Many bars, clubs and restaurants in Kosovo routinely segregate their clientele, preferring smart-looking customers to others – but members of minority Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians communities feel more discriminated against than most.
The day in Kosovo for many starts and ends with a coffee in one of the many cafés that dot the country. But not all serve all the people who frequent them equally.
The practice of bars selecting their clientele based on how they are dressed, what type of shoes they have on or what type of drink that they order is nothing new.
From prejudices to deeds, certain citizens are the target of exclusion from such premises either because the owners wish to create a name by attracting an “elite” clientele, or because the owners are hostile to various social or ethnic groups.
But while this form of discrimination is problematic in itself, it becomes even more troublesome when this discrimination centres on race, ethnicity and skin colour.
‘Society has given them the power to discriminate’
Less than three months ago, Endrit Hyseni, a member of Kosovo’s small Egyptian community, was expelled from a bar in Pristina.
It was not the first time that the 24-year-old from Peja and his friends were expelled from a bar in the capital.
“I was with some friends from the Egyptian community and when we sat down the waiter came and said: ‘Do you have proof of vaccination?’ We all had it, but when he saw that there was no way we could be told to leave, he told us: ‘This place has been reserved by some other people and there are no other free tables,’” Hyseni told Prishtina Insight.
He claimed that he often experienced such discrimination when he was accompanied by friends from the non-majority communities – but never with Albanian friends.
He said other clients were not expelled from the bar on the grounds that the seats were reserved or because of their vaccine status.
“We were never told that we were being left outside because of our ethnicity but I am sure that is why it happened,” he said.
According to police data, in 2018 11 cases of incitement of national, racial, religious and ethnic intolerance were reported.
In 2019, the number of cases was 12. But in 2020, there were 23 cases, and there were 18 more in the period January-November 2021.
Despite the discrimination he experiences, Hyseni does not feel endangered in Kosovo. But he blames the justice system and the owners of cafeterias, “and even more the society that has given them the power to make such discrimination”.
“As for the justice system, I do not want to talk about it; because of their negligence, people have died,” he says.
The director of the Council for the Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms, Behxhet Shala, says such discrimination and refusal of service is often a consequence of a lack of human rights education.
Tougher laws sanctioning discrimination needed
Another case of discrimination happened in November last year, when some non-majority citizens were refused service in a cafe in Gjakova.
This case caused a commotion in the public, however, as the Minister of Local Government Administration, Elbert Krasniqi, denounced it on Facebook.
After this reaction from a government minister, many other people also reacted, suggesting that there may be many more similar cases that do not become public or are raised as problematic.
In his speech at the Anti-Gypsy Summit, on November 24, Prime Minister Albin Kurti said that such acts were punishable by the law, as well as by the conscience of everyone. According to him, it is neither in Kosovar culture nor history to be discriminatory and violent.
Krasniqi, who is the first minister from the Egyptian community in the history of Kosovo, told Prishtina Insight that everyone needs to unite in the fight against racism, and not allow isolated cases to create such situations.
“I call on all those who experience racism to react and denounce the case; institutional reactions have a greater echo, but reactions to and denunciations of each case have more concrete power. No case that has a racist base should be neglected,” Krasniqi said.
Krasniqi said he had requested a meeting of the working group against racism in order to mull creating a legal mechanism to punish racism by law with fines.
“An inspector can impose fines for non-compliance with various measures like sanitary issues,. or which are related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there is no fine for persons who discriminate against individuals on the basis of ethnicity,” he said.
In the main institution dealing with human rights advocacy, the Kosovo Ombudsperson, the only cases of discrimination reported to it in the last three years have been reported by the media.
The Ombudsman’s office told Prishtina Insight that it had not noticed any major progress in this field over these three years in respect of human rights.
Civil society activist Gazmend Quqalla said activism alone is not enough to stop discrimination; it has to be addressed at the institutional level; all the activists have managed to do so far is “just remove dust from the surface”.
Fear of reporting cases to police
Another problem these communities face is fear of reporting cases of discrimination against them.
For one Roma citizen who spends his day collecting cans in Prishtina for a living, such discrimination is more than common.
“I rarely go to cafés because I collect cans all day. But it has happened to me that I am not served. Maybe I’m not dressed well, maybe I am from a non-majority community, I don’t know,” he told Prishtina Insight.
He did not want to give his real name. “Life is miserable enough without making it more difficult,” he said.
Quqalla, the activist was himself rejected in a bar seven years ago, because, he suspects, he belongs to the Egyptian community.
“The waiter came over and told us that he could not allow us to enter the bar: ‘I apologize with all the respect I have for you, but I can’t let you in because the owner said not to serve people from the [non-Kosovar] communities,’” Quqalla cites him as saying.
Bar owners want to create an elite reputation
Sociologist Genc Xërxa says public places, or well frequented spaces, are open to everyone, so if someone is refused service there, from a legal point of view it is discrimination.
But Xërxa says there are many such places in Kosovo, where the owner chooses the guests based on appearance, spurning others under various pretexts such as whether they have made a reservation.
This is done to maintain a standard or attract a certain elite society that creates a name and buzz about the club, cafe or restaurant, he said.
Dekorim Sahiti, owner of several hospitality businesses in Kosovo, does not deny that there are such violations in bars, but condemns any racial division of the clientele on the basis of race, gender and sex.
According to him, Kosovo food and drink outlets have never been racially divided – but every bar in the world has its own rules.
“Whether [the guest] is Albanian or from any other nationality, if they meet the rules or the code for the bar or the coffee shop, they are welcome,” he told Prishtina Insight.