The January 14 protests organized by the Vetëvendosje party in Kosovo were nothing new for this movement, which has since in its origins utilized mass protests as its trademark. The heavy-handed police response to it was not unique in attempting to block the protest, as was previously evidenced by the tragic events of 10February 2007.
What was a new development, however, was what Vetëvendosje’s protesters were agitating against: the failure of the government to implement a motion that was passed by the Kosovo Assembly, a motion that had actually been initiated by Vetëvendosje MPs.
Bills and Ultimatums
On December 7, 2011, the Kosovo Assembly approved a three-point motion related to the government’s implementation of reciprocity measures against Serbia in the political, economic and trading realms. Practically, this meant blocking the entrance of Serbian goods into Kosovo, while Serbia continued to do the same with Kosovan goods entering Serbia.
MPs from Vetëvendosje and the other opposition parties (LDK and AAK) voted the motion through with a total of 42 votes for and 33 against (in addition to two abstentions). This was the first successful motion that had been raised by an opposition party. The government refused to implement the motion, and Vetëvendosje issued an ultimatum viewable on its website on December 19, 2011.
It stated that if the government did not implement the motion by 1January 2012, then from 14 January it would start blocking Serbian goods from entering Kosovo at the border points at Dheu i Bardhë and Merdare. This deadline passed, and the protests went ahead.
Coming as this did during a delicate time in the negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia, Vetëvendosje did not receive support from international actors in Kosovo. In fact, International Civilian Representative Pieter Feith argued that “this is not responsible behavior by an organization which is represented at the Kosovo Assembly.”
For his part, Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi voiced his opposition to the protests and used his status as former KLA commander to try and persuade his audience on Kosovo television: ‘there may be pseudo-patriots who regret not contributing when they had the opportunity but who did not do so when they should [have]… they refused the KLA uniform, and now they want to go to Dheu i Bardhë or to Merdare.”
The Protest, and the After-Protest
Yet did Thaçi reveal a bit too much with this reference to the war? Did he betray a concern that he was beginning to feel threatened by the growing popularity of Vetëvendosje and its brand of nationalism? After all, the movement has come a long way since its ‘Kosova Action Network’ roots, fighting the oppression of the Milošević regime. After becoming a political party before the December 2010 elections, it managed to secure 12.69% of the vote, making it the third-biggest party in Kosovo.
The fact that the party had managed to get a motion passed in the Assembly has further indicated the strength of Vetëvendosje and the resonance of its message among Kosovo Albanians. Its protests against government corruption – with particular attention placed on the unpublished contract for the Vermicë-Merdarë highway – would have been an added incentive for Thaçi to discredit the new party.
The police response to the non-violent protest on 14 January suggests that Vetëvendosje was seen as a threat. In a response that Vetëvendosje claim was orchestrated by Thaçi himself, police used tear gas and water cannons (in near freezing temperatures) against the protestors, and there were reports of protestors, including MP Glauk Konjufca being brutally beaten by police.
The Kosovo police response was criticized by Amnesty International as being an excessive use of force, and Ombudsperson Sami Kurteshi described the police intervention as being ‘unnecessary, unjustifiable and disproportionate’ and alleged that police threatened Ombudsperson staff and impeded them from monitoring the protests.
The day after the protests, a group of 25 NGOs announced that they would protest against the police violence during the protest in front of the Government building. It is somewhat ironic that a past rallying cry of the Kosovo Albanians was that the Yugoslav police had carried out similarly heavy-handed crackdowns on them.
Vetëvendosje started life as the Kosova Action Network, which was established in 1997, supporting the demands of the ‘Independent Student Union of the University of Pristina’ to regain access to their university buildings through non-violent protests.
After the war, the KAN turned to an issue on which it could garner broad support: helping families of missing persons from the recent war. In 2004, it protested against United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 and championed independence for Kosovo. In 2005 the slogan ‘no negotiation – self-determination’ transformed KAN into Vetëvendosje (the Albanian word for self-determination). This movement protested against the presence of UNMIK in Kosovo and then against the Ahtisaari plan and decentralization.
On February 10, 2007 Vetëvendosje held a protest against the Ahtisaari plan, which ended with two protestors dead and dozens injured, after Romanian UNMIK police fired at protestors with out-of-date rubber bullets. Vetëvendosje’s leader Albin Kurti was arrested for organizing the protest and spent almost two years in detention in a case that was described by various human rights groups as being politically motivated.
The case against Kurti collapsed in February 2008, when Ramë Gashi, President of the Bar Association, refused to take part in the trial and announced that no other lawyer would be willing to represent Kurti. Vetëvendosje campaigned to boycott the 2009 local elections, but in June 2010 announced that it would take part in the next elections as a political entity.
From Student Network to Nationalist Political Party
Vetëvendosje’s transformation from an action network into a political party is not the only transformation it has made. While the broad goals of fighting against international pressure on Kosovo and for Kosovo’s sovereignty have remained constant throughout its existence, the rising importance of the ethnic Albanian nationalist factor has been more recent.
In November 2005, Albin Kurti made a speech in London in which he accused first Milošević, and then UNMIK, of focusing on the ethnic dimension of the conflict in Kosovo, thereby increasing the ethnic divide. He asserted that:
‘…young people in Kosova, during the ’90s tried to tell Milosevic that they were students but Milosevic told them: no, you are Albanians… therefore it is Milosevic that wanted desperately to make the conflict ethnic and strangely this continues still today. The newly-coined dualism in Kosova, ‘Albanians-Serbs,’ is linked with the tendency to represent the conflict in Kosova as inherently ethnic. This is wrong and very harmful…”
In its manifesto, published in December 2005, Vetëvendosje similarly shunned the focus on ethnicity in post-war Kosovo: “only freedom makes it possible for us to transform a community characterised by ethnicity into a political one.” But by 2008, Vetëvendosje’s public rhetoric included more references to Albanian nationalism. An article by Vetëvendosje member Shqiptar Oseku from March 2008 argued that:
“EULEX is being deployed here in order to stop the strengthening and empowerment of the Albanian factor. Europe had to take Kosova from the Serbs, first of all thanks to the insistence of the United States. But, it is taking care that the Albanian ethnic community never becomes dominant… This is the sole reason why Kosova will be ruled by EULEX!”
More recently Vetëvendosje has argued for a referendum for Kosovo to join Albania. Unification is a highly popular concept within Kosovo (and highly unpopular amongst the international presence), and this could explain the shift towards the promotion of ethnic nationalism, especially since Vetëvendosje has become a political party. What is clear is that if Vetëvendosje continues to gain popularity at the same rate, Prime Minister Thaçi would be correct to see it as a genuine threat.
Vetëvendosje is a political party in Kosovo created by activist Albin Kurti, which has roots in student protest networks of the 1990s and which has increasingly taken a hard-line nationalist stance, even advocating for union with Albania.
Running on a platform defining itself as being in opposition to the five political parties previously represented in the Kosovo assembly, Vetëvendosje gained 88,652 votes in the 2010 parliamentary elections.
Overall, this result made Vetëvendosje the third-largest party in Kosovo, but it was registered as being the second largest political entity in the capital Pristina, as well as the eastern municipality of Gjilan and the southeastern municipality of Kaçanik. It is also believed to have strong links with similar nationalist organizations and parties in Macedonia, Albania and the European diaspora.
Members of Parliament from Vetëvendosje
Visar Ymeri (Chairperson)
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