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This year in Kosovo

2016, a year launched by tear gas in parliament, has had its amazing ups and downs, but will be remembered as the year Kelmendi won Kosovo’s first ever Olympic gold.

For Kosovo, it’s been a breakout year: the country was admitted to international sports organizations and competed in its first Olympics, with Majlinda Kelmendi bringing home the gold from Rio. It’s also been a year defined by borders and the struggle to move freely across them, by protests against unpopular international agreements, and by distress towards Kosovo’s justice system.

Global shocks have had their echoes. Kosovo has mourned the international impacts of the Syrian War, the refugee crisis, and attacks across the world–including an attack in Munich, in which three Kosovars were killed. And a failed coup in Turkey, Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump have managed to stir anxiety in Kosovo and around the world.

This is Prishtina Insight’s first year online, and to mark the coming one, we’re reviewing the events that have marked the (mostly) rotten 2016.

This year in protests

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Photo: Atdhe Mulla

We entered 2016 in a cloud of protests. In the first days of 2016, the three opposition parties, Vetevendosje, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK, and Nisma vowed to stop the border demarcation deal with Montenegro and political analysts predicted that 2016 would be marked by unresolved political crisis.

On January 9, over 60,000 people took part in protests against the Mustafa-led government and Kosovo’s deals with Serbia and Montenegro. Protests continued into the colder months, and the opposition continued releasing tear gas to disrupt assembly sessions. On February 19, US Ambassador Greg Delawie said he was “disgusted” by the actions of opposition leaders. An opinion piece critical of Delawie’s remarks circulated as our most read article of the year, written by Hana Marku. A petition of questionable origin was spread online demanding the withdrawal of Delawie from his post. In turn, PM Mustafa posted a controversial Facebook status calling the petition’s creator “a terrorist” and other petitioners “women who have grazed all possible funds from the West.”

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Dozens of tents were placed in front of the Government building by the three opposition parties: Vetevendosje, AAK and Nisma. | Photo: Atdhe Mulla

February concluded with the election of former Kosovo PM Hashim Thaci to the Kosovo presidency. In the days leading up to the election, protesters set up camp in Skanderbeg Square. Further protests involved clashes with police while the election was underway in the Assembly.

The opposition continued to set off teargas in parliament well into March, but by the end of the month, disagreements between the opposition groups about protest tactics led to the dissolution of the coalition.

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March in Prishtina for LGBTQ rights. | Photo: Atdhe Mulla

In May, LGBTQ advocacy groups held a march for the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in Prishtina. The march was not publicly announced beforehand due to security concerns and instead invitations were sent via private networks. President Hashim Thaci made headlines with his participation, but it’s not quite clear whether the president’s appearance could be chalked up to more than just a publicity stunt.

In August, leaked wiretapped conversations between PDK officials gathered through a two-year-old EULEX investigation known as the “Pronto Affair” returned to haunt the party when Kosovo media outlet Insajderi.com began publishing the conversations online. An organic movement called  #PROTESTOJ (I protest) held several protests against corruption and nepotism, though as summer turned to fall, the new movement seemed to lose steam.

Citizens protest corruption in Prishtina, August 10. Photo by Atdhe Mulla.

Citizens protest corruption in Prishtina | Photo: Atdhe Mulla.

In October, a protest against domestic violence was held in Prishtina, and teargas made its way back into the Assembly when the parliament was set to vote to ratify the Montenegro border deal.

In November 2016, Astrit Dehari, a 26-year-old Vetevendosje activist in a Prizren detention center awaiting indictment, died in custody. A candlelit vigil, large silent marches, and protests demanding an independent investigation into the matter ensued.  

This year in justice

Citizens protested in Prishtina on Thursday, demanding an independent investigation into the death in custody of opposition activist Astrit Dehari.

Citizens protested in Prishtina, demanding an independent investigation into the death in custody of opposition activist Astrit Dehari. | Photo: Atdhe Mulla

The Astrit Dehari case has once again brought the cracks of Kosovo’s justice system to the fore, and the citizen response has exemplified the desperation people feel towards the system. Dehari was in jail as one of six Vetevendosje activists suspected of attacking the parliament with an explosive over the summer. However, he had not been indicted or interviewed during his three months in detainment. No one has been held responsible for his death yet; four officials from the Prizren detention center were suspended for neglect, but citizens still feel left in the dark about what happened. An autopsy report released by the Kosovo Institute of Legal Medicine stated that Dehari died of self-inflicted asphyxiation. The Dehari family’s attorney Tome Gashi disputed the state’s report and claimed a report by two independent experts at the autopsy shows the asphyxiation was the result of murder. The Kosovo parliament held an extraordinary session regarding the case, where Minister of Justice Dhurata Hoxha stated that she wanted the prosecution to investigate Gashi and the two independent experts. The case will certainly continue to mark the year ahead.

Vetevendosje activist holds a picture of Astrit Dehari. | Photo: Atdhe Mulla

Vetevendosje activist holds a picture of Astrit Dehari. | Photo: Atdhe Mulla

Other events also highlighted a struggle for rule of law in Kosovo. For now, the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, EULEX, isn’t going anywhere, but it continues in a diminished capacity. On the eve of Kosovo’s declaration of independence eight years ago, EULEX was established to take over UNMIK’s executive and administrative controls over the police and judiciary. Though the mission handed over its executive functions to local judicial institutions in 2014, EULEX has maintained its key role in Kosovo’s justice system. In August, the Kosovo government agreed to at least two more years of the institution.

In August 2015, a law was passed in Kosovo to establish a long-anticipated and controversial “specialist chambers” to try war crimes committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, in The Hague. In September, the chambers’ chief prosecutor David Schwendeman held his first press conference, promising ‘fearless’ probes, while the Kosovo Assembly held a whole-day debate discussing the merits of the KLA and how they should be protected from the chambers’ potential to discredit its struggle. Once in summer, and again in winter, Kosovo President Hashim Thaci visited memorials for Serb victims of the Kosovo War. He said that perpetrators from all sides must be brought to justice and that the fates of missing persons from all communities must be resolved. He was met both with praise for taking this step towards reconciliation, and criticism for not doing enough to implement transitional justice.

In July, nearly ten years after the establishment of UNMIK, the UN Human Rights Advisory Panel deemed the UN’s attempts to adjudicate human rights abuses perpetrated by UNMIK, especially placing displaced Roma from Mitrovica on land contaminated by lead,  a “total failure.”

FIQ activists and Hade villagers. | Photo Ridvan Slivova.

FIQ activists and Hade villagers. | Photo Ridvan Slivova.

In September, the World Bank Inspection Panel found a complaint from activist Dajana Berisha–that a World Bank-funded coal fired power plant caused displaced villagers from Hade and Shale to suffer loss of land and livelihood–to be valid. However, Berisha said, the Bank’s management fails to take full accountability and places the blame on the Kosovo government.

Azem Syla, former KLA member and former PDK MP, was arrested after a massive EULEX police raid in April. Syla, accused of leading a crime syndicate involved in property scams and money laundering, was released from jail at the end of August, only to be arrested again three weeks later. A damning 264-page EULEX indictment released in October reveals the inner workings of the criminal gang, thought to be the largest in Kosovo’s recent history. The alleged land appropriation, document falsification, bribery, money laundering, and witness intimidation reported in the indictment–and the description of how it all allegedly went down from an unnamed restaurant in Sunny Hill–could be a TV drama plot on par with Netflix’s Narcos.

Azem Syla. | Photo: Atdhe Mulla.

Azem Syla. | Photo: Atdhe Mulla.

In what feels like the only justice-related resolution this year, the Kosovo Special Prosecution completed its investigations into corruption allegations against EULEX judge Francesco Florit in November, dismissing the allegations and ending the worst scandal the mission has faced until now, which began when Maria Bamieh accused the mission of corruption in 2014.

This year in foreign affairs

View of the Rugova Valley from the village of Kuqishtë, near the border with Montenegro. Photo: Valerie Plesch.

View of the Rugova Valley from the village of Kuqishte, near the border with Montenegro. | Photo: Valerie Plesch.

This has been the year of borders – the struggle to demarcate them and to move freely across them.  

In the spring, things were looking up for ending the isolation of Kosovo, the only country west of Belarus still required to obtain visas for traveling in the Schengen area. In April, the Stabilization and Association Agreement, Kosovo’s first contractual relationship with the EU, came into force. In early May, the European Commission proposed that the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union lift Kosovo’s visa requirements, an advancement met with joy from citizens craving the ability to travel freely and visit family abroad. In fact, the news even prompted interests amongst Kosovo Serbs to obtain Kosovo passports, as the passports issued by Serbian offices to Kosovo residents are also implicated by the visa regime.

However, the hope for a swift resolution to Kosovo’s ghettoization was short lived. In September, Members of European Parliament from the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, LIBE, rejected the opening of negotiations with the Council of Ministers on lifting Kosovo’s visa requirements. A LIBE press release stated that Kosovo had two remaining requirements to fulfill before being granted visa free travel: continued progress in the fight against corruption, and finalization of border demarcation with Montenegro.

The border demarcation deal has been a major source of contention and protest since the government approved the deal in 2015 with its Montenegrin counterpart, and this year, the government has struggled to ratify the deal in the Assembly.

Albin Kurti, Kosovo MP and Vetevendosje activists addresses crowd. Photo: Valerie Hopkins.

Albin Kurti, Kosovo MP and Vetevendosje activists addresses crowd. | Photo: Valerie Hopkins.

By the end of March, a commission established by former Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga to review the deal concluded that the deal was legally sound and in line with the 1974 Yugoslav constitution of the Autonomous Province of Kosovo, the 2007 Ahtisaari Plan, and the 2008 Kosovo Constitution. But this didn’t sway the opposition or many of the highlanders living in the affected region, who maintained that the current deal takes 8,000 hectares of land from Kosovo. Citizens and oppositions parties continued to protest against the deal, and in September, PM Isa Mustafa postponed the vote on its ratification indefinitely. Meanwhile, in an interview with BIRN executive director Jeta Xharra, former Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic (who stepped down in October) said that Montenegro was not looking to take “even one meter [of land] from the territory of Kosovo,” and that he was open for international arbitration. The issue has faded from the spotlight in the past couple of months, but it’s hard to imagine that the matter won’t come up again in 2017.

2016 was also marked by several progresses, setbacks, and controversies surrounding the EU-facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. Demands from Serb representatives continue to call for the implementation of the agreement to establish an Association of Serb-majority Municipalities. The issue continues to be met with rage from opposition parties and some political analysts, who argue that such an organization would lead to the “Bosnianization” of Kosovo and further cement Serbia’s political power in Kosovo. A working group composed of Serb representatives, OSCE representatives, and officials from the Ministry of Local Government Administration was established in July, but clarity around the association’s scope to self govern and organize remains to be lacking.

Mitrovica |Photo: Julia Druelle.

Mitrovica |Photo: Julia Druelle.

Perhaps the most absurdly nebulous development in the Brussels-negotiated dialogue is the EU-funded project to revitalize the Mitrovica Steel Bridge. Construction meant to revamp the area and remove barricades for vehicles began in August, but by December, a wall-like barrier was erected on the north side of the Ibar River. Kosovo Minister for Dialogue Edita Tahiri quickly declared the wall illegal.  North Mitrovica mayor Goran Rakic said that the structure would be an open-air amphitheater for both Serbs and Albanians to use. Just a few days later, Rakic and the EU said that the structure will actually be an elevated stairway to ensure “freedom of movement” and “road safety.”

Not all foreign affairs have been steeped in contention in 2016. Kosovo has finally received its own telephone code, +383, after six years of negotiations with Serbia. Though admittedly, this issue has too been met with controversy around the layers of ownership of the operator and the International Telecoms Union’s use of the asterisk and footnote when mentioning Kosovo.

In fact, many international and regional institutions continue to implement status neutrality towards Kosovo. Two new recognitions–one from Suriname in July and the other from Singapore in December–were met with excitement, though 2016 hasn’t exactly been characterized by an incremental increase in international recognitions.

This year in tech & business

Mergim Cahani | Photo Atdhe Mulla.

Mergim Cahani | Photo Atdhe Mulla.

New developments in Kosovo’s tech field have contributed to this sector’s budding potential. The small NGO Open Data Kosovo has had a breakout year, developing an app to fight sexual harassment and establishing a partnership with Amnesty International. University of Prishtina Students rolled out a popular, top rated app to help students with math, and Gjirafa, “Kosovo’s Google,” opened its first online tech store to alleviate the complicated business of ordering and shipping products to Kosovo from abroad.

But the tech craze that made the biggest splash in 2016 was undoubtedly the Pokemon Go phenomenon, which did not fail to make its way to Kosovo–even though the app wasn’t technically available in much of Europe (Kosovar players quickly surpassed this barrier with bootlegging and figuring ways to change country app stores).

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Illustration by Trembelat.

The latest World Bank “Doing Business” report showed that Kosovo has moved up in the world for its ease of doing and starting a business. The results were of course praised by PM Isa Mustafa and his cabinet as proof that Kosovo’s economy is growing, and that the country is open for more startups and industry.

Nevertheless, corruption in the business sector remains rampant. And, as one political analyst pointed out, Mustafa’s cabinet has manipulated economic data to paint the picture of Kosovo’s economy more desirably–but the reality revealed by the 2016 Labor Force Survey is that inactivity amongst the workforce has grown by 3.8 percentage points in the past two years. At 62.2 per cent overall, and even higher among women, this rate is stark.

KOSOVO. Vushtri;Verri 28 Nentori school. Photo: Atdhe Mulla.

A school in Vushtri. | Photo: Atdhe Mulla.

The situation was no better this year for Kosovo’s education system. Last year, Kosovar students took part in the Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA, for the first time. The results were published this month, revealing that Kosovo scored amongst the worst in the world in science, math, and reading. It was a tragic announcement, but few who have experience within the system were shocked. Education experts attempted to illuminate the reasons behind Kosovo’s low scores, citing issues such as corruption within the sector and reforms implemented after the war being detached from the reality on the ground.

This year in sport and culture

Kosovo supporters, called Dardanet, cheering for the team. |Photo: Atdhe Mulla.

Kosovo supporters, called Dardanet, cheering for the team. |Photo: Atdhe Mulla.

The best news this year has come from Kosovo’s incredible athletes and artists, who have been a beacon of light amongst the disappointments of 2016. In May, Kosovo became the 210th member of the Federation Internationale de Football Association, FIFA, and the 55th member of the Union of European Football Associations, UEFA.

Dokufest, as usual, was a hit: this year’s theme was corruption and the 15th anniversary showcased some great new Balkan docs and shorts. The Kosovo short film Shok, a story about friendship between two young boys during the Kosovo war, was nominated for an Oscar. Kosovo pop-singer Era Istrefi became a global sensation with her hit “Bon Bon,” while London-based Dua Lipa held her first Kosovo concert in Germia park, where throngs of fans welcomed her to her hometown in August.

Kosovo Olympics representation is composed of 8 people: Majlinda Kelmendi (judo), Nora Gjakova (judo), Urata Rama (shooting), Vijona Kryeziu (athletics),, Rita Zeqiri (swimming), Musa Hajdari (athletics), Qëndrim Guri (cycling ) and Lum Zhaveli (swimming), who was not present at the ceremony. Nora Gjakova (xhudiste), Urata Rama (shenjtare), Vijona Kryeziu (atlete), Lum Zhaveli (notar), Rita Zeqiri (notare), Musa Hajdari (atlet), Qëndrim Guri (çiklist), dhe dy trajnerët, Driton Kuka dhe Enver Hajredini.

Kosovo Olympics representation is composed of 8 people: Majlinda Kelmendi (judo), Nora Gjakova (judo), Urata Rama (shooting), Vijona Kryeziu (athletics),, Rita Zeqiri (swimming), Musa Hajdari (athletics), Qëndrim Guri (cycling ) and Lum Zhaveli (swimming), who was not present at the ceremony.

But the grandest moment that will define 2016 for many was the historic win of Majlinda Kelmendi in Kosovo’s first participation in the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro. Eight Kosovar athletes represented the country in Brazil, but it was the judoka Kelmendi who stole the show with her gold medal win, which she dedicated to her country.

Majlinda Kelmendi wins gold in Olympics. Photo: Rio 2016.

Majlinda Kelmendi wins gold in Olympics. Photo: Rio 2016.

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28 December 2016 - 11:34

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