Politics By Other Means: Balkan NGOs Breed MPs

Admin // General News


February 27  

Foreign-funded civil society organisations are serving as a launchpad for political careers, provoking debate over their true function.

Erjona Rusi BIRN Tirana, Podgorica and Amsterdam

The deal to decommission Syria’s chemical weapons did not calm its civil war, but it has brought gas masks and a new civic spirit onto the streets of Albania.

The small Balkan country was recently named as a possible destination for the banned munitions, which have to be removed from Syria this year.

United in their opposition to the plan, thousands of Albanians – middle-class families, students, hipsters and conservative Muslims – came together in the capital, Tirana.

The protesters feared that the destruction of chemical weapons on Albanian soil posed long-term health risks. [Pic: LSA]

Their protest had the usual hallmarks of 21st century activism, from a massive online campaign to catchy slogans and eye-catching costumes – including the gas masks and biohazard suits.

“It was a beautiful feeling,” says Ervin Qafmolla, a public relations professional who helped organise the demonstration. “People were saying that they had the right to choose, to be heard. They were no longer apathetic.”

Albania has an unfortunate reputation as a dumping ground for toxic waste. Under the last administration, tons of the stuff was being imported secretly from Western Europe. Inured to scandal, Albanians will assure you that governments come and go – but nothing really changes.

Last November, something changed. After a week of spiralling protests, Prime Minister Edi Rama said he would refuse to allow Syria’s chemical weapons into the country.

The announcement marked a u-turn for the government, which had been forced to reject a request from its most powerful international ally, the United States.

In the Balkans, it also marked a milestone in the history of “civil society” – a loose term that refers to a public space for action and debate that lies outside the state and the market.

Dozens of prominent activists in the region have been using civil society as a springboard for political careers. Their entry into politics has always been controversial – weakening or even destroying the organisations that they leave behind.

At the chemical-weapons demonstration in Tirana, the wheel had turned full circle. The protesters on the street and the politicians in parliament were former comrades in activism.

Ten years ago, a youth movement called Mjaft – named after the Albanian word for “enough” – announced itself by organising protests against waste imports. The movement operated as a non-governmental organisation (NGO), funded mostly by donations from European Union countries.

Mjaft’s campaigns were slickly executed, with stunts that attracted media attention and embarrassed the old guard. They addressed issues – from high phone bills to human trafficking – that the moribund Albanian establishment preferred to ignore. They revolutionised civil society, giving thousands of young people their first taste of activism.

Mjaft’s lively campaigns stirred up the civil society sector. [Pic: LSA]

The organisers of the chemical-weapons protest in November included several alumni or members of Mjaft.

However, Mjaft’s former leader, Erion Veliaj, was on the other side of the barricade – a member of the Socialist party and a minister in the government that was the target of the protests.

Veliaj’s entry into politics continues to polarise opinion in Albania. It has also triggered a broader debate about the intersection of politics, civil society and European aid to the region.

Some argue that Veliaj’s rise to power – and the success of the recent protests – shows the vitality of civil society, demonstrating its penetration into politics and its influence over it.

“I know he would have done the same thing in my position,” says Aldo Merkoci, a spokesman for Mjaft, referring to the chemical-weapons protest that he helped organise. “I have my obligations as a member of civil society. He has his obligations as a politician.”

Others come to the opposite conclusion. They argue that Veliaj has contaminated civil society by breaching its barrier with politics.

Sokol Shameti, a former communications director at Mjaft who now works as a TV journalist, says the movement’s former leaders – many of whom have joined Erion in the Socialist Party – misused the movement by treating it as a platform for their political ambitions.

“The movement’s image has not recovered from this treason,” he says. “It has even shaken citizens’ belief in other civil-society initiatives.”

Ilir Kulla, a political analyst from the Albanian Diplomatic Academy, says activists who enter politics “destroy the public’s faith” in civil society. “They make it clear that the entire rhetoric they used was simply preparation for entering politics.”

Squeezed for space

Most people in the Balkans regard politics as a dirty word, synonymous with greed and incompetence.

Civil society groups – such as NGOs – are seen as a counterweight to bad government, representing the needs of the people to those in power.

Many NGOs in the region are funded by the EU, which is trying to push through reforms in the countries that have applied to join it.

In this sense, civil society groups have a political function. However, their credibility often stems from their distance from political parties.

Movements such as Mjaft have presented themselves as a permanent opposition – critics of whoever happens to be in power.

“Mjaft will be against the Socialist Party or any other party – whenever the interests of citizens are harmed,” says Elton Kacidhja, the NGO’s current director.

This stance is echoed by Vuk Maras, a programme director with MANS, a widely respected anti-corruption watchdog in neighbouring Montenegro.

Former Albanian prime minister Sali Berisha was not welcome at the chemical-weapons protests.

“We will never be a political party,” he says. “We really believe that it is wrong for NGOs to become political parties. Someone needs to track the people in power and in opposition.”

Politicians can be punished if they appear to align themselves openly with civil society. In Tirana, the chemical-weapons protesters booed opposition leaders – including former prime minister Sali Berisha – when they tried to join the demonstration.

“Someone at the back of the crowd shouted – go away! Soon everyone was shouting – go, go!” recalls Merkoci, the Mjaft spokesman. “Their message was clear. This is our protest. We don’t want you to steal the only tool we have as citizens.”

On a personal level, however, civil society activists cannot always survive the attacks – or indeed, the overtures – of political parties.

“To be neutral in Albania, you must have two enemies – on the left and on the right,” says Lutfi Dervishi, the head of the country’s branch of Transparency International, an organisation that promotes good governance. “Rampant politicisation has left little space for civil society,” he says.

Mentor Kikia, the editor-in-chief of Top Channel TV station and the head of a local NGO, says political parties often recruit civil society leaders in order to broaden their appeal.

“Politicians have been co-opting civil society leaders to renew their own image,” he says.

In neighbouring Montenegro, the path from activism to politics is a well-trodden one. Several NGOs in the country have tried to morph wholesale into political movements or parties.

However, those who make the leap admit that they sacrifice some credibility in the process.

“When you move from civil society into politics, the NGO core is somehow lost,” says Dritan Abazi, an MP for Positive Montenegro, a centre-left party, who spent more than four years as an activist.

“This happens because there is no trust in political parties, especially in societies in transition such as ours,” he says.

The Movement for Change is among the best known of Montenegro’s NGO-turned-parties. The party had a promising start, winning 14 per cent of the vote in the 2006 parliamentary elections.

However, its support slumped in the election three years later, when it lost six of its eleven seats in parliament.

Boris Maric, a former party member and co-founder of the NGO that preceded it, complains that the Movement for Change came to be dominated by personal interests. “It became the same as all the other political parties,” he says.

Nebojsa Medojevic, the party’s leader, argues that the move into politics has been good for the organisation – but he has paid a price for it. “On a personal level, I think I made a mistake by entering politics because it destroyed my career,” he says.

‘No conspiracy’

For Veliaj, the former leader of Mjaft, politics is simply a natural extension of his work as an activist.

Speaking with the conviction of a practised debater, he dismisses the criticism that he has used civil society as a springboard.

“If Mjaft gave me a public profile, it’s a sin not to use that to promote the same causes now in politics,” he says. “In this sense, I don’t feel any guilt,”

He helped establish Mjaft in 2003 and left the movement five years later to form his own political party, G99. Mjaft shrank dramatically after his departure, losing the bulk of its staff and moving from a large villa to a smaller office in a converted apartment.

G99 did not fare well in the 2009 elections and Veliaj went on to join the Socialists, led by Rama, the man who is now prime minister.

During his time at the helm of Mjaft, the movement’s campaigns targeted the old guard in both the major political parties in Albania.

However, the movement’s leaders were also widely believed to be friendly with Rama, who was building up a following as a youthful and energetic mayor in Tirana.

“There were always questions – inside and outside the organisation – about [Veliaj’s] connections with Rama,” says Andi Kananaj, a former communications chief in Mjaft. Nevertheless, there was shock when Veliaj entered politics. “Some of the guys cried when he left,” he says.

Veliaj says that he spotted a similarity between Rama’s “agenda to transform the left and our agenda to transform politics”.

“To people who think this is a conspiracy, I believe that when two friends have a common purpose, there is no conspiracy. It is just useful to join forces.”

Leart Kola, a former Mjaft leader who has also joined the Socialists, argues that civil society activists should be free to enter politics, as long as they stick to their principles.

“There is only a problem when people from civil society enter the same politics that they have been criticising,” he says.

‘One-man bands’

The international donors to civil society in the Balkans also seem untroubled by the transformation of activists into politicians.

“This happens throughout the world and it’s a natural political process,” says Alberto Camaratta, the head of the political section in the EU’s delegation to Montenegro.

“One can argue that NGOs might be used as a trampoline to enter politics,” he says. “But it doesn’t hurt the credibility of civil society because, thank God, civil society always finds its own energies to regenerate.”

Erion Veliaj was the most recognisable of Mjaft’s founders. [Pic: LSA]

The foreign donors’ attitude to activists-turned-politicians seems to reflect the status of civil society at home, which is typically more robust than it is in the Balkans.

The government of The Netherlands is the biggest unilateral donor to civil society projects in Albania. It has also been among Mjaft’s biggest donors. Over the last five years, it has given the organisation €1.7 million.

“There are no rules that you cannot be in an NGO and a political party,” says Miriam Struyk, the programme director at IKV Pax Christi, a Dutch civil society organisation. “Here the system is mature enough.”

Arjan El Fassed, a human rights worker in Amsterdam, spent two years as a parliamentarian before returning to activism – because he felt he had more freedom outside politics. “We have a different concept of civil society here,” he says.

The Dutch embassy in Tirana did not comment on Veliaj’s move into politics.

In an emailed response to BIRN, the embassy’s charge d’affaires, Efstathios Andreou, says: “The Netherlands… supports the development and strengthening of civil society in Albania, not specific individuals.”

Foreign donors make a clear distinction between the actions of individual activists or movements – and civil society as a whole.

Such was Mjaft’s profile in Albania, however, that for many young people civil society was synonymous with Mjaft – and Mjaft was synonymous with Veliaj.

“Mjaft was the biggest achievement in civil society at the time, but it buried the citizens’ movement when it started leaning towards politics,” says Gimi Fjolla, a former activist with the organisation.

It seems the distinction made by the international donors – between the individual, the organisation and the sector – was not always clear on the ground.

Qafmolla, an organiser of the chemical-weapons protest who also served as a spokesman for Mjaft, remembers a common question from the period after Veliaj’s departure.

“People kept asking us – is Veliaj still your chief?” he says. “I would say – no, he has left. But they didn’t trust us. Yeah, yeah, they would say, he’s still there.”

The suspicion was logical enough, he says. “In countries like Albania, it is difficult to believe the founders of an organisation would not keep trying to control it.”

But if former activists such as Veliaj cannot be faulted for entering politics, perhaps the criticism they face is connected to the fate of the organisations they leave behind.

Many NGOs struggle to survive the departure of their leaders, re-enforcing the perception that the organisation was a one-man band.

“It would have been quite logical for Mjaft to remain as effective and successful even after Veliaj and the others left,” says Endrit Shabani, a former director at Citizens Advocacy Office, a US-funded NGO whose leader also entered Albanian politics.

Stefano Calabreta, the official in charge of civil society in the EU delegation to Tirana, says founders often act as the owners of an organisation, claiming: “I have an NGO.”

Mjaft gave thousands of Albanians their first taste of activism.

“And that is the truth in many cases,” he adds. “Without the leader, the rest of the NGO collapses,” he says.

Veliaj describes his present relationship to Mjaft as that of a parent to a grown-up child. “The logo was my handiwork,” he says, referring to the movement’s symbol, a red palm-print. “Therefore, of course, there was a lot of love and affection there.”

“And maybe the generation that inherited that logo is managing it in a way that I wouldn’t have done. But that doesn’t matter,” he adds.

Pausing during this summer’s election campaign in the southern town of Gjirokaster, Veliaj retold an anecdote from his early days in civil society.

At the time, Mjaft was trying to highlight the government’s failure to increase the education budget. After organising petitions and protests, the leaders hit upon the idea of bringing some donkeys to the parliament, done up to resemble students.

“The policemen were totally confused,” recalls Erion. “One of them calls his chief and says – there are two donkeys here, what should we do? And the chief answers – come on, the parliament is full of donkeys!”

For Veliaj, joining the establishment that he mocked is now the best way of changing it.

Qafmolla, his former colleague who protested against the government last month, says the move was inevitable.

“If somebody decides to have an impact on public life, politics and government are at the top of the hierarchy,” he says. “This may not be perfect – but it is one way to go.”


Erjona Rusi is a Tirana-based journalist. This article was edited by Neil Arun. It was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of theRobert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.