Thorns and Weeds


Gleisdreieck or the railway triangle was a wasteland between the Berlin quarters of Schöneberg and Kreuzberg for decades. The space which was, after the World War II, used as a landfill, in the time of the Wall was no man’s land. After the unification, as a public space bridging the once divided city, it gains a new meaning. On the spot that was once a landfill and wasteland, today stands Gleisdreieck Park, one of the symbols of a kind of urban development in which citizens have a say.

Intercultural Garden Rosenduft (The Smell of Roses) is one of the civic initiatives which has been involved in the development of the park from the very beginnings. The initial idea of the garden was to help traumatised victims of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, predominantly women, to meet their new neighbours and learn the language through gardening activities, planting fruit trees, vegetables and flowers. Begzada Alatović, a refugee from Modriča, came to Berlin back in 1993. In the garden, which nowadays gathers more than 40 women from Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, and Kosovo, Begzada helps the traumatised victims overcome the experiences of war horrors. She says that they are like family and they mean a lot to one another.

I met Begzada accompanying the delegation from Pristina, headed by the mayor Shpend Ahmeti of the Vetëvendosje Movement (Self-determination), on a study visit to Berlin organised by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Once a professor of public policy, he was elected mayor in January 2014, after thirteen years of undisputed rule of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). Vetëvendosje candidate won the elections thanks to a simple campaign focused on utilities, water supply, public transport, building kindergartens, urban development, fighting corruption and illegal construction. ‘We found Pristina as a patient experiencing clinical death, and we saved him', noted Ahmeti in our recent conversation in Berlin.


Can’t See the City for the Buildings

Urban and architectural chaos in Pristina peaked in post-war years. Ubiquitous illegal housing with no necessary infrastructure – parking facilities, playgrounds, green spaces – turned Pristina into a city developed by investors. Couple of years ago, due to irregular water supply, a group of young women was forced to wash their laundry in a public fountain on the main city square. This performance of the group Haveit – There Is No Water, But There Are Fountains – pointed to the consequences of unregulated construction and unsustainable development of the capital.

‘Matters such as public spaces and energy sustainability are the challenges we face not only in Pristina, but also in Belgrade, Skopje, Tirana, and even Berlin. Public spaces regeneration projects by artists and activist, that turned these from almost unusable to the most interesting places in Berlin, is something we could try in Pristina’ Ahmeti finds, and adds that one of the most interesting developments he witnessed during the visit was the Halzmarkt cooperative, an urban village on the banks of the river Spree.

Not many would have guessed that Holzmarkt, one of Berlin’s prime locations, once belonging to a city’s public utility company, will go to clubbers. With a small help from foreign funds, the pioneers of Berlin’s techno scene and owners of some of the legendary clubs such as Bar 25, Kater Holzig and Kater Blau, obtained the rights to use the location for 75 years. Next to the already existing establishments – a techno club, a restaurant and numerous workshops, they are developing a start-up centre, student’s dorm, a market, recording studios, artistic ateliers etc. Holzmarkt’s energy comes from sustainable sources and they produce a part of it themselves. The cooperative has also promised that the banks of Spree will remain a public space accessible to everyone.

Urban development with citizen participation and the realisation of such projects imply an intense cooperation of civil society and civil service. In Pristina, such a cooperation did not exist until now, and it was initiated, says Ahmeti, by the new administration: ‘We started cooperating with civil society, which is unfortunately not as developed as in Berlin, in order to contribute to urban development. The political sector is also not as developed, but it has potential.’

Unlike civic initiatives, whose space for urban or artistic interventions in Pristina remains rather limited, different political sectors have demonstrated their potential by transforming Pristina into an urban village which is, today in the 21st century, dealing with basic public utilities, instead of human development. Political sector has shown an exquisite potential when changing street names in Pristina, which have, since the breakdown of Yugoslavia, been changed in line with changes of ruling ideologies and the making of new national heroes, and this recent history of Europe’s youngest capital has left its mark on the city’s spirit. Actual street names usually escape even the residents themselves, and city’s landmarks, monuments, bright-coloured buildings or restaurants and cafes, serve as orientation points. Political sector has also, on numerous occasions, shown its blackmailing potential. For example, upon taking office in Pristina, Vetëvendosje was more than once blackmailed and pressured by managers of city’s landfill sites, from the political enemy camp, who have blocked garbage disposal and prevented the city from normal functioning.  

Such brute confrontations of public functionaries at citizens’ expense are unimaginable for Berlin’s public waste management company (Berliner Stadtreinigung-BSR) which services around 1 800 000 households with over 400 000 different waste containers on the territory of Berlin. For local government representatives of any city in the Balkans, including Pristina, where recycling and secondary raw material trading is mostly handled by Roma people, a visit to the recycling facility of Berlin’s utility company was equal to visiting the International Space Station.


Sewerage, Water, Waste, Reconciliation

In Pristina, once home to over 40 000 Serbs, nowadays a small number of them remains. After two years in office, the new mayor and his cabinet did not initiate a single project which addresses the Serbian minority or the reconciliation between the Serbian and Albanian communities. ‘We cooperate with them in a sense of providing municipal services, we talk about sewerage, waste and other problems which people face daily. There are many civil society projects on which the two communities cooperate. We are trying to do our job; it doesn’t matter if one is called Slobodan or Shpend, what matters is having a sewerage system in place, water supply, good public utilities’, explains Ahmeti.  

Vice president of the European Parliament and a rapporteur for Kosovo, Urlike Lunacek, is of the opinion that cooperation, not confrontation, should be the guiding principle for both Kosovo Albanians, and Kosovo Serbs: ‘I regret that for many years, the former as well as the current government haven’t done enough to reach out to Kosovo Serbs. I think it would be great if both languages were taught in schools in Kosovo. We see that there is a need for dialogue at the citizens’ level and I regret that that the formal dialogue did not go to the level of citizens’, Lunacek concludes.

The electoral victory of Vetëvendosje in Pristina, influenced the balance of power in Kosovo. Third leading party with sixteen MPs is perceived as the strongest opposition to the Government. ‘I was very hopeful when they became a political party’ Lunacek explains, ‘because they are not corrupt, they have creative people and I have hoped that they would push the Parliament to become a functioning democratic institution, a place to express criticism but also achieve progress. Tear gas in the Parliament is simply out of the question’. Strong resistance of the movement to the agreements reached in Brussels and the implementation of the Brussels Agreement, together with violent obstructions in the Parliament are a threat to fragile institutions of the young state and destabilise the relationship with the Serbian minority in the north of the country.


Blood, Joy, Tears and Sweat

Normalising the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo was the topic of a discussion between the vice president of the European Parliament and Kosovo rapporteur Urlike Lunacek, Pristina Mayor Shpend Ahmeti, editor of the web portal KoSSev Tatjana Lazarević and the Democratization Policy Council analyst, Bodo Weber, that took place in the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin, shortly before the third anniversary of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue.

Signing of the second agreement in Brussels in August 2015, which stipulates that Association of Serb Municipalities is formed, sparked big protests of the opposition in Kosovo, led by Vetëvendosje. Representatives of movement thought that the Agreement and such dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, did not lead towards integration of the north into Kosovo institutions, but rather towards creating a non-functioning state. Ahmeti pointed out that the movement is not against dialogue, in principle, but is against dialogue with no principles: ‘This dialogue is not a dialogue of equals. Serbia does not treat us as equals; it does not recognise us as a state; it constitutionally defines Kosovo as a part of Serbia. Kosovo and Serbia are two abnormal countries. What is needed, in our opinion, is to normalise the two countries and then the normalisation of their relationship will follow as a consequence of that. Association of Serb Municipalities creates a dysfunctional, divided state and that is not good neither for us, nor for the Serbs’.

However, the movement uses violent modes of political struggle and has been obstructing the Parliament for months, by spraying tear gas, which makes it difficult to believe in honest intentions of Self-determination to lower the tensions in Kosovo politics. KoSSev editor Tatjana Lazarević thinks that the greatest danger comes from violence spilling over into the streets: ‘Parliament has been completely blocked for the last seven months by protests led by Vetëvendosje. Vetëvendosje uses violence  ̶  Molotov cocktails, tear gas; even the property of Government ministers was targeted by their supporters. That sort of violence is spreading onto the streets. Some Serbs returnees were also attacked, and all this is not getting media attention. How will Vetëvendosje, as the strongest opposition force, which is behind this trend, resolve these abnormalities, and help the minorities feel safe?’


Flower Box Diplomacy

Self-determination, insists on a direct dialogue between Kosovo Serbs and Albanians, without Serbia’s interference, as the only way to normalise their relations and build trust between the communities. Analyst of the Democratization Policy Council Bodo Weber, finds that the involvement of Belgrade is inevitable: ‘It is unrealistic to expect that Kosovo Serbs and Kosovo Albanians have a dialogue without including Serbia. The disintegration of Yugoslavia started with the manipulation of Kosovo Serbs by Belgrade, hence, there is a strong historical component to these relations. Because of the history of segregation I do not think we can expect Kosovo to be based on a civic nation model, without institutional guarantees for the Serbs. Is that fair to Kosovo Albanians? No. Is there another possibility? No’.

What is not reassuring about Self-determination’s policies is all talk and no action. As a centre-left movement, even in municipalities where they hold office, they have not demonstrated much solidarity with the Serbian minority, and there is no direct cooperation between communities that they officially stand for. Dialogue and reconciliation of the two communities in Kosovo, far away from Begzada’s garden The Smell of Roses, stumbled upon concrete flower boxes overgrown with weeds and thorns, in the middle of the bridge on river Ibar.