Police Are Breaking Students' Bones in Kosovo

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Police Are Breaking Students' Bones in Kosovo

A sit-in to protest a bunch of professors allegedly lying about their credentials has turned violent thanks to the cops. The student demonstrators claim that this fight against petty university corruption is a fight against the country's entire rotten...
February 5, 2014, 4:45pm

It's midday on Monday, February 3, in Pristina, Kosovo, and Pajtim Havolli's arm is in plaster cast. We’re standing outside the grounds of the dean's office at the University of Pristina, in the country's capital, where Pajtim is a student and where, hardly five hours before, a police nightstick fractured his elbow. He wasn’t the only person the police sent to the hospital that morning.

The day’s events were set in motion in mid-January, when activists claimed that two fifths of dean Ibrahim Gashi’s published doctoral research consisted of shoddy translations of Communist manifestos printed in fake Indian academic journals, and that numerous senior professors also obtained their qualifications through dishonest methods. (Gashi has denied these charges and called for an internal committee to investigate the claims.)

The student activist group SKV (roughly translated as "Study, Criticize, Take Action") has spent the past week or so doing everything in its power to prevent Gashi and his staff from entering the rectory, calling on the dean and the other professors implicated in the scandal to resign.

Pajtim Havolli, whose arm was broken by the police.

The protests, which began as a peaceful sit-in on the steps of the rectory, first took a turn for the violent on Tuesday, when riot police—in contravention of Kosovar law—entered university property to eject the protesters from the steps of the rectory. In the process, several students were dragged by their feet, dozens were thrown violently to the floor, and 27 were arrested.

The police have attempted to prevent students from entering the fenced compound that surrounds the building every day since, with varying degrees of success.

Monday morning saw another clash between the cops and protesters. A group made up of diehard SKV members, ordinary dorm dwellers, and non-student citizens of Pristina planned to stage a sit-in, and the police deployed almost 100 uniformed officers outside the building to await the protesters’ arrival. As rectory employees began to arrive at 7.30 AM, the protesters attempted to block their entry, and scuffles broke out between demonstrators and the cops, resulting in a bunch of students starting their weeks with head traumas and fractured bones. Before 8 AM, a four-deep phalanx of baton and riot-shield-wielding "special police" had arrived to shove the protesters back from the door by any means necessary.

The students stood their ground, and at lunchtime a crowd of supporters arrived in the hundreds. SKV members attempted to talk with the commanding police officer on the scene, telling him that the street would be blocked unless he moved his men back. He refused to compromise, and, as the protesters promised, the street was soon clogged with people.

After an hour of speeches into megaphones and chanting from the crowd, the demonstrators had worked themselves up enough to try scaling the rectory fence. Lone runners hopped over and dashed past groping security guards. Then the crowd surged en masse past overwhelmed policemen to breach the gates, swarming toward the front steps of the rectory.

The riot police swooped in front of the building's entrance, forming a last line of defense while brown-jacketed security guards peered anxiously from the doorway. That was how the situation remained until the end of the day—protesters had their backs to the riot shields of cops, who seemed unsure of whether to smirk or glower. Midway through the afternoon, a professor (not one of those accused of lying about his credentials) made his way through the crowd to place roses on the shields of unimpressed officers.

That the police are interfering in university affairs—the University of Pristina already has its own well-staffed and overzealous security team—is a good representation of the kind of corruption and government interference that pissed the protesters off in the first place. The hugely underqualified faculty obtained their positions, for the most part, thanks to their connections with Kosovo’s two strongest political parties, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci’s PDK and its former coalition partner, the LDK. The protesters and their allies believe that the professors are planted at the university to ensure the party line is followed in the lecture halls; multiple law school students have accused the faculty 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, speaking to me on the condition of anonymity, told me that Ibrahim Gashi (who is a former deputy minister of foreign affairs) only became dean after the LDK, disgruntled at not having received their pick of ministerial appointments, was placated by his appointment as the head of the university. The protests may have been sparked by the credential scandal, but they're also opposing the system as a whole.

Last Thursday evening, after the day’s protests were over, I went to SKV’s headquarters, a third-story apartment a couple hundred yards from the rectory. Inside, approximately 30 students quietly huddled together discussing their next move.

A young bearded man shuffled into the center of the room, and silence fell over the apartment. He read from notes, his voice quiet but firm, for 20 minutes before he gave the floor to another hesitant but conviction-filled student. For two hours, discussions of what to do next were carried on in murmurs that those of us spilling out the door had to crane our necks to hear.

While a minority were pushing for radical action—i.e., throwing eggs at the dean—even those expressed themselves with a solemnity and lack of self-importance you’d struggle to find among, for instance, 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—in a nation where 45 percent of the population is under the age of 24, battles over university politics are extremely important. That seriousness is the same reason the political apparatus in Pristina is determined not to let them win.

Follow Jack on Twitter: @jackoozell