Kosovo Braced for Autumn of Discontent

Constant power failures, worsening unemployment and a pervasive sense of hopelessness make for dangerous cocktail, which some say can only end in fresh violence.

Kosovo Braced for Autumn of Discontent

Constant power failures, worsening unemployment and a pervasive sense of hopelessness make for dangerous cocktail, which some say can only end in fresh violence.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

On a rainy Tuesday morning, 25-year-old Arsim Graicevci sits at the Kaqa cafe in Pristina and tries to compete with the deafening sound of the power generator by humming the line of the George Gershwin song “Summer time and the living is easy”.

In fact, life in Pristina is anything but easy. “The whole city has been without electricity for the last 18 hours and the water goes off for seven hours every night,” said Graicevci, over morning coffee. “All that’s left for me to do is joke about how life is supposed to be easy in summer, when it is a far cry from the Kosovan reality.”

In divided Mitrovica, the town in northern Kosovo hit by violent ethnic riots in March, the main square is filled with people mobbing passers-by with offers of cigarettes and telephone cards.

Ismet, a telephone-card seller, says business is getting worse, “People would rather go and wait in line in the post office to pay 10 euro for a card than buy it from us at their own convenience for 11 euro.”

In the worst-case scenario, Ismet and his colleagues walk around the town, or just sit out the afternoon drinking coffees in bars, if they have made enough money to pay for them.

As international donor money dries up, unemployment rises, poverty deepens and Kosovo's infrastructure crumbles, there are growing fears that public dissatisfaction may erupt again, on much the same lines as it did in March.

Miftar Bala, a miner, 41, recently demonstrated his unhappiness by holding a 15-meter-long slogan in front of the Kosovo parliament on July 14 in a protest organised by the Association of Independent Trade Unions of Kosovo, BSPK.

Bala, a tired and desperate-looking man, and roughly 10,000 other protesters, were demanding jobs, and better pay and conditions for workers, as well as the privatisation of state enterprises.

Zeqir Shkodra, an official in the BSPK, said the union would take more radical measures in September if its requests were not met.

“If our demands are not taken seriously by the international and local institutions it might come to a boycott of the general election in October,” Shkodra told IWPR.

With 126,000 members, ranging from miners to teachers, doctors and civil servants, the BSPK threat cannot be written off as a bluff.

But workers’ protests are only the tip of the iceberg of social and economic discontent that is affecting most Kosovars.

According to a June 2004 report by Riinvest, a development and research institute, the official unemployment rate has increased by 30 per cent in the last two years.

While international donations fell from 957.7 million euro in 2000 to 120.2 million in 2003, the number of jobless rose from 208,000 in December 2001 to 287,265 by February this year.

Riinvest’s research also showed dissatisfaction with the workings of the parliament of Kosovo has risen correspondingly by 10 per cent in roughly the same period, from November 2002 to March 2004.

Public disappointment is likely to be reflected in a low turnout by voters in the October’s general election.

Ramiz Muja, 73, from Gjilan, 45 kilometres south-east of Pristina, is one of many who say there is little point in voting if neither local nor international institutions do anything to improve living conditions.

The local bodies, says Muja, “say constantly that they have no power to change things for the better in Kosovo but then insist we go out and vote for them”. He asked, “What’s the point of the exercise?”

A report on Kosovo to be published this September by the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, highlights the growing alienation between Kosovo’s population and the authorities, both local and international.

“Parties have become increasingly disconnected from the people, politicians are not accountable and party platforms are superficial, neglecting the real needs of the population,” the UNDP report says.

The most dramatic statistics in Riinvest’s research work concern the standing of the UN authority in Kosovo, UNMIK, and its leader, the Special Representative of the Secretary General, SRSG. Confidence in these bodies has fallen by 40 per cent in the last two years, it says.

This is especially disturbing, as it suggests UNMIK may be on the receiving end of public anger in the event of another outburst, as the public holds it largely responsible for Kosovo’s economic and social development.

Isa Mustafa, vice-president of Riinvest, says the international community cannot duck its share of responsibility for the economic malaise in Kosovo.

“The international administration has a whole department led by EU in charge of economic development,” Mustafa said, in a recent TV debate, entitled Let’s Talk About Kosovo. “It is they who are not doing much to create a development strategy and policy for Kosovo.”

UN officials, however, continue to insist that the economy is not one of their priorities, as their mandated task is peace keeping.

“The international community is not here to develop Kosovo’s economy,” one senior official told IWPR. “We are a temporary peacekeeping mission that answers to the Department of Peace Keeping Operations in New York, not a government answering to the pleas of voters or citizens.”

Kosovo’s prospects look even grimmer from the viewpoint of Safir Berisha, as he sits in Prizren’s Shadervan square, which once overlooked one of the finest views in Kosovo – a medley of colourful rooftops, old Ottoman-style houses and ancient stone-paved lanes.

Many of those rooftops were burned in the March riots, when some 700 Serb and non-Albanian homes were attacked throughout Kosovo.

Berisha, a representative of the War Veterans Association, uniting former combatants of the armed struggle in the Nineties against Serbian forces, says the current social, political and economical depression could easily ignite into violence against the authorities, UNMIK in particular.

“The Albanians once saw UNMIK as a patriarchal force whose word could not be contradicted,” Berisha said. “But that ice was broken in March and as soon as the first stone was thrown we sensed it would be easier to do it again.”

Berisha, a local leader of the second biggest party in Kosovo, the Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, says he speaks first and foremost as a veterans’ representative, which he describes as “the most badly affected element of society”.

While the main, Pristina-centred political parties are losing touch with people on the ground, more militant groups, such as his War Veterans Association, are taking over the grass roots with their populist, anti-international discourse.

“We have held more than 30 meetings with people in villages around Prizren this year, we listen to their problems and we can see people are in a rebellious mood, “ Berisha said. “They are very unhappy with what international administration has done so far for Kosovo and have nothing to lose.”

What form Kosovo's discontent will take in coming months is far from clear. The international peacekeeping force in Kosovo, KFOR, claims it is taking no chances and has boosted troops levels since the March riots.

Nexhmendin Spahiu, a political analyst in Mitrovica, says the deployment of more soldiers is not the answer to the problem.

“This is just the calm before the storm,” he said. “But it can also be seen as a chance for UNMIK and local institutions to improve both themselves and the situation in Kosovo. If that doesn’t happen, another upheaval is likely after summer.”

Bahri Shabani, leader of BSPK, on the other hand, insists that protests will take a peaceful form, along the lines of the demonstration that the BSPK recently organised.

Either way, the current plight is not attractive to the kind of potential investors whose funds might develop Kosovo's economy, and so reduce unemployment and lower tension.

Shemsi Llapashtica, owner of a furniture workshop on the outskirts of Pristina, says the poor electrical supply has hindered the expansion of his business and, by extension, the employment of a larger workforce.

“Machines break easily with such frequent and sudden energy cuts, and I can’t afford to take on new workers who are going to spend hours every day doing nothing and waiting for the electricity to come back,” Llapashtica said.

In Mitrovica, pensioner Ahmet Beqiri, 60, is convinced no improvement in sight. “I have seven sons aged 20 to 34 and not one is working,” he said. “We can barely manage to get to the end of the month with my pension and the small social security payment.”

The dilemma is whether the extremists on the one hand, or the moderate parties and international authorities on the other, will succeed in channelling people’s anger and frustration.

For Ramiz Muja, in Gjilan, the only certainty is that the coming autumn is not likely to bring changes for the better, “I don’t know if it smells of gun powder, but one thing is for sure - it doesn’t smell good.”

Arben Salihu, Muhamet Hajrullahu and Zana Limani are attending an IWPR journalism course supported by the OSCE.

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