By Jack Davies
It’s midday on Monday in Kosovo, not long after British students rallied against the police presence on their campuses in both Birmingham and London, and Pajtim Havolli’s arm is in plaster cast. We’re stood outside the grounds of the rector’s office at Pristina University in the country’s capital, where Pajtim is a student and where, less than five hours before, a police nightstick fractured his elbow. He wasn’t the only person the police hospitalised that morning.
The day’s events were set in motion partway through January, when it was claimed that two-fifths of university rector Ibrahim Gashi’s published doctoral research consisted of shoddy translations of Communist manifestos, all printed in phoney Indian academic journals. Numerous senior professors are also alleged to have obtained their qualifications through dishonest methods, but Gashi – for his part – has protested his innocence and called for an internal committee to investigate the claims.
Student activist group SKV (roughly translated as: “Study, Criticise, Take Action”) are refusing to accept their supposedly incompetent administration. Responding to the revelations, they have spent the past week or so doing everything in their power to prevent Gashi and his staff from entering the rectory, calling on the boss and his other offending professors to resign.
Police tactics during this ongoing protest have varied from hands-off to aggressive, but on Monday morning they escalated. After a lunchtime march – made up of diehard SKV members, ordinary dorm dwellers and members of Pristina’s civil society – was planned, the cops wanted to make sure that the rectory compound would not be breached.
Their solution was to deploy almost 100 uniformed officers outside the building prior to the sit-in protesters’ arrival. As rectory employees began to arrive at 7.30AM – and as the sit-ins attempted to block their entry – scuffles began between demonstrators and the clearly jubilant cops, resulting in a bunch students starting their weeks with head traumas and newly fractured bones. Before 8AM, a four-deep phalanx of baton and riot-shield-wielding “special police” had arrived to gradually and brutally shove the protesters back.
But their show of force was in vain. Pushed to the pavement, the students stood their ground, and at lunchtime a crowd of supporters arrived in their hundreds. SKV members had attempted to liaise with the senior officer on the scene, telling him that, unless he moved his men back, the street would be blocked. He refused to compromise and, as was promised, the street ended up blocked.
After an hour of speeches into megaphones and chanting from the crowd, everyone was worked up enough to have a crack at scaling the rectory fence. First, lone runners hopped over and dashed past groping security guards. Then the crowd surged en-masse past overwhelmed policemen to breach the gates, swarming towards the front steps of the rectory.
The riot squad “special police” swooped in front of the building’s entrance, forming a last line of defence while brown-jacketed security guards peered anxiously from the doorway. And that was how the situation remained until the end of the day; protesters with their backs to the riot shields of cops, all of whom seemed unsure of whether to smirk or glower. Midway through the afternoon, a professor – one of the staff who didn’t lie about his credentials – made his way through the crowd to place roses on the shields of unimpressed officers.
The protest, which began as a peaceful sit-in, first took a turn for the violent last Tuesday, when riot police – in contravention of Kosovar law – entered university property to eject the protesters from the steps of the front (and only) door to the rector’s office. In the process, several students were dragged by their feet for over ten metres, dozens thrown violently to the floor and 27 arrested.
With varying degrees of success, under the alleged direction of senior politicians and Kosovo’s judiciary, the police have attempted to prevent students from entering the fenced compound that surrounds the building every day since.
That the government is directing the police to interfere in university affairs – Pristina University already has its own well-staffed and overzealous security team – is a good representation of the kind of corruption that pissed everyone off in the first place. The hugely under-qualified faculty obtained their positions, in the most part, thanks to their connections to Kosovo’s two strongest political parties, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci’s PDK and its former coalition partner LDK. They are placed there to ensure the party line is toed in the lecture halls, with multiple students from the law faculty accusing professors of silencing contrarian political views in the classroom, and – in some cases – disciplining or even suspending repeat offenders.
A deputy from Pristina’s city assembly who sides with the protesters spoke to me about a pact between the two parties. The story goes that LDK, disgruntled at not having received their pick of ministerial appointments, were placated by being allowed to name one of their own – Ibrahim Gashi, former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs – rector of the capital’s university.
Last Thursday evening, after the day’s protesting was over, I was taken to SKV’s headquarters, a third storey apartment 200 metres from the rectory. There, approximately 30 students quietly huddled together, preparing to discuss their next move.
A young bearded man shuffled into the centre of the room and silence fell across the apartment. He read from notes, his voice quiet but firm. Twenty minutes passed of him calmly orating to this makeshift amphitheatre before he gave way to another hesitant but conviction-filled student. For two hours, discussions of what to do next were carried out in murmurs that those of us spilling out the door had to crane our necks to hear.
While a minority were pushing to radicalise – that is, throw eggs at the rector – even they expressed themselves with a solemnity and lack of self-importance you’d struggle to find among British student activists. Everyone in that room knew that they weren’t just discussing their education, or their future, but the future of their country. It’s the same reason the political apparatus in Pristina is determined not to let them win. In a country where 45 percent of the population is under the age of 24, win the loyalty of the students and your political future is secure.