In my blog last week on Vetevendosje (Self-Determination), the opposition political movement in Kosovo that at the time was planning a massive border demonstration for Saturday, I argued that, if successful, the protest would reflect the growing influence of Self-Determination. This week, I want to do a quick follow-up.
First, the protest. For some background, Self-Determination asked ethnic Albanians to gather at two checkpoints on Kosovo’s northern border Saturday in a “blockade” to protest the government’s refusal to enforce a December parliamentary opposition resolution on a trade ban with Serbia. MPs from Self-Determination – which decided to enter politics in 2010, placing a surprisingly strong third in parliamentary elections, after years as a radical guerilla opposition movement – backed the measure in retaliation for Serbia’s ongoing refusal to open its border with Kosovo to the free movement of trade and people.
The protest turnout is a matter of dispute: Self-Determination puts the figure at 5,000, while authorities say it’s closer to 1,500. What seems clear, however, is that police responded with excessive force, using tear gas, water cannons (in freezing temperatures), and batons to disperse the demonstrators before they reached the checkpoints. Though police say they were under attack, with protesters throwing stones and other objects, observers and Amnesty International insist that the demonstrators were non-violent. In a 16 January statement, Amnesty said people began to throw objects only after the police intervened.
Moreover, there are hints that the government had a crackdown in mind all along. Krenar Gashi, executive director for the Institute for Development Policy in Pristina, told me that Prime Minister Hashim Thaci publicly compared Self-Determination’s call for protest with the demonstrations organized in Tirana by Albania’s political opposition in January 2011, in which the government’s Republican Guard fired on the crowd.
“The state has managed this in the worst possible way. It all started by promoting fear,” Gashi said in an e-mail, adding that the Tirana reference was “a direct threat, as [three] people were shot dead in [the demonstration].”
Dozens of people, including police officers, were injured Saturday, with four demonstrators hospitalized, according to Amnesty. Police say they arrested 146 protesters. Contrary to some early reports, Self-Determination leader Albin Kurti was not arrested, though he was hurt in a scuffle that broke out as loyalists fought to stop the police from apprehending him.
Was the protest successful? Does it say anything about the influence and power of Self-Determination, or support for the movement?
On the one hand, the protest failed – the government still refuses to enforce the resolution. Nevertheless, the rally succeeded by touching the very core of what Self-Determination is about – demonstrating the incompetence and bad-faith of Kosovo’s political elite, which the movement and many Kosovars blame for the young country’s post-conflict stagnation, with the ultimate goal of mobilizing popular support for a wholesale change in leadership. Though Self-Determination leaders don’t use the term, revolution is what they’re after.
Regarding the resolution on reciprocity with Serbia, even Self-Determination skeptics, including Gashi of the Institute for Policy Development, sided with the movement, saying the government violated the constitution by refusing to enforce the measure. And Kosovars were so appalled by the police crackdown that 25 civic organizations called for protests Monday outside the government building, where many chanted “Albin Kurti for Prime Minister!”
On the ground in Kosovo, the atmosphere remains tense. Self-Determination and its supporters are not backing down. Though I’ve been unable to reach movement leaders, they’re planning a second blockade this Sunday, and I will update this blog with any new information that comes in before then.
Picture of a 2007 Self-Determination rally from Wikimedia Commons
Update: Hundreds of Kosovars gathered at the border Sunday. The protest lasted until 1:35 a.m. Monday, when Self-Determination leaders sent people home as temperatures dipped below zero. No violence was reported, though police detained one protester after the rally and Self-Determination says one its activists was arrested (authorities deny this).
According to Self-Determination, the demonstration succeeded in blocking Serbian goods and cars with Serbian license plates from entering Kosovo.
“Thus, for these two days reciprocity was implemented,” the movement said in a statement. “Our peaceful protest today democratized the republic. Reciprocity defended the republic and strengthened our state borders.”
Shpend Ahmeti, a Harvard-trained economist and New Spirit founder who joined Self-Determination in 2010, told journalists that the movement will continue to organize peaceful protests “in defense of the republic.”