Students lead wide-ranging protests in Kosovo | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 13.02.2014
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Students lead wide-ranging protests in Kosovo

Kosovo remains a hotbed of tension and turmoil. The unemployment rate is soaring, especially among young people, and corruption is rampant. Protests are on the rise, with students leading the charge.

In March 1981, students in the University of Pristina protested for better food in the campus cafeteria and improved living conditions in dormitories. The demonstrations sparked widespread unrest across Kosovo, as ethnic Albanians took to the streets demanding more autonomy within Yugoslavia.

More than three decades on, Yugoslavia is gone and Kosovo is an independent state, but students at the University of Pristina are once again at the vanguard of attempts to forge better conditions in this small Balkan nation.

Last week, students at the state university clashed with police in the Kosovan capital following reports that their professors had forged academic works. On Saturday (08.02.2014), Pristina University's rector Ibrahim Gashi resigned, having been accused of submitting plagiarized papers to a bogus journal based in India.

Start of something bigger

"I hope that my resignation will start the normalization of work at the University of Pristina," Gashi said in the wake of his resignation.

Student protesters

Student demonstrators hit the streets in Pristina

But some in Kosovo are hoping that last week's protests could be the start of something bigger.

"You had people of all ages, including parents whose children who were not even in University of Pristina and who joined the protest because they are not satisfied," said Flutura Kusari from the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, in Pristina.

There is plenty to be unhappy with in Kosovo. International agencies put the national unemployment rate at between 35 and 45 percent. For young people, the figure is even higher - more than 65 percent of Kosovans aged 15 to 24 are without work.

"The dissatisfaction has been growing for a long time," said protester Dren Pozhegu. "The recent event (reports of academic forgery) was so obviously wrong that it helped a large base of people of different backgrounds gather and protest. Add to this whole situation the chronic problem of unemployment, poverty, lack of prosperity and generally an economically depressing environment, and the whole protest makes perfect sense."

Until now, such large-scale mobilizations have been something of a rarity in Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

Vicory for students

"The fact that we had this protest is a positive thing," said Kusari. "This is one of the very few protests that we have had where Kosovans went public and demanded something concrete. Previously we had general protests - on war crimes, on corruption - but we didn't ask for specific investigations, or anything concrete."

Street in Kosovo

The economic outlook in Kosovo remains bleak

During last week's protests, Kosovan authorities made a number of arrests, including opposition MP Il Hodza and the director of the Kosovo Institute for Political Studies and Development, Ilir Deda. Both men were released on Monday (11.02.2014) but must report twice a week to a police station in Pristina.

"They want to make me the first dissident in an independent Kosovo," said Deda. '"There were no grounds for my detention. It is clear to everyone how political it is. If this is what some of us have to go through to wake up our people, then we will go through it."

Deda hailed rector Gashi's resignation as a victory for the students. "[Kosovo authorities] have basically given up the entire university now," he said. "The students feel empowered. It is the first time there is this empowerment in Kosovo.In the big picture, the trends are really good - there is a waking up in our society.

'Ticking bomb'

A young population and poor economic prospects makes Kosovo a "ticking bomb," said Lumir Abdixhiku, executive director of the Riinvest Institute, a Pristina-based think tank.

"Most of the economic policies in the country have been oriented toward sustainability of the public sector - which remains big and costly - while the severe presence of corruption, bureaucracy, informality and political instability prohibited new domestic or foreign investments to occur sufficiently," he said.

Destroyed bridge

Plenty of war damage remains

Not only are jobs scarce, but Kosovo's education system is failing to produce skilled graduates, says Abdixhiku. On top of this, a very strict visa regime makes it extremely difficult for Kosovans to leave the country.

There has been a "lack of political and economic vision by the Kosovo government," said Gezim Krasniqi, a researcher at CITSEE, a project looking at citizenship in post-Yugoslav states at the University of Edinburgh.

"Since the end of the war, both the international community engaged in Kosovo and the local government have been led by the paradigm of stability," Krasniqi said. "Nobody invested in long-term economic development. The main idea was that as long as Kosovo is stable, that is a positive thing in itself."

A sense of hopelessness prevails, he added, "because there are so many factors that leave the present situation very unfavorable."

National elections are expected to take place this year. The ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), led by Hashim Thaci, could struggle to hold onto power, especially after two senior figures, Fatmir Limaj and speaker of the parliament Jakup Krasniqi, recently announced they were leaving the PDK to form a new party.

Rule of law

An EU probe into organ trafficking during the war with Serbia is expected to report in the coming months, potentially implicating senior government figures in the harvesting of organs from prisoners.

On February 23, contested elections in the Serb-run town of North Mitrovica will be held again for a third time after Krstimir Pantic, the first Serb mayor elected in elections organized by the Pristina government following last year's Brussels agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, unexpectedly turned down the position.

What Kosovo needs most is rule of law, says Flutura Kusari from the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. "If you don't have rule of law," he said, "politicians can misuse their power because they know nobody will investigate them."

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