The student body of Prishtina University has been a hotbed of dissent and a barometer of political feeling in Kosovo throughout history; 2014 was no exception.
In response to Yugoslav-era manipulation of universities — alongside most other institutions —Kosovo’s education legislation was designed to ensure a healthy degree of separation between campus and state. Yet, Prishtina University continues to be at the heart of political discourse in Kosovo.
The year got off to an auspicious start in January, when students began blockading the front steps of Prishtina University’s rectory. The heavy handed police tactics employed in dispersing the crowd, which saw blows from police baton hospitalizing students, garnered sympathy and support for the protesters. The result was that what had started as a few dozen students holding a sit-in, snowballed into thousands of students, civil society actors and concerned citizens facing off legions of riot police — only to be dispersed by clouds of tear gas and pepper spray.
For their part, the protesters were not always angels. Their more militant elements pushed and shoved officers as the two groups vied for possession of the rectory. Towards the end of the stand-off the police would find themselves covered in red acrylic paint as they struggled to maintain control of the entrance. At the heart of all this passion and violence was one man, then-rector of the university, Ibrahim Gashi.
Gashi was widely believed to have been appointed in a political trade-off between the then ruling party PDK and its junior coalition partner, AKR. The story goes that the junior party had requested the post of Education Minister be filled by one of its own. When the job went to PDK deputy Ramë Buja, the position of Prishtina University rector was handed to AKR vice president Ibrahim Gashi as consolation in 2012. The move was widely viewed among the student body as being in contravention of the Education Law’s provision that, “All members of a Governing Council [of universities] shall serve the Council as individuals, not as delegates or representatives of a particular interest group.”
But it was not this supposed legal violation alone that drew thousands onto the streets. Midway through January, Koha Ditore reported that Gashi, along with other professors on his staff, had research crucial to their academic accreditation printed in dubious pay-to-publish academic journals.
For student activist organization Studim Kritike Veprim (‘Study, Criticise, Take Action’, SKV) this was the final straw. On January 22, armed with a 10-point list of demands, the students began an action designed to prevent what they saw as a farcical administration from operating. 17 days later their key demand would be sated with Gashi’s resignation.
In the twilight days of 2014, tension has returned to the rectory. The issue this time is far more divisive. 10 years ago the university signed a memorandum of understanding with the KLA War Veterans Association promising to admit 1,000 children of KLA veterans and war dead without requiring the passing of an entrance exam. Gashi’s successor, Ramadan Zejnullahu, repealed this privilege after having decided it contravened the university’s rules.
The veterans’ associations, who feel Zejnullahu betrayed not only them but the memory of the entire KLA, responded with a series of marches and protests starting on November 27. Like SKV who went before them, the veterans attempted to storm the rector’s office but were held at bay by police.
Not all veterans were incensed by the rector’s move though. Even war-hero-in-chief and former Prime Minister Hashim Thaci took to Facebook to, albeit half-heartedly, support Zejnullahu’s decision.
Talking to Kosovo 2.0, fellow KLA veteran and Vetevendosje parliamentary deputy Fisnik Ismaili said he doubted the sincerity of the PM’s remarks but stood by the rector’s decision: “As a veteran myself, I believe they deserve help, but financial: grants, books, travel, housing.” Ismaili went on to describe any backroom support Thaci’s party, PDK, might be giving to the veterans in their calls for exam-free admissions as “a game… to justify 15 years of neglect towards this group of people.”
A march to express solidarity with the university’s progressive rector was organized by Krenare Loxha on December 9th. Loxha told Kosovo 2.0 that in spite of poor weather conditions the march was well attended, stating that “I was the happiest [that] there were some veterans there as well, supporting us and the rector’s decision, and not accepting any privilege from anyone.”
Zejnullahu seems aware that if he is to make himself an ally of the students in their desire to build a university centred on academia rather than political back scratching, he is almost certain to make some powerful enemies. Perhaps as a declaration of intent, Zejnullahu welcomed new Prime Minister Isa Mustafa into office by stripping him of his university salary, along with any other teaching staff that also hold political offices.
SKV activist and leader of the February protests Durim Jasharaj welcomes the new rector’s appointment as flying in the face of the political elites that he sees as trying to violate the university’s autonomy, concluding that it must have “somehow slipped from their hands.”
When Kosovo’s historians look back on 2014, they will surely talk of a year in which politicians lay siege to democracy. It looks, however, like those historians may be able to mark it off as the year a similar siege upon academia was broken.
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