COVID-19 threatens not only lives and livelihoods, but also governments and democratic institutions. The International Republican Institute (IRI) is profiling our partners and other leaders who have been the “first responders” in our global fight to protect and strengthen democracy.
In this new series, #DemocracyFirstResponders, we spoke with an anti-corruption activist in Nepal, a journalist in Zimbabwe, a former government official in Georgia and others to discuss their efforts to prevent democratic backsliding in the time of COVID-19.
For the eighth and final episode of this series, our host Sam Johannes spoke with Donjet Bislimi, a Kosovar physician and the President of the Democratic Party of Kosovo’s youth wing. Bislimi is committed to empowering Kosovo’s new generation of accountable and responsive leaders, especially as the government struggles to manage COVID-19 while upholding the country’s democratic institutions.
Since this episode was recorded, Kosovo has experienced dramatic upheaval. A new government was formed without elections and former Prime Minister Albin Kurti is no longer in power. However, many of the concepts Donjet touches on in this conversation are still relevant today.
You can listen to this conversation and others by subscribing to the Global Podcast on Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts. A transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows.
Sam: Donjet, thank you very much for joining us. Your story is a particularly pointed one at this time. You’re both a physician at the front line of the COVID crisis as it’s going on in Kosovo right now and also an elected official and political party member who has seen the government in Kosovo fall apart during the crisis. Just for our audience who isn’t really aware of the politics in Kosovo in this situation, could you talk a little bit about the background situation?
Donjet: Thank you very much. I’m a volunteer here [on] the border with North Macedonia, [Elez Han town]. I see a lot of people coming in Kosovo. We have to check them. We have to make sure that they are fine, and in this way we protect our country and our population from harming and from [other harms related to this coronavirus].
Yes, I’m a political activist as well. As you know, I’m the president of the youth branch of PDK, an opposition party right now here in Kosovo and we have a very interesting, complicated political situation here in Kosovo. Which if you ask me for my opinion, I would say that it was totally unnecessary for this time that we are going through, having in mind all the academic problems and crisis that we are going through here in Kosovo, but the political problems here in Kosovo, and I think all in Balkans, they come [to] the surface every time [some] kind of crisis [comes].
I’m very [inaudible] that our governor, the [inaudible] for different reasons. One of the reasons was that the actual Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, wouldn’t accept to go to negotiations with Serbia, even though very important officials from the USA told us that we need to go into negotiations. It’s for the best of our country, for the best of our economy and one of the main reasons that the government is down now is this, but the incapacity of managing [the] situation with coronavirus as well, and other situations that when we put all the situations together, we have the result of [very] bad [managing], political managing, and health managing here in Kosovo. The result is that the government needs to go down and it is done.
Sam: As a medical professional, what do you guys need that you’re not getting, in terms of support from the government or functions like that?
Donjet.: First of all, I need to inform you that Kosovo is the country with the lowest rate of testing for coronavirus in the whole region. That’s a big issue. It’s a big problem because you can’t fight something that you don’t know is already there. For example, right now we are [nearing] 500 people who got infected from the coronavirus, but there are a lot of citizens in Kosovo that for example, my city Mitrovica [doesn’t] have any patients, and I don’t think that’s the right situation because we have [a] lack of testing and the lack of testing provides us with no information [on] the real situation of the epidemic situation in Kosovo. That’s the first issue. That’s the first thing and the most important thing that the government is not managing as they should.
Sam: With COVID still going on, do you think that these elections will be able to take place? Will we see a resolution to the political crisis?
Donjet: It’s a very interesting situation because the constitution isn’t very clear about this. Right now, Albin Kurti is the Prime Minister [on] duty here in Kosovo. Kosovo has two options. First of the options is that the president of Kosovo sends [a] invitation letter to the first party, to the winning party here in Kosovo and the winning party is the party of Albin Kurti. And he sent that letter. He invited Albin Kurti to try to reform a new government, recreate a new government, and he isn’t answering because in this situation and in the situation of crisis, politicians know that the politicians who are in the leading positions during the situations of crisis, they got [many] more points in the polls and so on and so on.
The main goal of Albin Kurti is to go to elections. As I can see the situation, and as everybody can see the situation, I don’t really agree that this is a perfect time to go to elections, here in Kosovo, because we are in the middle of an epidemic. I think that the best option is to create a new government and to maintain this government until the epidemic is gone and then to go to new elections.
Sam: How have young people responded to this sort of crisis of confidence in the government right now? You know, what are you seeing people your age doing?
Donjet: Telling you the truth, Sam, I’m very proud of everything the young people in Kosovo are doing. They are trying to help, and they are trying to help [in a lot of] different ways, like they put themselves [on] the volunteer’s list. They don’t provide help only in the medical way, but they provide a lot of help in other ways as well. For example, putting together help for families in need. They go and visit them. They go and see what they really need. For example, yesterday, me and my youth organization, we put together a lot of medical equipment and we sent [it] to [the] north of Kosovo and to a city here in the middle of Kosovo, Malisheve.
Ten days ago, we sent a lot of help, food, [supplies] and so on and so on. It’s not only my organization that’s doing this kind of thing, but a lot of young people here in Kosovo that are involved in NGOs, political parties, individuals and et cetera, et cetera. For example, I need to tell you [about] a family in my city, only a family, they provided food for five hundred families here in my city. Yes, and that’s a big heart and that’s why I’m very proud for the young people living in Kosovo.
Sam: That is very encouraging to hear and I think, you know, I’d be interested in your thoughts on this. I think part of it is this is a legacy of the conflict. This is a legacy of the conflict as you have young people in Kosovo who because of the circumstances that they live through, have had to take on serious leadership roles. This is kind of not a new phenomenon. Do you think that’s accurate?
Donjet: I totally agree. Yes.
Sam: Have you seen reports of uneven distribution of support exacerbating ethnic tensions, that sort of thing in Kosovo now as a result of the pandemic?
Donjet: I just mentioned that yesterday we sent [medical] equipment and different drugs [to] the north of Kosovo. In the north of Kosovo, they are four municipalities with [a] Serbian majority. Of course, our main goal was to help our people in [northern] Kosovo, but also Albanians. We send to Bosnians, we send to different nationalities as well. I think that in these times, we, as a young state, we know how to get together and to help everybody who feels like a citizen here in Kosovo. I can see it every day in every city that I go, because I’m frequently visiting different cities and different politics. Look, the sickness and the virus doesn’t recognize our national belonging or our faith or our religion or our race. It works in the same way for all of us. We need to help everybody in the same way, because it’s [a] common enemy, this coronavirus.
Sam: Do you think that we’re going to see this as a moment? We’re going to look back 20 years from now, and look at this as a moment when we realized that some of these divisions are very superficial and maybe a change in opinion, a coming together, do you think there’s an opportunity here for that?
Donjet: I would love to, but I have my doubts in the politics of both countries. They use this cold conflict between two states, two countries to achieve votes. [Even] in Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, and here in Kosovo right now they do the same. They talk all the time [about] how they don’t want to get an agreement, how they don’t go to negotiations because there is a secret agreement that has the roots in the United States. They want to switch territories and et cetera, et cetera. That’s the rhetoric that Albin Kurti uses here in Kosovo and he gains a lot of support and I’m very disappointed about that [to tell] you the truth.
Sam: If there’s one thing that you want people who would listen to this in the United States to know about what you’re doing about your country, what message would that be?
Donjet: My message is always the same. We need to get together. We need to be unified as human beings because when we forget about the things that really matter in our lives, then comes coronavirus and tells us, look, you will stay home with your mother, with your father, with your family. We need to remind ourselves before coronavirus does it and we need to put our hand of solidarity everywhere we go, because that’s our mission in this life.
Sam: Brilliant, my friend. Thank you so much for speaking with me today.
Donjet: Thank you very much, Sam.Top