Kosovo Protesters Aren’t ‘Savages’ But Citizens

Originally published on Balkan Insight, available here.

Those condemning the violence of the protests in Kosovo have not even begun to ask themselves why they are happening.

The clash between protesters and police on Tuesday was painful to witness. Anyone familiar with life in Kosovo knows that protest is a part of life here. To others, it seems like we’re frothing at the mouth over some petty nationalist concern. Typical angry Albanians, throwing rocks and molotov cocktails.

Critics of the protest, most notably Prime Minister Isa Mustafa, Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci and President Atifete Jahjaga, have decried the violence of the protesters. They have called for law and order and have warned against protesters attempting to take control of the government.

What they did not address are the issues that gave rise to the protests. One is Communities and Return Minister Aleksandar Jablanovic’s denial of the war crimes committed in Kosovo. The other is the potential liquidation of the Trepca mining complex.

The two issues seem unrelated but are of equal importance to most Kosovar Albanians. Both highlight the lack of progress achieved in making Kosovo’s government accountable to its citizens, and how much sway Serbia still has over the country’s internal governance.

Jablanovic is not the first or the last Serbian politician to refer to Albanians as “savages,” but he is the first Kosovo Serb minister to make such a derogatory comment in public.

When Albanian protesters picketed Serbian pilgrims travelling to Gjakova earlier this month, Jablanovic could have made a statement recognizing the pain of the families who lost loved ones to Serbian aggression while emphasizing the right of all people to freedom of movement. Or, he could have spoken to the protesters and the pilgrims about their concerns and come to a compromise. Even better, he could have said nothing.

Instead, Jablanovic scolded the “savages” that he said were preventing pilgrims from celebrating a “holy and great” holiday. For good measure, he added that he “didn’t know” if Serbian security forces had committed any massacres in Kosovo.

In Kosovo, a minister “not knowing” that war crimes took place here is akin to a German politician saying they “don’t know” whether the Holocaust took place. Such a statement denies the systemic repression of Kosovo Albanians that took place in the 1980s and 1990s, the death and disappearance of more than 13,000 people, and documented massacres in Recak, Suhareka, Krusha e Madhe, and elsewhere.

Jablanovic’s statements and his subsequent lukewarm apology for them paint a picture of a man who does not realize that it’s his responsibility to understand the history of the country he serves.

Imagine how the mother of a child whose body is buried in a mass grave somewhere in Serbia might feel about a government minister denying that anything ever happened to her family. To put it plainly: a minister who isn’t able to accept that war crimes were committed here should not be paid through our taxes.

Second, Trepca. No one is under any illusions about how much work and money is needed to restore Trepca to its former glory. It will take millions of euros. But, if the choice is between liquidating the entire operation, or having the government take on its debt, I would rather have the taxpayer fund its rejuvenation.

Trepca is not a chain of supermarkets that didn’t work out, or an unsuccessful car wash. It was formerly an engine of the economy, one of the most successful industries of its kind in its productive years.

The mines are also where the call for Kosovo’s self-determination took shape – where more than 1,000 miners went on hunger strike underground in 1989, demanding the restoration of Kosovo’s autonomy. Shutting down Trepca means more than just eradicating a failing business, it means allowing an important part of Kosovo’s history to disappear.

When the government of Isa Mustafa reversed its decision to turn Trepca into a public enterprise under pressure from Serbia, the message being sent is this: that Serbia has the power to reverse decisions made by the government of Kosovo even when those decisions are entirely internal affairs.

It means that this government is not ready to act like a fully sovereign state, and begs the question of what the point of all those years of struggle were, if our political leaders can’t even exercise control over Kosovo’s national resources?

The anger and concern felt by my fellow citizens, on the other hand, demonstrates the truest form of what being a state means: holding those in government to account.

This is what the international community in Kosovo refuses to see when organisations like the OSCE make patronizing statements like “violence is not the answer”, or when UNMIK says that “such acts have nothing to do with the exercise of the democratic right to protest”.

They paint the same picture that’s been painted here since the end of the war: angry Albanians at it again, endangering stability.

I don’t expect much from Mustafa & Co., but I do expect the well-paid international observers and mission employees to at least try to understand what is going on here.

At the least, look at the people protesting and ask them what their grievances are. Ask the middle-aged woman, the old man, the students and the veterans about how heartbroken and disappointed they feel about their country, and how anger on the street is the only avenue they feel is left to them. If you can’t acknowledge their pain, don’t say anything at all.

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