The path to Kosovo’s New Republic

After disappointing national elections and a lack of alternatives, a vision of the future. Written for Prishtina Insight, republished on Gazeta Jeta ne Kosove.

Drita came into the world during a dark, cold night in January 2013. Her mother, Mejreme, remembers barely making it to the closest clinic in Krusha e Madhe. “She could hardly wait to get out of the womb, and when I held her for the first time, I remember her smiling. She’s the only one of my three children who smiled after birth,” Mejreme recalls.

Drita’s favorite pastime was running through the fields of Krusha e Madhe, hiding from morning until supper, occasionally forcing the town to comb the fields looking for her. The fields now support the entire town and Drita’s family make their living working for Krusha e Madhe’s newly monied agrobusiness farmers.

Mejreme occasionally regretted not becoming a dentist instead of working the land she inherited from her mother, one of the war widows of 1999. The open fields, filled with places to hide and run, were Drita’s first playgrounds.

School seemed like a prison to Drita at first, despite the fancy teaching aides and the young, earnest teachers from Prishtina. She stopped staring out of windows and fighting with boys when she started playing football – first against boys, then as part of the girls’ football team. Her classmates remember her as small and loud, but her father, Avni, showed me dozens of photos of Drita feeding and playing with street dogs.

“She’d feed them in our backyard and play with them, and pretty soon every dog in Krusha knew our address. She would sneak out food for them. We told her to stop a million times but she never listened,” Avni said, pointing to a photo of a muddy-faced Drita, holding a puppy under each arm.

By the time she finished eighth grade, Drita was a whizz at math and science but absolutely hated reading. Her grades were just good enough to get into the Atifete Jahjaga Secondary School, one of the more competitive high schools in Krusha.

Besarta, a literature teacher at Atifete Jahjaga, was a recent graduate of the elite Teach for Tomorrow program for young teachers when she taught Drita. “Once I asked the class, what the relevance was of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech, and Drita said that ‘not knowing how to make up your mind is stupid and a waste of time.’ She had a way of putting things in this blunt, black-and-white way and she definitely knew her own mind. Let’s put it this way, it was both a joy and a struggle to teach Drita.”

With great resistance and with a lot of pushing on Besarta’s part, Drita read and reread the books in her high school curriculum. She would visit Besarta’s desk after school, demanding to know why certain poems rhymed and some didn’t, and why the History of Skenderbeg had no women fighters in it, and why Ndre Mjeda did not write in standard Albanian.

It probably surprised everyone when Drita decided that, instead of medicine, accounting or farming, she decided to study one of the most old fashioned fields still offered at the University of Prishtina – Albanian Language and Literature.

“She liked to do the opposite of what everyone else was doing,” recalls Burim, a childhood friend. “She was the only one that went all the way there to Prishtina, to study something that was outdated – and she got a full scholarship for it too,” he adds.

From academic to activist

Drita moved into the gentrifying Arberia neighbourhood, high up in the hills near Prishtina’s metro line. In the spacious apartment she shared at the Pandora Tower apartment complex, she got to meet and live with Kosovo’s avant-garde culture scene, the Dudists. When a pipe burst and none of her six roommates could fix it, a relative of the landlord was called, and that’s how Drita met Agim.

At that time, in 2033, Agim was the young owner of AlbiCom Construction, a company he had recently inherited from his retired father, who had inherited it from his own father, a veteran of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Agim had only just finished his degree in engineering when he took on the business, which was unpopular for being one of the few companies to take on guest workers from Serbia. (“They work for less, so it makes sense”).

Agim was impressed that Drita could hold a wrench, and Drita enjoyed talking to him. To the surprise of everyone, they fell in love, started dating, and married shortly after.

Agim shows me photographs of their honeymoon in Venice. “Back then, Kosovars couldn’t travel to Europe without a visa unless they could prove they earned more than 1,500 euros a month, which basically meant less than a quarter of the population,” Agim said. “So, before our honeymoon, I ‘employed’ Drita as a ‘consultant’ at my construction company. After all the nail-biting on that flight, I thought she was going to bite her fingers off.”

By the time Drita graduated with her BA degree, they had moved in together to a small apartment in Mat IV, a new ethnically mixed suburb on the outskirts of Gracanica.

An MA followed Drita’s BA, and to the great annoyance of the department of Albanian Language and Literature, her MA thesis revealed the probability that – based on the verse and prose written about him – an Albanian Ottoman Pasha was probably gay. This caused a stir, to put it mildly, at the Academy of Science and Arts. The thesis was published into a book, and the book established Drita as either an intellectual or a “degenerate traitor” of the Albanian nation, depending on who you asked.

After trying to conceive for two years, Drita found out that she was infertile.

“It crushed her,” Agim admits. “But she is not the type of person to go for IVF treatments or surrogate parenthood, or stuff like that. One day she came home and showed me a picture of these two little girls, and she said ‘We’re bringing them home.’”

The two girls were two sisters, Albana and Venera, who had been abandoned by their parents to Kosovo’s underfunded and understaffed public orphanages. Drita and Agim adopted them in 2039.

As a PhD student at the University of Prishtina, Drita became a prolific writer, publishing books of Kosovo womens’ literature in anthologies, documenting post-1999 prose and poetry in Kosovo, and penning a series of short stories for children based on Albanian fairy tales.

An outspoken critic of the University of Prishtina, Drita pushed for Serbian, Turkish, and Roma literature to become a part of the curriculum at the Faculty of Languages and Literature. She helped to organize Kosovo’s annual gay pride marches through the university’s LGBT Support Center.

“Although she worked as an educator, we all knew that Drita is a doer, not just a thinker,” says Yllka, Drita’s older sister, an assistant manager at an ajvar manufacturing plant in Klina. “I knew it was just a matter of time before she entered politics.”

Drita quickly rose through the ranks of the Social Progressive Party, a slowly growing social-democrat party mostly active in towns and cities. A vigorous campaigner and outspoken critic of the government’s neo-liberal economic policies, Drita gained popularity for her passionate public speaking and open, friendly demeanor.

As a deputy in parliament, she would be remembered for her battles to push for a referendum on joining a federation with Albania, modernizing jails on the model of the new, improved Dubrava correctional center, and sending Kosovar troops on a peacekeeping mission to Eastern Ukraine. That was before the earthquake.

The earthquake

The earthquake of 2048 was unexpected and devastating. The country had experienced earthquakes before, but nothing like this in living memory. The Magnitude 7.3 temblor struck 10 kilometers southeast of Peja.

Urban areas were hit hardest, with poorly planned and illegally built structures collapsing upon one another. Villages and towns were isolated, with no Internet or telephone signals. The Kosova C powerplant failed, leaving half of the country in the dark.

With parliament suspended and the country in a state of emergency, Drita organized aid efforts in her neighborhood. She opened up her home, which became the main point of reference for food, water, and shelter in Mat IV, Mat III, Lagja e Spitalit, Bregu i Diellit, and eventually, the entire city.

As the main coordinator of aid throughout the city, Drita became a part of the Governmental Rapid Response Team, an ad hoc-group made up of the Prime Minister, the Commander of the Kosovo Armed Forces, the ministers of interior, health, and infrastructure, and municipal leaders. With the mayor of Prishtina away at his vacation home in Turkey, Drita took command of the municipality of Prishtina – not without some fighting and angry telephone calls, which eventually led to the mayor’s resignation.

“It was the middle of January, so our priority was to rescue, recover, and shelter as many displaced people as possible. It was next to impossible to shelter people without electricity. Refugees from Prizren, Gjakova, and Peja were flooding Prishtina,” recalls commander Nik Balidemaj.

In an act of what was then termed as political suicide, Drita crashed meetings of the Governmental Rapid Response Team with experts from the University of Prishtina’s Faculty of Environmental Sciences. Instead of investing aid money into the reconstruction of Kosova C, Drita insisted on the experts devising a plan to invest in multiple sources of energy – wind, water, solar, biomass, and geothermal energy – with each source integrated into one easily repaired and replenished grid.

It proved miraculously efficient. Every damaged building was reconstructed with a sophisticated system of solar panels, and no hill or mound in Kosovo went uncovered by a wind power plant, or body of running water without a hydro plant. Kosovo’s first geothermal well opened up on the site where Kosova C used to be. Although the country still had not recovered from the earthquake, for the first time in nearly half a decade, Kosovo became a serious exporter of energy.

The Guardian took notice of Kosovo’s new energy boom, running a profile story on Drita, entitled “Kosovo’s new green hope?” Although an international darling, the Kosovo press ran stories on how she had sacked hundreds of Kosova C employees, on the failure of the geothermal well to produce as much energy as promised, and on her husband’s Serbian guest-workers, hired at a time when many Kosovar Albanians were out of work. When elections were called for, a vicious internal battle was fought over whether Drita should be the Prime Minister-nominee.

“She definitely was a wild card nominee – untested, young, a woman, and very outspoken. But ultimately, we thought she was our best shot at getting in government,” explains Blerim Potera, one of the party’s founders and Drita’s campaign manager.

The campaign was unique in many ways: Drita ran under her maiden name, which she had never changed. She did not wear the makeup or high heels preferred by other female politicians, and she insisted that everyone call her by her first name. She spoke openly about her hometown, her family, her academic work, and her inability to conceive.  “First and foremost, she came across as human,” says Potera.

The Social Progressives’ opponents were a mix of old and new: a few surviving Rugovists, some PDK hawks, the rightwing Vetevendosje crew (who took up most seats in parliament) – and the New Albania party, a neo-conservative party that advocated the return of Islam and “the traditional way of life.”

The electoral battle was fierce, with Rugovists claiming that the Social Progressives were synonymous with Yugoslav Communists, the PDK accusing them of being weak, Vetevendosje accusing them of being “fake” leftists, and New Albania saying that a woman cursed with infertility should not decide the fate of Kosovo’s children. An old photo of Drita taking a spliff as a student, leaked five days before election day, almost prompted the party to consider forcing her from the race.

The results were announced on November 25, 2050. Social Progressives – 34 per cent, Vetevendosje – 23 per cent, the PDK – 19 per cent, the LDK – 14 per cent and New Albania – 10 per cent. Drita gave her inaugural speech in front of the Newborn monument, worse for wear, but still standing in front of the Youth Center in Prishtina. Flanked by her husband and children, Drita gave a speech that would come to be known as the “New Republic” address.

“This new republic does not belong to us. It belongs to your children, to our children, the children of Kosovo – regardless of their nationality, regardless of their skin color, regardless of their parentage. This new republic is for them. And we will build it, together.”

On her first day in office, things would not appear so rosy. The cabinet met urgently to discuss the near-collapse of the health care system, which had been sold off to a Turkish consortium in the 2020s; previous administrations had failed to read the fine print of the agreement, which stated that in the event of acts of God, the costs of reconstruction and basic care were to fall solely on the government.

Numerous clinics across had never been rebuilt since the earthquake as a result, and in some parts of the country doctors and nurses walked away from their jobs due to the wage cuts (and in some cases, no wages altogether). Private, expensive, dubiously licensed clinics abounded, and just one month before the elections, a young man with respiratory problems died from an asthma attack. His parents could not afford the cost of an inhaler in private clinics and pharmacies, and could not get their son in time to the regional hospital in Gjakova.

Massive government investment would be needed to help the health system get back on its feet, and a new, nationalized form of health insurance urgently needed to be cobbled together. It meant that Drita’s 10-per-cent wage increase for public and private sector workers – the promise that she ran and was elected on – would have to be delayed indefinitely. The new republic would begin in this way, in a combination of both victory and defeat – but with the promise of something better tomorrow.

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