“Politics! Politics! Politics!”
--Comicus (Mel Brooks)
History of the World Part I
I don’t know enough about Kosovo politics to know how smart it was for me to have spent a long evening on the town with a known, high-ranking member of Kosovo’s political opposition movement, but I can tell you this: the laughs alone were worth a potential pepper-spray shot to the face.
My friend in “the movement” is named Albion, and I met him through another new friend, Daniel, a German teacher currently living and teaching German to kids in Kosovo. We were joined by Suzi and Corinne, also Germans; both passing through on short visits to Pristina.
I should preface this discussion of our evening with a few things I’ve learned about the situation on the ground over the past days. Kosovo is a “newborn” country—having declared independence from Serbia/the former Yugoslavia in 2008—and is being run, in large part, by outsider, international-community types. The place is teeming with Land Rovers that sport international acronyms like UN, UNMINK, EuLEX, and KFOR, to name just a few. The latter, KFOR, or Kosovo Force, is the NATO-led major military and peacekeeping presence here. Pristina has a war-zone flavor as a result, but the place is, in fact, totally peaceful.
On the leadership front, I thought I was totally in-the-know when I arrived because, randomly, I had crossed paths with the President of Kosovo back in Skopje during his state visit to Macedonia. I snapped his photo and then looked him up his name on Google. But by the time I reached Kosovo weeks later, he was already out of office, having stepped down after the constitutional court ruled that his election in a parliamentary vote last month was illegal. The new president—a woman; the country’s first—just took over.
So back to Albion. He told me that the name of his organization is Vetevendosje, and explained that in English, “vet” means “self,” and “vendosje” means “determination,” so: Self-Determination is the name, and also the goal, of Albion’s movement. According to my understanding, the movement seeks to wrestle Kosovo out from underneath the international community’s thumb, and to achieve the right to self-determination for its people.
We sat in the Aurora restaurant having macchiatos and pallaqinkas (like crepes or blintzes) while Albion held court about the movement and his role therein. He is the “Chief of Logistics,” meaning, I imagine, that he has a pretty big hand in things when the revolutionary sausage gets made. I had already run across some of Vetevendosje’s work, as the city appears to be one large canvas for Vetevendosje’s ubiquitous self-determination graffiti. One would be hard pressed to walk ten paces in Pristina without spying some of the movement's handiwork sprayed on the sides of buildings.
Albion, like the majority of Kosovars, is ethnic-Albanian and Muslim. He lives with his family and studies law at a local university in another town away. He’s also a laugh-riot. If things don’t work out for him and law or politics, he’s definitely got a future in comedy; that's how funny and witty this guy is.
Also like the majority of Kosovars, Albion considers Americans friends. You won’t see any Death-to-America-type sentiment here in Kosovo. In fact, quite the opposite: the Kosovars love America-to-Death, primarily because the U.S. and NATO intervened on Kosovo’s behalf when its people were being persecuted under a campaign of ethnic cleansing, and also because the United States was quick to recognize Kosovo as an independent state in 2008. In fact, the entire second floor of Kosovo's National Museum is dedicated to America and its efforts in support of Kosovo. I saw General Wesley Clark's uniform on display next to a couple of Madeliene Albright's famous lapel pins. And come to think of it, I don't think I've ever seen so many American flags outside of America.
I was told that the Vetevendosje movement studies the works of some of America’s most revered political and civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, whose historical words Albion quoted to me during dinner. “Injustice anywhere is a risk to justice everywhere,” he declared, quoting MLK almost verbatim through an Albanian accent. “That’s right,” I agreed, in a kind of newfound American-Kosovar solidarity. I wasn't as familiar with the Abraham-Lincoln quote offered, and for a minute I worried that Albion knew more about American history than I did. How embarrassing would that be?
We finished dinner and headed over to Pandora, a revolving bar at the top of a tall building that overlooks the city. Along the way we passed the jail, and Albion told me that’s where he and other members of the movement are taken when they’re arrested in conjunction with actions, demonstrations, and the like. Albion himself has been arrested three times. He’s only 19.
The conversation that night wasn’t all serious politics. We also talked music, pop culture, travel, and relationships. At one point, Albion mentioned a girl who had a tattoo on the small of her back. “Do you know what we call that in America?” I asked, interrupting. He didn’t.
“A tramp stamp,” I told him. Albion wasn’t familiar with the English word “tramp,” so I did my best to explain. I always relish an opportunity to teach young foreigners important things about America.
In turn, Albion taught me an Albanian bad word (that I won’t mention here) and introduced me to Kosovar Death Metal. He played some for me over his phone from a band called “Troja,” and suggested that I check out Kosovar Metal further on YouTube whenever I have a chance. I promised I would. I’m actually listening to some in the background as I write this.
The bar shut down at midnight, and we set off for our respective places to sleep. The five of us couldn’t all fit in the small taxi, so Albion walked home. He wanted to keep in touch—maybe even meet up again the next day—and I told him he could get my email address from Daniel.
The next morning, I received an email that Albion sent late the night before. It said:
Hi Ms. [L] !
It’s me Albion the politician. I wanted to ask you if you have time tomorrow we could meet, even Daniel is with us, and we could visit Prishtina. It would be nice to show you all the City. I’m waiting for your answer, and you have my phone number so you can call me.
I laughed when it dawned on me that I had never corresponded with someone who uses the moniker “The Politician.” I wrote back and said I’d love to meet after my morning writing session, and told the group where they could find me later in the city center. A few hours later, Daniel, Suzi and Corinna showed up without Albion. He was still sleeping, I was told, and perhaps would meet us later.
The four of us struck off, and Daniel proceeded to regale us with his extensive knowledge of Pristina. At one point Daniel secured permission for us women-folk to enter the mosque with heads covered just before formal prayers. Soon it was time for me to head off to the American Embassy for an errand, and we said our goodbyes. I never did see Albion again, as he left with Daniel and Corinna later that day to tour Albania.
I’ve since learned on the street that some people consider members of Vetvendosje to be “extremists.” Thinking back to my night with Albion, I don’t remember hearing anything extreme. I heard a kid who was extremely proud of his country, his ethnicity, and his people. A kid who once lived as a refugee in Germany in order to be safe from persecution and war. A kid who—like Martin Luther King—has a dream: to live free and determine his own destiny.