’m interested to see if my view has changed by the time I finish my internship. For now, I can’t help thinking about how fabulous it would be to see a group of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian women marching down Mother Teresa Street in front of shocked café patrons taking their afternoon coffees…
Posted By Samantha Hammer
Posted Jun 22nd, 2011