Photo: Atdhe Mulla. Protests in Prishtina February 2016. Photo: Atdhe Mulla

Political hostility and political change

Responding to Agron Demi’s op-ed 'Hate will linger' Capussela writes that abandoning hate speech, tear gas, or political hostility is not an option for the current Kosovo political elite - and that is why a new civic movement which would lead to a real democracy is direly needed.

On these pages Agron Demi commented on the current political crisis and especially the methods used by government and opposition: personal attacks, hate speech, misuse of the police and the public broadcaster, and ‘Molotov cocktails’. He argues that if the “confrontation of ideas turns into low personal attacks and threats that aim to dissolve the political being of the other, the fabric of democracy is torn.” He notes that “[i]n a parliamentary democracy, parties should not be hostile towards one another but should oppose each other’s platforms. The difference is huge. A political opponent is to be beaten, whereas an enemy is to be obliterated. Unlike an enemy, a political opponent allows for compromise.” And he concludes that “it is important that this hate speech and political hostility end as soon as possible in order to pave the way to a genuine democratic debate.”

I agree with Demi’s analysis and theoretical premise but not with his conclusion (I am also unsure about the Molotovs: my impression is that we lack reliable information about them; I will refer to the use of tear gas instead, about which we know everything: but tear gas or Molotovs makes little difference from the perspective Demi takes and I follow).

Hate speech, tear gas, and political hostility are bad, of course. But I neither think that they will (or even can) be abandoned, nor do I think that abandoning them would do much to improving the quality of Kosovo’s democracy.  The problem, in my view, lies in the quality of Kosovo’s political institutions (by which I mean the rules and norms that actually govern public life: more on that ‘actually’ later). It is their distortions and inefficiencies that lead to tear gas and political hostility, which are primarily a symptom of those institutional problems.

These arguments are also explained in my book (which is available also in Albanian, published by Koha), reviewed for this outlet by Shpend Kursani. In short, even though Kosovo’s constitution and laws lay out a liberal democracy in which civil rights are respected, checks and balances prevent any of the three powers (legislative, executive, judiciary) from dominating the other two, and legal and political accountability are guaranteed, the reality is fundamentally different.

It is different because the discrepancy between the polity described in Kosovo’s constitution and the polity I saw, and all of you can see, is too wide. The constitution grants to all citizens equal rights, but the allocation of power in society is very unequal: a small elite controls disproportionate political, economic, military (e.g., SHIK et similia), and social (e.g., the patronage networks) power, thanks to which it de facto dominates the majority of Kosovo’s citizens. Indeed, this tension between the laws and reality has been solved in favour of the latter, not of the former.

The result is that, in particular, none of the formal constraints on the executive power actually work: the rule of law is too weak, the judiciary and parliament are dominated by the executive (rather, by the circles dominating the executive), and political accountability—both at the elections and between them—is evanescent.

The consequence is that the elite can both enrich itself and strengthen its power, in a vicious circle, to the detriment of the vast majority of Kosovo’s citizens, because the elite is not engaged in any productive activity, but rather appropriates public resources: in short, they steal. This explains corruption, for instance, which is formally prohibited but routinely practiced. What is the real rule that applies in Kosovo? It is that corruption is admissible if you can do it.

The consequences on the political system are perhaps even more damaging, however. Because at the roots of such an unfair system there must be an obstacle, a big obstacle, that prevents the many from being robbed from the few. It is a political problem, therefore, and that obstacle lies in Kosovo’s political institutions.

Such assessments lack nuance and are necessarily imprecise, but I think that Freedom House is quite right in qualifying Kosovo, ever since its independence, as a ‘semi-consolidated authoritarian regime’. Three things follow. First, it must not be allowed to consolidate. Second, doing so is possible. Third, pretending that Kosovo is a democracy is not just analytically wrong, but leads also to counterproductive policy advice, making that goal more distant.

In such a polity, in fact, political competition between government and opposition inevitably degenerates into an all-out struggle for survival, because winning means controlling the whole state, its powers, its budget, its control over the means of violence (the police), and losing means risking obliteration. In different (possibly very very different) degree, the logic is exactly like that we see in Russia or Uzbekistan: the ruling elite simply cannot afford to lose power. Indeed, in Kosovo too since 2000 the same elite (LDK, PDK, AAK) is in power, besides their shifting alliances, and has gradually built a near-impregnable defence wall (intelligently made of both stone and rubber) around its predatory practices: democracy would destroy that wall.

In such a polity, therefore, it is the incentives created by the very logic of the system that lead both government and opposition to resort to the methods that Demi stigmatizes: hate speech, tear gas, and political hostility, and so on. Should the opposition shed those methods, it would be at an even greater disadvantage to the ruling majority. Equally, should the ruling majority eschew election fraud, intimidation, clientelism, misuse of the public broadcaster, it would risk losing everything. So, I predict that neither will shed such methods (even though one can hope for improvements at the margins – here I agree with Demi – but only tactically beneficial improvements, not more).

Few things demonstrate this better than the functioning of Kosovo’s parliament, which is used by the ruling majority—often with the international community’s consent, until the recent past—as a vote-making machine (the case of the two contested agreements is very clear). There is no debate in the chamber, but just theatre—contrasting statements and slogans, insults, tear gas—and votes (but only when they promise to go in the expected direction). This demonstrates that the formal political institutions of Kosovo have been distorted to a point that they are not able to contain political conflict—by which I mean those disagreements about policy choices that are a healthy and physiological component of democracy—within their walls. By consequence, conflict takes place outside of it.

It follows that if Kosovo’s opposition, in parliament and outside, behaves as though they were in Sweden (which is, in essence, what Demi suggests), they will only help the elite to consolidate. Good parliamentary performance, good journalism, good analytical papers are of course good and necessary –  all this is necessary but they won’t suffice: more is needed to change the political institutions.

What is needed? Certainly not hate speech, tear gas, and political hostility: here I agree with Demi. What is needed, in my view, is citizens’ mobilization. Only their collective pressure on the elite can gradually constrain its power, reduce it, and then break it. It must be citizens to fight for equal rights, if the elite denies them and the formal political institutions are unable to guarantee them. By this I don’t mean a revolution, let alone a Leninist one, for the purpose of citizens’ mobilization would be to achieve a thing—equal rights—that has already been promised to them, and which all of them want. The exercise of the vote and of sustained political pressure, in the streets and in public debate, can suffice. And, should citizens mobilize, the international community will immediately be on the citizens’ side, because it cannot possibly allow the elite to use violence against them (which is their only effective response to a vast movement).

But is mobilization at all possible? The statistics show an apparent paradox, which suggests a positive answer to that question. Only about 40% of the electorate goes to the polls; some 70% of them vote for elite parties; yet many more citizens (75% of the population, if not more) declare themselves very dissatisfied with the political and economic conditions of the country.

The explanation is simple, in my view. All citizens see they they are being robbed and defrauded of their political rights by the elite; yet the elite offers to quite a few of them (a minority, of course but not a negligible one) little favours (a job in the civil service, a licence, etc.) that make life more bearable; neither this minority nor the rest of the population have yet seen a credible alternative to the elite; so all of them go on either voting for it (the minority) or not voting (the majority). But the moment they see a credible alternative—i.e., a coalition that is broad-based enough to unseat the current elite, and is pluralistic enough to credibly commit to guarantee equal rights—they will change their behaviour.

In other words, Kosovo’s citizens face a collective action problem, which won’t be solved until their expectations change. They will not challenge the elite unless they see a real chance of unseating it, for otherwise they will lose their little privileges. The collective action problem is hard to overcome, but less than in other places: because Kosovo is small, and its Albanian majority very cohesive (in the sense that there are no deep ideological or identity cleavages dividing it: only party politics divides them). For that obstacle to be overcome, however, a broad-based civic-democratic movement must arise.

Demonstrations, even forceful ones, can help the developments I just described: they can show the weakness of the elite, and strengthen the credibility of the citizens’ movement. Indeed, if the parliament doesn’t function as the arena for political conflict, it is natural and appropriate that political conflict take place—in peaceful form, of course—in the streets and in society at large (ideally, also in the little squares of Kosovo’s villages). So, I would view increased political agency by the citizens very positively, even if it takes messy forms (as long as they don’t degenerate into violence).

Is such a movement visible on the horizon? Not yet, I fear. I had hopes for Vetevendosje, but I fear that they are too focused on patriotic issues and too little on democratic ones; they are also widely viewed as anti-Serb, partly with some justification; and they use unacceptable tactics (tear gas). This makes this party too divisive to be the pillar of a civic movement for democracy (I discussed this with them; they replied that each of those three critiques is wrong; but if they are right, their tactics and policy emphasis are serious mistakes, which should be rectified). It also makes it an adversary of the international community, which unfortunately is a force to be reckoned with: over these past seventeen years it has shown that it is unable (or unwilling, or both) to build a real democracy in Kosovo, but by protecting the elite it can make it much more difficult for a civic movement to arise and achieve success (short of a revolution: that they cannot prevent).

So, the ideal pillar of a civic-democratic movement would be something that uses unimpeachable tactics (huge but peaceful demonstrations, and lots of grassroots work across the country), and is openly hospitable to minorities (it would ideally include them in its leadership). Such a movement would elicit support from all communities of Kosovo (for Kosovo’s Serbs have the same problems with their own elite as Albanians do), and the international community would be prevented from opposing it (indeed, the little ambassadors of Prishtina might even see the light, so to speak, and support it). But such a movement would above all have to remain focused on the strategic goal of democratization, which is the key to all other problems.

The elite will do what it can to divide the movement, by leveraging on all cleavages traversing it (rich-poor, urban-rural, Albanian-Serb, nationalist-cosmopolitan, etc.): the movement would have to exercise ferocious discipline on itself to remain focused on the strategic goal of democratization. When democracy will be achieved, those (phisiological) divisions will emerge and take their proper place in the sort of politics that Demi depicts: they will discuss, for instance, whom to tax and how much, and where to spend the money.

09 September 2016 - 11:41

Andrea Lorenzo Capussela

09/09/2016 - 11:41



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