After finishing a surprisingly strong third in Kosovo’s 2010 parliamentary elections, the radical opposition Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) movement said it would practice a hybrid politics, mixing the pragmatism and procedure of mainstream governance with the passions of the street. True to its word, after Pristina entered EU-brokered talks with Belgrade over technical issues like telecommunications last March at the objection of Self-Determination MPs – which demand that Serbia recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence before any negotiations – the movement began to organize demonstrations.

In May, its loyalists threw stones at the government building in Pristina to protest the arrival of Borislav Stefanovic, Serbia’s chief negotiator, chanting “shame, shame” as windows shattered. Though police shot tear gas into the crowd, demonstrations continued last summer, and Self-Determination is now preparing one of its largest mobilisations to date. It has asked ethnic Albanians to block the northern border on Saturday to support an opposition parliamentary resolution passed in December to ban trade with Serbia, which has refused Kosovo exports for years. Having just reached a deal with Belgrade to end a five-month border dispute related to the trade issue, the government of Prime Minister Hashim Thaci refuses to enforce the resolution.

Bottom line: Self-Determination is angry that Thaci is disregarding the resolution while pandering to Serbia, which still hasn’t opened its border to the free movement of goods and people. (A Kosovo minister was turned back today, not a week after Serbian President Boris Tadic visited a Kosovo monastery for Orthodox Christmas.)

“Serbia is neither a normal state nor an ordinary neighbor because its constitution does not recognize the existence of Kosovo, and every day they repeat that Kosovo’s statehood will never be accepted,” Self-Determination leader Albin Kurti said in Tirana, Albania, yesterday, insisting that Saturday’s protest would be peaceful. “We believe that reciprocity is the essence of equality, and only equality can bring dignity and good and lasting relations.”

Calling the blockade plans reckless, Premier Thaci has asked citizens not to participate while insisting that he will intervene if necessary. But Adem Gashi of the Kosovo Law Institute in Pristina told me that ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro plan to join the protest.

If the blockade is successful, it will be the most stunning example yet of Self-Determination’s remarkable rise in the last two years from fringe movement to a legitimate political insurgency capable of channeling the mounting sense of frustration – if not despair – among Kosovars at the country’s isolation and stagnation since the 1998-99 conflict. And Thaci knows it.

Leaders “are concerned about the support that the Vetevendosje Movement can generate through this protest, which would be translated into political power during the coming days as well as during the elections [this year],” Gashi said.

The name Self-Determination is a reference to a political distinction in the UN Charter of 1945 recognizing the right of the people within a territory to self-rule. In Yugoslavia, Kosovo was part of Serbia, its majority ethnic Albanian population denied self-determination and the attendant right to statehood because of nuances in the Yugoslav constitution. After the conflict, the statehood question remained unresolved, as Kosovo became an effective international protectorate under the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Though UNMIK was charged with leading Kosovo to a final status settlement, the process stalled after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., and negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade in 2006 failed.

Self-Determination was born in 2004 of frustration with the so-called “internationals” and the foundering statehood efforts. In 2006, the grassroots youth initiative organized a graffiti campaign against the talks with Serbia, its supporters spraying “Jo Negociata – Vetevendosje!” (No Negotiations – Self-Determination!) in black and red on buildings across Kosovo. It held demonstrations, including a mass protest in 2007 that left two dead in clashes with police, and led information campaigns from its headquarters, an old ranch house in Pejton, central Pristina, where the furniture brought to mind a Milwaukee garage sale circa 1987.

Under the leadership of Kurti, whose charisma and several prison stints have made him something of the Kosovar Vaclav Havel, Self-Determination was politically agnostic and on the radical fringe – agitating, for instance, for the international community to leave Kosovo – until 2010, when the leadership decided to run for parliament. Taking 13 percent of the vote, Self-Determination surprised perhaps even itself. After the election, it gained further clout by absorbing New Spirit, a group of prominent young western-educated Kosovars who banded together to challenge Kosovo’s legacy parties – Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo and the Democratic League of Kosovo – in the 2010 polls.

Self-Determination HQ has moved to a large, modern building, and satellites are popping up all over Kosovo. At HQ in Pristina, much of the staff is multi-lingual, and the leadership is media savvy, eagerly agreeing to interviews and holding weekly press conferences. Kurti is gaining favor in the halls of Brussels as he impresses European leaders in government talks; many think he will run for president this year.

Self-Determination has hardly gone mainstream, though. Kurti still demonstrates, and, despite a murky platform that includes an eventual referendum on Kosovo uniting with Albania, the group remains more agitator than policy advocate. After the government withheld the details of a massive public works tender last year that many suspected was bloated with graft, Self-Determination obtained the contract, hired expert analysts and posted its findings online. (The government was none-too-pleased with the findings).

Rogue status is fine with Self-Determination. For one, it believes Kosovo’s leaders are constitutionally corrupt – the young country ranks 112 out of 183 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2011 – and entered politics to upend their grip on power: “Once [leaders] are not in the warm chairs of power, they will wind up in the cold chairs of justice,” a Self-Determination MP told me last summer.

Two, in explaining their rise, Self-Determination leaders say they’re tapping an acute, if contained, popular frustration over sustained 45 percent unemployment, poor public services, exclusion from the EU and the international community, which many Kosovars say has forsaken their interests for regional stability in a Machiavellian bargain with the very politicians Self-Determination abhors: Don’t rock the boat with Serbia, and we’ll support you.

“The international community says they’ve been successful because nobody has died from bullets [since the conflict], but people have died from hunger,” the MP said. “If you had these [unemployment] figures in most European countries, you would have a revolt.”

To his point, many Kosovars say the country hasn’t seen serious social unrest because people are more frustrated with conflict than the status quo. Which is why the blockade will be a significant gauge — both of the mood of the country and the attendant appeal of Self-Determination’s hybrid politics. Though the movement has a growing following, many Kosovars have been ambivalent if not opposed to its methods and agenda, particularly its eye to unite with Albania and socialist leanings (these, too, are murky). But a strong turnout this weekend could signal a real sea change for Kosovo and Self-Determination.

Picture of a 2007 Self-Determination rally from Wikimedia Commons

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