Bora Mema is member of Organizata Politike, a left-wing student movement based in Tirana. The movement fights against the corruption and nepotism within the Albanian political system, which has far-reaching ramifications in business, civil society and education. As well as against repression and human rights violations, which according to the movement are inherent to neo-liberal capitalism.
Mema told us about the political discussion groups and the protest marches against the public financing of private educational institutions Organizata Politike organises, and about the research they conduct about the abominable working conditions of Albanian and Roma labourers. The research is partially financed by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. Organizata Politike is for the most part active in Tirana, but is also member of the League of the Balkan
Left (LBL), which connects similar grassroots organisations in the Balkan peninsula.
“Organizata Politike was founded in 2011. I joined the organisation in 2014. Before 2014 I thought that, apart from some family members, I was the only one in Albania who was still supportive of socialism. So, when I got in touch by social media with other students who rejected Stalinism yet propagated core values as equality and humane employment conditions, I was quite surprised. I was particularly triggered by the people sustaining the social centre of Tirana. It is most unusual that people fund public institutions with a part of their own salary. In Albania most people operate such facilities for their own financial profit. The social centre facilitated article presentations, lectures and movie screenings of documentaries or political movies such as those of Pier Paolo Pasolini. At the same time a student association of Organizata Politike was founded, to protest against the education policy of the neo-liberal government. The latter implemented a law to allow the public funding of private universities. As a consequence, the public universities got less funding, the tuition fees increased tremendously and a lot of students could not pay them anymore.
“Our primary purpose is to organise the most marginalised groups in society and to raise political awareness among them.”
The primary purpose of Organizata Politike is to organise the most marginalised groups in society and to raise political awareness among them. The LGBT+ community, students, Roma, women and workers are all, in one way or another, discriminated and marginalised by the Albanian society. Therefore, we help workers to organise themselves in independent trade unions, students in student unions and neighbourhood inhabitants in community centres. People without pronounced left-wing political ideas are of course welcome as well in Organizata Politike, but we always start a new political action with a thorough Marxist analysis of social class divisions. The last time Marx, Lenin or György Lukács were taught at the universities was during the communist regime. After that solely our comrade and professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences taught us the history of political thinking. He started with the ancient Greek philosophers and ended with John Rawls. The course was never part of the regular curriculum, people simply chose to attend it. Yet last year the university council decided the course could not be taught anymore: “dialectic materialism? Communists at the university? No way!” That is why the social centre is so important to us: there we have the intellectual freedom to read an discuss whatever we want.
More than fifteen years after the communist regime has fallen, it is still difficult to refer to Marx, Lenin or even the symbol of the raised fist. The symbol of our student movement is also a clenched and raised fist – with a pencil. We explained that the anarchists used the same symbol against the Stalinists and against Franco during the Spanish Civil War, that we use it to express resistance and unity, yet lots of people still associate the fist with Stalinism and consequently with poverty, oppression and exploitation. The political conviction that education should be public and free or that some sectors of the economy should be re-nationalised again, remain controversial due to the Stalinist past of our country.
“Imagine: a country that has no schools, no hospitals and no electricity after the Second World War. A country that wants to build schools, hospitals and strategic industry facilities at fast pace: this results unavoidably in the exploitation of its people.”
The repression of Enver Hoxha’s regime affected all Albanians, but other families suffered more than mine. My grandparents were part of the partisan brigades, and at some point during the Second World War commissioners as well. Thus, they were not prosecuted and had some privileges. My parents could study at the university, while the children of those who were prosecuted could not, nor could they work in the cooperatives or collective farms.
The regime was one of the toughest of the whole Soviet Union, and Albania was the poorest country of the Balkans. Imagine: a country that has no schools, no hospitals and no electricity after the Second World War. A country that wants to build schools, hospitals and strategic industry facilities at fast pace: this results unavoidably in the exploitation of its people. So the situation in Albania was tougher than for example in Yugoslavia. That is why the Yugoslavians are more nostalgic about the communist period, I think. In my point of view Albania is currently still one of the most exploited countries in Europe. There are for example far more Albanians seeking asylum in Western Europe and the United States than Serbians, Greeks, Croatians or Bulgarians. Albania and Kosovo are the two nations in Europe with the highest number of inhabitants that want to leave their own country. The minimum wage and standard of living are exceptionally low here.
“The student protests created a broad platform of support within society for free and public education.”
The fight for free and public education united the students at the university of Tirana. A lot of students did not share our left-wing ideology, but we were all against the neo-liberal reforms. And although the law passed the parliament, we have won the ideological battle: our protest created a broad platform of support within society that the government made a completely wrong decision. All parties, except for the Socialist Party, promised during their campaigns that when they would come to power, they would abrogate the law, even the Socialist Movement for Integration, which initially had approved the law! We started the protest in 2014, but especially in 2015 we protested every two weeks. The greater part were students form the faculty of Social Sciences and the faculty of History and Philology.
We marched from the latter to the main campus of the University of Tirana and thereafter on the boulevards of the capital, in front of the Prime Minister’s office. After 2011, when the police shot three protesters in the main boulevard, it became more complicated to mobilise people for the protests. Not only because the people were terrified of the police, but also and above all because of the corrupted political system. In Albania the political parties recruit militants to work in the administrations. If they see a relative of an administrative employee who is protesting, the employee is dismissed instantly. Students said: “My father is working here, my mother is working there, my friends are currently not employed but the party promised them a job, so we cannot join the protest.” Or they said: “We will march from our faculty tot the main campus, but not from the main campus tot the Prime Minister’s office.” Therefore, the protests of 2015 with more than thousand students were so significant. Civil society organisations, that are funded by embassies, foundations or the government, could not even mobilise fifty citizens. So the thousand students in the streets of Tirana made a major impact in the Albanian media. Everyone was talking about Organizata Politike. We were invited in TV-shows to debate with the owners of the private universities and with representatives of the Ministry of Education.
In November 2015 we organised a protest action in the Faculty of Social Sciences, because the Prime Minister was having a sort of propaganda TED-talk about business and taxes, in short: about approximately everything that is not and should not be related to education and research at the university. So we threw some raw eggs at the Prime Minister, thereafter we were arrested, beaten and violently removed from the faculty. And after a political trial we were sentenced to two years of imprisonment. At the moment we are appealing against that decision. Due to this kind of repression a lot of students are scared to get involved in the actions of Organizata Politike.
On the 17th of November, International Students’ Day, the Socialist Party organised an event at the Pyramid of Tirana, together with the youth department of the Socialist Party. They invited students to have free drinks at their so-called ‘resistance party’. Afterwards they went clubbing. They not even stated that it was International Students’ Day, let alone they referred to what happened in Greece. So we decided we had to take action again, this time against the Minister of Education, to raise awareness on the financial advantages she was giving to the owners of the private universities. The Minister was sitting in the first row, ready to give a speech. All of a sudden one of our comrades splashed tomato ketchup over her hair. She was arrested and is facing two charges.
On that day the social centre was full of media and even in TV-shows Organizata Politike was the main topic: “Is there a new hope for the political left?” People were saying: “You should become a political party now!” But we do not need a political party to bring about social change. What can we achieve with some famous politicians constantly parading on TV? Our approach is rather bottom up. We want to politically organise people in a strong and wide front. Inside or outside the institutions: it does not matter, as long as we can put political pressure on the government to bring about social change.
“The abominable working conditions can only change if we could form an independent trade union, to support the protests structurally, but we do not have enough financial support for legal assistance and transport.”
For the last two years we have been collaborating with the Rosa Luxemburg-Stiftung that is supporting us to conduct research on the employment conditions for the working class in Albania. I myself am not part of the research group but some comrades are. They went to different factories, of mine companies, of oil producing companies, etcetera, to interview the workers. It is a risky business for a worker to give an interview, even though he is anonymous. Once, when I was interviewing as well, one of the department heads pushed me and was about to beat me, but I lied that I had a camera on me and was filming everything.
The only way to get the information we want is to accompany the workers from the doors of their houses to the entrance of the factory and to interview them in a bus. They are too scared of the mafia, they say, especially in Bulqiza, a small village in the North of Albania. Bulqiza is one of richest areas under the ground and one of the poorest above the ground. We have been supporting the workers over there when they were protesting in 2012. They were asking for our help to organise the protests, but after threats of the mafia only around twenty workers joined us. Devastating. However, last year we were more successful in the oil refinery of Ballsh. The new owner of the company had simply not payed his hundreds of workers for several months! And the Albanian state not even asked to apply the law! So we invited the workers to Tirana. 500 of them eventually came to the capital to protest the whole day, although the trade union officially was not supporting them. We provide some places to sleep – 60 employees slept in our social centre – and cooked for them. In the end they surrendered, after the owner promised them to pay one salary if they started to work again immediately. Just the promise that they would be payed was enough for the workers, but you cannot blame them. In the same position everyone would have done that, I think.
This situation can only change if we could form an independent trade union, to support such protests structurally, but we do not have enough financial support for legal assistance and transport, for instance. In addition, we need to gain and maintain the trust of the workers. They have to feel completely at ease. You cannot have a political or ideological discussion with them, and as a woman it is in general difficult to have discussions with them. In the beginning the workers were like: “you women can sit over there, while we men sit over here.” The women of Organizata Politike asked themselves whether they should react or whether they should slowly become part of the workers’ emancipation process. Looking back, we have made the right decision to not react, because when they saw that the women were in the frontline of the protests, fighting with the police and shouting through mega-phones, the workers were quite surprised. Now we protest side by side.
“There are NGOs which claim to defend the rights of the Roma population, but when the Roma are threatened, their houses are being destroyed and they have to work on land in terrible working conditions, these NGOs simply do not show up.”
I do not believe that every foundation or NGO is corrupted, although they work inefficient. However, there are corrupted NGOs who pretend to protect minorities and raise political awareness, while all they do is giving workshops in expensive hotels and drinking fancy cocktails in the meantime. I once attended a conference I was really looking forward to, to meet several civil rights organisations. It turned out to be the worst experience ever.
A woman who was saying that she was a scholar of women rights triggered me. So I asked her in which aspects she was specifically interested. And she said: “The rights of business women.” Come on. Who is discriminating the businesswomen? As long as you have money, no one cares if you are a man or a woman. There are even organisations that claim to defend the rights of the Roma population, but they do not show up when the Roma are being threatened and their houses are being destroyed, when they have to work on land without insurance and in terrible working conditions. They simply do not show up! So why then do they get so much project grants?
With the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation it is different. They were really collaborative in developing an accurate methodology to conduct the research on working conditions. We also collaborated for one and a half year with the Olof Palme Memorial Funding. They financed the publication of our free newspaper at the university, but after our ketchup action they terminated the collaboration. Because according to them Organizata Politike is not engaged in participatory democracy at all and even carries out terrorist attacks. So apparently throwing ketchup is a terrorist attack. Ridiculous.
“The only hope I have is organising resistance together.”
Moreover, I believe that violence can be legitimate if the oppressor uses violence as well. Arresting us, beating the hell out of us at the university and afterwards in the police station, the political trials, firing family members of those who oppose the government policy. Is that not violence? And the under-age girls in the suburbs who are forced to merry because their families cannot afford to look after them anymore. Is that not violence? The many students who have to work in call centres to earn a living? We have videos that were published on social media of supervisors shouting at them, putting them under continuous pressure and threatening with firing them. Is that not violence? Compared to these examples splashing ketchup sauce is just a symbolic act: making someone dirty who is soiling us and our society. So when the state prosecutor said that this was an illegal act because the minister was in state duty, but actually it was the opposite: my comrade threw ketchup because she was not doing her duty. She should have defended the general interest.
The only hope I have is Organizata Politike. Organising resistance together. If I was on my own, I would have applied for the state lottery to move to the United States right away. I was thinking about that until I became member of Organizata Politike.”
Interview by Victoria Deluxe
Photo by Citizens Channel Albania