Visar speaking to the media ahead of recent elections
Visar Arifaj is a 26-year-old Kosovar graphic designer with a Richard Pryor moustache and a gift for mocking politics. He is also the leader and self-proclaimed "Legendary President" of the satirical political party Partie e Forte—or "The Strong Party"—that has managed to gather more Facebook Likes than any legitimate party in the Balkans.
Set up after a drunken chat among friends, the party rapidly picked up support online, to the point where Arifaj and his fellow members have now managed to secure a seat in the town council of the Kosovan capital, Pristina. Essentially, their modus operandi is to out-absurd every other political party in the Balkans. This is a pretty tough task, so Arifaj and his team have to go to pretty extreme measures—their selection of ludicrous campaign promises included vows to legalize corruption, outlaw serious diseases, build universities in every neighborhood, and rename an old clock tower in Pristina after Rita Ora, Kosovo's most famous export.
Not only did people vote for them after hearing their ridiculous plans, some of Arifaj's opponents didn't get the joke and took the proposals seriously. When, for example, he pledged to magically create 12,000 new jobs in a country with a 55 percent youth unemployment rate, a candidate from a rival party tried to outdo him by claiming he'd create 20,000.
I thought it would be worth having a chat with the Legendary President about his party.
Visar on the campaign trail
VICE: Hi, Visar. I read that your ultimate goal is to become president of Kosovo.
Visar Arifaj: Of course not. That would be quite unambitious. Being in power in a country is never enough—one should always think about going beyond borders, or maybe completely global. That said, we as a party have to be quite cautious when we choose what official position to take. Currently, the party has decided that it is best to just have a seat in the municipal assembly.
That's probably sensible. Now that elections are over, how are you and your party members going to keep people happy?
We will make sure that we are left alone in our political business and will keep the citizens happy by separating them from politics as much as possible. Just a couple of public appearances on seemingly important issues every now and then will be sufficient for the next six months.
Fair enough. Last month, Serbian nationalists disrupted local elections in northern Kosovo because they feel Serbia gave up Kosovo in exchange for future EU membership. What are your thoughts on those guys?
I have no idea what incidents you are referring to. Northern Kosovo is the greatest example of the democracy we have developed with the help of our international partners. Ethnic divisions are the key to cooperation, as there can be no cooperation in unity. Logically, you cannot cooperate with yourself. I’m sure that ours is the best model for democracy, which should serve as an example to other European nations as well.
Partia e Forte's beefed up Kosovan Eagle
Do you think people in the Balkans genuinely hate each other? Or is that a Western simplification?
People in general genuinely and historically hate each other. What might constitute a main difference between the West and the Balkans, besides geographical positioning, is that the West does a better job of outsourcing the outcomes of hatred to countries that need it most, while people in the Balkans have been struggling with internal hatred for decades. Now that we’re almost finished splitting up into better functioning nation states, we are ready to be integrated into the EU, where we can best cooperate as separate entities.
The level of apathy toward politics is enormous in all the republics that came out of Yugoslavia's dissolution. Your party is the first one in the region to pick up this discontent and mold it differently. Do you think it's possible to create a common political platform in the region?
People are finally enjoying the luxury of not having to think about politics. It's a very boring subject and is generally concerned with minor technical things that don't affect people’s lives. Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, on the other hand, deserve the world's full attention.
You said that mocking the political class gives people the hope that change is actually possible. Do you think that, beyond the mocking, there is actually civic engagement with politics now?
Politicians are generally hated by the people. It is a sacrifice that we make to remain in power. It's worth it, though, because in a way mocking politicians reveals the truth. It strips them of their authority and turns them into normal human beings. Once that's happened, people might just get the feeling that they can, in fact, take matters into their own hands.
We know that change is bad for the people as it implies getting them out of their comfort zones. It's why we do our best to just keep comedy on TV. Politics and comedy are a dangerous mix, as they might not only jeopardize us in power, but the whole political functioning of a country.
How difficult it is to keep people participating in the political process?
The most important thing is to keep people believing that voting is the only democratic way to make change. And we’ve been doing a good job at that for about two centuries, no matter how the means of participating have changed since then. It's crucial for everyone to know that—although we've discovered the telephone, the TV, and, of course, the internet—the best way to be part of the decision-making is still by putting a tick on a piece of paper every four or five years. It's getting more and more difficult to maintain this idea, but somehow we are managing it.
Your party became popular thanks, in part, to social media. What do you think of the internet?
The internet can be quite a dangerous tool if it's uncontrollably offered to the masses. While it's true that we gained a large deal of our popularity through social media, we make sure that instant communication and participation through the internet aren't seen as being very serious—especially compared to the tick on a piece of paper. The internet is just about cute kittens—the other things on there are for nerds. YOLO!
Aside from the internet, can you tell me some other issues that are typically important to Kosovans, who form the youngest democracy in Europe?
Well, apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order, what more can one demand? Thanks to the visa policies of the civilized nations, young people of Kosovo don’t waste any time traveling and experiencing different countries. We’d like to encourage them to get settled, married and have children as soon as possible. They shouldn’t get curious about the rest of the world. Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, and Turkey as visa-free countries are sufficient for all the travel needs that they might have. This is also a very effective way to filter unlawful citizens, as they can’t resist going to other places illegally.
Lastly, during your political campaign you often mocked Pristina's political wet-nurse, the USA. How influential is America in Kosovo and how do they usually practice their influence?
The USA would never interfere with any political process in Kosovo. It is simply out of respect that we ask for their involvement in most issues. We also trusted the construction of our main highway to the Bechtel Corporation from the USA, from whom we have learned so much about labor rights. The employees working on the highway are paid a full €1.35 ($1.85) per hour, enjoy one break for lunch in their 12-hour working schedule, and get a full day off every month! Injured employees are released from their contract so that they don’t have to work. It's a great example for all the local businesses that want to see how progress is achieved. America: always there for us!
Follow Igor on Twitter: @IgorPakman