Rocking the boat

IssueDecember 2004 - February 2005
Feature by Howard Clark

On 10 June, the fifth anniversary of UN Resolution 1244 establishing the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), protesters in Prishtina raised their red cards to tell UNMIK it was time to leave. Throughout the city their posters proclaimed six principles of nonviolence stated by Martin Luther King.

The demonstration was not very big: it had been pretty much kept out of the news in advance, and afterwards was to be downplayed by the powers-that-be--both local and international. Yet perhaps the demonstrators represent an overdue stirring among a population that has spent too long being grateful to NATO (and later KFOR) and too much time learning what to say in order to secure international funding. The protest was organised by the Kosova Action Network--a group of predominantly young people who want to find nonviolent ways forms to express the grievances of the people. Their philosophy is one of popular empowerment--hence the writing of KAN as I CAN-- and nonviolence.

Solidarity and practical action

The international Kosova Action Network has existed for several years, particularly campaigning for the release of prisoners. KAN in Kosova came into existence after the international KAN's conference in Kosovo last year. Its first action was to organise a petition about those people still missing since the war. The most widely signed petition for more than a decade, this insists on solidarity with those who lost loved ones in the war but wants to bring pressure for further investigation--knowing that there are more than 800 cadavers exhumed from mass graves in Serbia still awaiting return to Kosovo and believing that more corpses are still to be found in mass graves in Serbia. (Even during the NATO bombings, Serbian forces were transporting dead bodies from Kosovo to Serbia to cover up war crimes.)

Creating space

KAN's second public action was to take over a shopping mall from 1pm to 1amon Sunday, 8 February (with the agreement of the owners). They covered the windows with black plastic, converting the whole area into a zone of free expression on the questions “Where have we come from? Where are we now? Where are we going?” Some 30,000 people took part in that event. Its musical highlight was the performance of an Ashkali group --the Ashkalis (most easily described as Albanian-speaking Roma) are one of the most vulnerable minorities. And so they moved on to plan their 10 June protest. However, the violence that flared up on 17 March--in which 19 people died, nearly 1,000 were injured, per-haps 4,000 Serbs were driven from their homes and several hundred houses were burnt--cast a shadow over that. As we go to press, KAN--with the families of the missing--has been blocking the main road into Prishtina for eight hours a day. The international ombudsperson for Kosovo has criticised the heavy-handed policing of these protests, even though the protesters in his view have exceeded what is permitted as legal protest.

Nonviolence and empowerment

The elders of KAN seem to be largely drawn from the movement of nonviolent student protests in 1997, and KAN-- just as those student protests—defies warnings about “not rocking the boat”. They see UNMIK as part of a process of corruption and disempowerment of their own society. The party politicians and most of the political elite have bought into this corruption. And so now it is time to revive and mobilise a spirit of solidarity and of voluntary action almost unseen in post-war Kosovo. The mounting frustration ofy outh, they argue, has to be channelled into active nonviolence, and so they haveb egun organising workshops on themes such as “Nonviolence and Empowerment”. They are not interested in inter-ethnic dialogue for its own sake, pointing out that Albanian and Serbian criminals have no difficulties in cooperating. However KAN will happily cooperate with Serbs where they have common cause, and the former-students of 1997 still have contacts with their Belgrade student col-leagues of that era.