By Jonny Wrate/ Kosovo 2.0
Yesterday (Wednesday, August 10), protesters bombarded Pristina’s main government building with dozens of rolls of toilet paper, chanting “you’ve taken a shit on it!” Around the same time, three seasoned activists from Belgrade, Prizren and Skopje gathered at the League of Prizren to discuss what we mean by everyday rebellion. How can nonviolent movements end injustice and oppression? Are governments afraid of numbers? And if the system itself is corrupt, how do you build an opposition against it?
Moderated by Koha Ditore Editor-in-Chief Agron Bajrami, the panel discussion mapped out some of the biggest challenges facing social movements in the region today, as well as offering some potential avenues for how activists can move forward.
“We are not professional protestors,” clarified architect Ksenija Radavanovic, here to represent Ne da(vi)mo Beograd (Don’t Drown Belgrade), the movement that has been fighting the Belgrade Waterfront project for two years. She labelled the supposed “project of national significance” — which aims to regenerate the city’s trendy Savamala district — a “total fraud in every aspect.”
The 3-billion-euro regeneration, funded by investors from the United Arab Emirates, will boast not only the Balkan Peninsula’s tallest skyscraper but also its largest shopping mall — yet Ne da(vi)mo Beograd claim it is little more than an “electional project” for Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s “former, future, forever prime minister. We realized it’s not funny anymore when they started changing the laws in a way to bend them and make new laws in order to put this project into legal procedures.”
Radovanovic’s talk gave an on-the-ground view of protest movements, illuminating the obfuscation and disinterest that corruption breeds at a governmental level. After a seven-hour public hearing session, for example, the city government representatives ignored their complaints and concerns. “They were like, who are you to ask this?” she recalled. “Who are you, the citizens?”
Instead, Radovanovic recounts how this inspired them to evolve the movement. Their largest protests have counted some 20-25,000 people. But Ne da(vi)mo Beograd also exemplifies the perfect synergy between online and offline activism. When a group took to the boat carnival to protest, the police forced them to take down their boat’s banner — leading to their Facebook likes shooting up.
“We are asking for responsibility,” she said. Disagreeing with the other panelists about labelling yourself as left or right, socialist or capitalist, she argued that what’s important is who responds and takes responsibility.
Building a sustainable movement
Second to talk was Artan Sadiku from Skopje, who detailed the growth of small radical leftist organizations like his, Pokret Solidarnost, into widespread populist movements in the face of the “criminal process which is called privatization and transition in Ex-Yugoslavia.”
He explained how between 2006 and 2008, protests would gather some 1,000 people at a time, tackling everything from higher education to healthcare. They soon attracted the interest of the NGO and civil society sector who began “adopting the protest as a means of their advocacy.”
How do you build a social structure in which protest is a fundamental aspect of the culture? All speakers agreed that the key is in not giving up but chipping away repeatedly over time, gradually galvanizing support. This way, Sadiku argued, people “start to conceive the street and protest and demonstration as a proper political site to pursue their demands. They don’t wait for the next four years just to put a vote in the ballot.” He added that people must conceive themselves as “citizens who can revolt,” be it outside buildings or in public parks.
For Pokret Solidarnost, the greatest challenge came from the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia political party joining the movement. Such movements, he warned, should distance themselves from political parties — “by fulfilling your demands, they co-opt your demands” — although they can certainly give birth to new parties or organizations, so long as the movement remains a source for new initiatives. “The worst consequence,” he said “would be if a political party tries to claim to have the heritage of these social movements.”
In Tuesday’s panel discussion, “Governance and Impunity,” US Department of Justice representative Eric Gibson had argued that, no matter the system, corruption is part of human nature. Sadiku vehemently disagreed, dismissing Gibson’s analysis as an “intellectual convention.” He added that “corruption is the inherent method of the working parties of capitalism. Human nature changes by its experience in the system where it lives. We don’t have a fixed nature as species.”
Ultimately, Sadiku argues that if “you take certain aspects of life, like healthcare and education out of the market logic, you decrease spaces where capitalism [and therefore corruption] is present.” Gibson might find this response idealistic, but Sadiku suggests it is a long term game that could take years or even decades. “We have to change society and then the system will adapt to the changes.”
Last to speak was Prizren’s own Hajrulla Ceku from active citizenship NGO, Ec Ma Ndryshe, who lamented a situation in which Kosovo is teeming with protests, petitions and other forms of nonviolent activism, yet if you ask your average man on the street, “is there civic activism in Kosovo?” the response will be one of apathy.
Although Ceku believed this is in large part due to the concerted PR efforts of media and those in power, he did not shy away from criticizing individual citizens. “People are prone to reduce activism to a number,” he said, citing examples of well-organized protests that sputtered out because the media deemed their low numbers of protestors a failure and the narrative stuck before they had a chance to galvanize support and expand. Many people equally criticize such failure in numbers, he added, yet choose not to join the protest themselves and so add to those numbers. “Don’t kill these movements,” he pleaded.
Nevertheless, Ceku pulled no punches and decried the Kosovar state as “directly responsible” for the death of three-year-old Xheneta Gashi two months ago, who was killed while playing in the street when a roof collapsed in Prizren’s historic centre. He said that the Ministry of Culture has made no effort to secure these old buildings or to ensure the safety of its citizens, nor had they provided any compensation or support following the tragedy.
Mobilised citizens, however, were able to raise 20,000 euros for her family. In fact, the state prosecution has begun investigating possible instances of ‘neglect,’ which could lead to those responsible being formally indicted. So how, Ceku asked, can such young protest movements be considered a failure?
Do numbers matter?
In her talk, Radavanovic commented that if you ask police, they’ll shrink the numbers of protesters each time. Likewise, Ceku gave an anecdote of overhearing journalists in Prishtina deciding between each other what number they should pin on a particular protest — with a margin of thousands. So are those in power scared of numbers?
Sadiku, however, cited the leak last year where Macedonia’s Minister of Interior tried to cover up the murder of 21-year-old Martin Neskovski by police in 2011, which resulted in months of widespread protests; on one night 20,000 people amassed.
“I think the government fears protests only at times when they think that it resonates with the majority of the people, not with the numbers that much,” he said, adding that the anger over the death of a young man left them really scared. “The smart move of the secret movements will be to try to present the story in a way that it would resonate with the majority of the people, of which they are afraid.”
Kosovo 2.0 is DokuFest’s official media partner. This article is part of a series of pieces written during DokuFest 2016. Kosovo 2.0 is a print and online magazine bringing you voices unfettered and unafraid.