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“We are seeing you”: protesting violent democracies in Kosova

Within Kosova there is a general feeling that these international actors prize stability above all else, enabling them to overlook the kind of police violence they see in their social media.

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Kosovo marks 7 years of independence in growing discontent. February, 2015. Kosovo marks 7 years of independence in growing discontent. February, 2015. Demotix/Admir Idrizi. All rights reserved. “We are seeing you. This is not right.  He is not resisting. Why are you beating him up? He is a journalist.” (Video Link ). 

This is the translation of the Albanian words barely audible in this video of police brutality in Kosova on November 18, 2015. This video streamed across Kosovar Albanians’ social media, but hardly made a mark on the international community’s grasp of the political scene in Kosova.

On November 28, Albanian Independence Day in Albania and the ‘Day of the Albanian Flag’ in Kosova, Albin Kurti, the spiritual leader of the major opposition movement called Vetëvendosje, addressed the public on Mother Theresa Street in the centre of Prishtina. He declared that Kosovar citizens should continue to struggle against a controversial piece of legislation over Serbian municipal organization in the north of Kosova. He, and nearly 100 others of his supporters, were arrested by new special police forces; Kurti is slated to be imprisoned for 30 days.

On November 30, shortly before a session of the Parliamentary Assembly dedicated to ratifying this legislation, the embassies of France, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States declared that “demonstrations have passed peacefully and we would like to praise everyone, especially the Kosovo Police, involved.”

In other parts of the world, embassies do not normally evaluate the qualities of protest and police behaviour, but in Kosova, the “International Community” assumes a kind of tutelage over the political process. This was already evident in the realization of the international agreement, the object of protest, itself.

The International Agreement

Back at the end of the summer in 2015, the European Union’s High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini declared that an agreement that had been reached between Serbian and Kosovar leaderships was a critical step forward in the region. She said:

Today's outcome represents landmark achievements in the normalisation process. Solutions such as those found today bring concrete benefits to the people and at the same time enable the two sides to advance on their European path.[i]

One critical part of that agreement was to be found in the so called “Association of Serb Municipalities in Kosovo” proposal, something written with such ambiguity as to allow the Serb leadership to say that these communities now have executive powers, while  Kosovar authorities declared that these associations only had the status of NGOs.[ii]

Laying aside the document’s ambiguity, Vetëvendosje cliams that this agreement was made without democratic accountability, and agreed to by a coalition government whose leadership itself rests on legally dubious grounds. Vetëvendosje and other elements of the opposition -- Alliance for the Future of Kosova, and the Initiative for Kosova -- have been mobilizing forcefully around the claim that this agreement was illegitimate. They began with verbal challenge, moved on to throwing eggs, and most offensively for normal democratic debate, set off tear gas canisters in Parliament.

Exemplifying the International Community’s response, the US Ambassador stated that he had “a tough time seeing how throwing eggs, or throwing anything other than words, on the floor of the Assembly, strengthens Kosovo’s democracy or contributes to its broader goals.” On December 4, the opposition refused the Prime Minister’s offer of new negotiations, calling them “post-festum”; insisting instead either on new elections, a referendum on the agreement, or a renunciation of the international agreement itself.[iii]

But democracy in Kosova had been quite fragile long before eggs and tear gas canisters disrupted its parliamentary deliberations.

Transition and justice in Kosova

Like other countries formerly ruled by communists, Kosova has been part of the larger structure of transition culture, understood as the mantras of transition from dictatorship to democracy, and from a planned to a market economy.[iv]  But unlike most of the postcommunist world, Kosova’s transition has also been accompanied by a post-war recovery overseen by UNMIK (United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo), EULEX ( European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo) and KFOR(Kosovo Force of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization).  And while that assembly of representatives of the United Nations, European Union and various nations, most notably of the United States, has claimed to embrace the highest of the transition’s goals, within Kosova there is a general feeling that these international actors prize stability above all else, enabling them to overlook the kind of police violence they see in their social media.

The most recent example of this was the announcement that the European Union and Serbia will begin accession talks in reward for the Serbs’ negotiation with Kosova. There is another reason too:

“The EU is keen to keep Serbia anchored in the process of Western integration to counter what diplomats say is growing Russian engagement in the Balkans”

The background to protests demands as much attention as the events themselves: and here, the failure to deal with the past is fundamental.

Vaclav Havel called NATO’s intervention in 1999 to defend Kosovars from genocide the "first war launched in the name of human rights". For more than a half of Kosova’s population fleeing genocide, more than 1 million refugees, this was no exaggeration.  And yet, nearly 20 years later, there has been no attempt to deal with the past. The west has merely asked that Kosovars look ahead. But that is difficult to do when that public is constantly reminded of injustice overlooked.

The latest example of this took place in November 2015 when the KFOR commander met with the Chief of the General Staff of the Serbian Armed Forces, General Ljubisa Dikovic, on Kosovar territory in order to discuss common concerns of security, including the flow of refugees into the European Union and their coordination of patrols along the boundary between Kosova and Serbia. 

For the Kosovar public, this was not just a matter of consultation. Dikovic is under suspicion of public responsibility for his unit’s participation in war crimes in 1998-99 in Kosova. Serbian Human Rights activist Natasa Kandic herself suggested, rather politely, that KFOR is “insufficiently informed” of the Kosovo government’s views regarding such an alleged war criminal. Regrettably, this kind of oversight is not unusual.

Recurring resistance to addressing that violent past lays the foundation of the violence we see today. When the “International Community” focuses on violence today, they emphasize what members of Vetëvendosje and other members of the opposition have done in parliament since September. But to focus on this violence is to only acknowledge the symptom of a far deeper level of violence that not only threatens Kosova, but also has global implications.

Violent democracies

The opposition justifies its increasing intensity of disruptive protest in parliament because earlier peaceful protests failed to deepen democratic deliberation and accountability within parliament. 

They are encouraged to do this too because a substantial part of the Kosovar public has itself used democratic and peaceful means to oppose the proposed legislation.  More than 200,000 people (more than ¼ the number of citizens who voted in the 2014 parliamentary election) signed a petition against the association agreement. Many Kosovars are clearly concerned that this agreement could lead the way to the instability apparent in nearby Bosnia and Hercegovina, where they see Republika Srpska as derailing the development of an integrated and democratic, and “normal”, state

In a normal democracy, elected leaders would debate such controversial legislation, but in Kosova, the coalition government between the League of Democratic Kosova (the LDK, Prime Minister Isa Mustafa’s Party) and the Democratic Party of Kosova (the PDK, former Prime Minister and now Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci’s party) signed that international agreement without parliamentary or public consultation. They claim that to be their right, given that they have a majority in the Parliament. The opposition objects, however, on two grounds: first, the PDK and LDK formed that coalition government in breach of prior political agreements between the LDK and the opposition; and secondly, because an international agreement so controversial demands public discussion. [v]  

In a society which understands democracy to be based on transparency and the virtue of debate, this move can be perceived as the height of arrogance, when those executives knew how controversial this was for the Kosovar public. They justify this kind of arrogance by saying that this is what the International Community expects of them. And this is the deeper violence which leads to the police brutality with which we began this account.

When the International Community assumes the right to decide what is right for Kosova, while celebrating the virtues of democracy, it offends a public sensibility born out of years of brutal struggle. Those who came of age in the 1990s, those who built a parallel society despite the rule of the war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, those who survived the genocide he attempted, those who returned to build their own state and society inspired by the democratic world’s defence of them, are especially alienated from this expression.[vi]  They remember Serbian police brutality; they remember what it is like to live in a police state, and now they see their own state resemble what they survived.

This state of affairs can lead to apathy, protest, increasingly “undemocratic” responses such as throwing tear gas canisters; it also can lead them to be drawn toward the kind of anti-movement Michel Wieviorka describes, where there is “violence and the refusal to negotiate; inextinguishable hatred of the other, considered as an enemy to be eliminated rather than as an adversary.”

More than 20,000 foreign fighters (including mercenaries) have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight with militias against those states. While Russia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Turkey have sent more fighters than Kosova, The Kosovar Center for Security Studies has confirmed 232 such fighters went from their nation as of January 2015; with that figure, Kosova has sent more per capita than any other nation identified with the west.[vii]   

Although religion, specifically Takfir ideology, plays a role, according to this report, the general alienation of society creates the conditions for this ideology’s appeal. Its author finds corruption in Kosova relatively high (using Transparency International’s method, he finds Kosova to be in the bottom 1/3 of all countries for which TI collects data), and religious mobilization a compelling alternative.

In addition, the west’s meddling and micromanagement in Kosovo, and their open support for the national elite that misrules, has created an identity crisis and a search for authenticity which people can find in religion… Ever since the war ended in Kosovo (in the past 15 years) a good number of policymakers and governing elites were in almost daily contact with a number of foreign embassies in order to gain legitimacy, but they have not sufficiently addressed the concerns of citizens.[viii]

So while the International Community is concerned about tear gas canisters, they miss an opportunity to decrease the appeal of religious mobilization. Since these general conditions that make it easy to recruit foreign fighters for ISIS in Kosova are the same conditions that Vetëvendosje indicts in the opposition's own protests. 

In characterizing post-communist change in the 1990s, Elster, Offe and Preuss have argued that class-based contest was much more productive for democracy’s development in transition than those contests based on identity; reconciliation was much more feasible when the contest was over the distribution of goods than over the politics of morality.[ix] One might hope that the International Community could see the opposition’s commitment to extending democracy’s value in the light of the potential for reconciliation on democracy’s terms, before more young men are drawn to anti-movement politics. 

Human rights movements defending democracy

Of course Vetëvendosje and Albin Kurti are complicated actors for the Kosovar public. But many object to his imprisonment and the police brutality that accompanied his arrest; more than a dozen of his supporters were injured, something international embassies overlooked in their praise of police responsibility. They proceeded in that despite the fact that the mayor of Prishtina, Shpend Ahmeti, also a party member of Vetëvendosje, decried on Facebook on that very night not only Kurti’s arrest, but also the ransacking of their party headquarters by government special forces with the declaration: “Democracy ends here."

Shortly after Ahmeti’s denunciation, the international human rights community mobilized to counter the embassies’ claim that the police acted appropriately. Amnesty International called for an investigation of police violence, as reported in this article from Kosovo 2.0 :

“From the videos and photographs we have seen, it appears that the Kosovo Police used excessive force during the operation to arrest members of Vetevendosje in the party's offices on Saturday,” Sian Jones, Amnesty International's researcher on the Balkans, told Kosovo 2.0. “We are in the process of gathering further information, but would urge the authorities and the National Preventive Mechanism to immediately open investigations into the conduct of the police, and any individual allegations of ill-treatment received.”

 The article continues:

“On Saturday afternoon, shortly after the conclusion of the manifestation organized by the opposition in Zahir Pajaziti Square, armed special police forces surrounded and raided Vetevendosje’s headquarters in an action that resembled a counter-terrorism operation. The police still haven’t confirmed whether they had an order from the prosecutor to carry out the raid. In addition to executing the arrest warrant for Vetevendosje’s deputy Albin Kurti, the police also announced that they had arrested 97 activists in total, both within the offices and on the streets.

Vetevendosje printed a list of 61 names who its says were “taken by force” from within their offices, claiming that “over 150 citizens and activists” had been detained by the police through “brutal and violent” actions in the course of the day. It further reported that dozens of supporters and activists had been injured, some badly, on the streets, in the party’s headquarters and in police custody, including by the use of rubber bullets. Police denied that rubber bullets were deployed."

The imprisonment of Kurti and his followers and the destruction of Vetëvendosje headquarters are at the very least expressions of selective justice.  That the International Community celebrated the police for restoring order, even when social media documented their abuse, illustrates the disconnect between those overseers responsible for steering Kosova toward democracy and that public that wishes for a normality where contending parties debate the most important issues facing Kosova.

Instead of focusing only on stability, the International Community must look for the abuse of power within Kosova. This might even lead to a more sustainable democracy throughout the region.


[i]Statement by High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini following the meeting of the EU-facilitated dialogue”  European Union External Action August 25, 2015 

[ii] “Association is neither a new Republika Srpska, nor an NGO" originally published in Koha Ditore on August 28, 2015, and reprinted here.

 [iii] “Kosovo’s Premiere Invites Opposition to Solve Crisis” ABC News, December 4, 2015. 

[iv] Michael D. Kennedy, Cultural Formations of Postcommunism: Emancipation, Transition, Nation and War Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

[v] For elaboration, see 2015, Vetëvendosje’s “A Report on Republic of Kosova: The Resistance against a Semi-Authoritarian Regime”. 

[vi] For an account of the 1990s, see Chapter 5 of Michael D. Kennedy, Globalizing Knowledge: Intellectuals, Universities and Publics in Transformation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015).

[vii] P. 24 in Kursani, Shpend. Report inquiring into the causes and consequences of Kosovo citizens’ involvement as foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq Kosovar Center for Security Studies, April 2015. As a percentage of Muslims, however, Kosova ranks 14th out of the 22 nations this document surveys.

[viii] P 61 in Kursani, Shpend. Report inquiring into the causes and consequences of Kosovo citizens’ involvement as foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq Kosovar Center for Security Studies, April 2015.

[ix] Jon Elster, Claus Offe and Ulrich Preuss, Institutional Design in Post-Communist Societies: Rebuilding the Ship at Sea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1998.

How to cite:
Kennedy M., Gusia L. (2015) «“We are seeing you”: protesting violent democracies in Kosova», Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 11 December. https://opendemocracy.net/michael-d-kennedy-linda-gusia/we-are-seeing-you-protesting-violent-democracies-in-kosova
About the authors

Michael D. Kennedy is professor of sociology and international and public affairs at Brown University.  He is the author of Globalizing Knowledge: Intellectuals, Universities and Publics in Transformation (Stanford University Press, 2015). 

Linda Gusia teaches at the University of Prishtina, Department of Sociology. She is currently chairing the Programme for Gender Studies and Research in University of Prishtina.

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