Foreign and Commonwealth Office Travel Advice for Kosovo: avoid large crowds or demonstrations. Stay away from all political protests.
Well, only five minutes into my stay in Kosovo’s capital of Pristina all British Government advice was being mercilessly trampled on, as heavily armed riot police surrounded me while opposition demonstrators faced off in the streets against them.
The Kosovars seem to enjoy a good protest. I mean who doesn’t, really? It’s a fantastic method of releasing frustrations, political or, well, non-political too. It was also Albanian Independence Day, and although Kosovo doesn’t technically celebrate this in any official capacity, the majority of the nation’s 1.8 million population would define themselves as ethnically Albanian. It’s a pretty big deal- the streets were covered in the blood red of the Albanian national flag and of all days, what better day to stage anti-government protests? There’s a real symbolism behind it.
An opposition MP had earlier in the year been arrested, ‘allegedly’ for setting off tear gas during a parliamentary debate, and the arrest of course was good enough reason to start a protest on the streets of Pristina. It was after all just a little bit of tear gas- hardly even deadly- and certainly not warranting incarceration over in any case. In Kosovo, it’s quite simply very undemocratic to even think of attempting to stop a tear gassing, especially in parliament.
On the streets, the police had been closing down intersections and public squares across the city centre all day, pre empting any attempts by opposition protesters to do the thing they love to do most, riot.
The protesters were though congregating in front of the police lines still, and the atmosphere was tense enough to spark off a Molotov Cocktail as I arrived into Pristina after dark, and struggled to find a way around the heavy cordons and into the city centre.
Not having followed government warnings, I had consequently arrived seriously under prepared for even the mildest amount of rioting. I hadn’t even packed a balaclava, let alone a baseball bat to assault the riot shields with. If things kicked off now my best course of action would be to throw myself under the nearest car and hope that it wasn’t torched. I decided that, given the circumstances, right now I should head straight through the police lines before the opposing sides began their inevitable fight to the bitter death.
Kosovo is by no means a country which doesn’t exist– at least not on the same political level as other breakaway regions in the world still are- but it is however only partially recognised, and mostly by Western, NATO aligned countries. Russia backs Serbia, who Kosovo declared independence from in 2008. They don’t want to set a precedent and give an excuse for some of their own dissatisfied territories to breakaway (I’m looking at you Chechnya). Perversely though, this stance on the importance of territorial integrity also means that many Pro-Russian separatist states that claim independence around the world won’t even be fully recognised by their own Russian motherland. Transnistria for one.
Since the conflict against Serbia in 1999, when Bill Clinton and Tony Blair led NATO to war- even bombing Belgrade in the process- Kosovo has been struggling to assert itself in spite of its new found independence. Recent years have seen a huge exodus of the population in search of better lives across Europe, as the country flounders economically. So the protests on the streets I was seeing weren’t just over a bit of tear gas, far from it, this was a young nation once more trying to fight for a better future. Before everyone left.
I had pushed my way through a crowd of flag waving protesters to be met by a line of police, shields firmly planted on the ground but visors still up. I even had the disappointing feeling that tear gas had yet to have even been deployed, by anyone on either side of the lines. The police told me to turn around. I could even see the road I needed behind a second line of police, but it was futile. All the roads were blocked off, a few were even being patrolled by M16 wielding fire arms officers. Clearly they were expecting the worst.
A local man said he could show me the way after I asked a few of the police how I could get through the lines and across to my hostel. The police were more concerned with law and order than a slightly confused tourist at that moment in time, but luckily, the citizens of Pristina were there to help a bemused visitor inadvertently ignoring the advice of his foreign office.
I asked what was going on, having expected celebrations rather than protests on Albanian Independence Day. I was assured though that the night was still for celebrating, and not to worry at all about that really as all the rioting had already happened earlier in the day, and they were really quite peaceful these days anyway. Kosovo wanted to be seen as the civilized member of Europe that it truly was after all.
I was told that these protests today were about numerous dissatisfactions. The tear gas in parliament was just a smoky spark. People were angry at economic conditions, and specifically at recent border agreements with neighbouring Montenegro which could cost the already small nation even more territory, while at the same time Belgrade could potentially be given more power in Serbian majority areas of the region. People didn’t want to lose everything they had fought for over the years, and if the police were going to use tear gas on the streets, well, it was perfectly acceptable for politicians to use it in parliament if it opened up the debate. Tear gas is an incredible and possibly necessary tool of democracy I suppose.
I was guided through the back streets and police lines to the hostel I was staying at, flags were flying everywhere, people were chanting and music was playing. The protesters would be facing off against the police for much of the night, but there would be no need to hastily wrap my own shirt around my face to form a make shift gas mask, or to run screaming for the shelter of the nearest European Union embassy when the rocks began to fly and the rubber bullets began to ricochet. No, it would be a peaceful protest. It wouldn’t live up to my fiery expectations, but I guess it would be better for everyone in Pristina if they all just enjoyed themselves that night.