A rush of vitality for Albania's society and future. An interview with Gresa Hasa, an activist of the student movement that is giving the Albanian government a hard time
"It had to happen sooner or later". These are the first words by Gresa Hasa, 23, born and raised in Tirana, a student of Political Science: one of the minds – although she did not say it – of the protest that has paralysed the Albanian public University since December 4th. 1968, fifty years later? The temptation to make the parallel is strong, but to understand what is happening in Albania it could be more useful to put yourself in Gresa's shoes: a young European woman who does not want to leave her country and does not understand why, in terms of education and perspective, she should accept to have so much less than an Italian, German, or French peer. Her words – tranchant and bitter, but never veiled by victimism – convey the inadequacy of the democracy built by Berisha and Rama: former leaders of the youth, who are no longer young.
There has not been a class for almost two months. How did it get to this point?
The Lëvizja Për Universitetin Movement has existed since 2012 and has been manifesting for over four years, but the public university has been paralysed since last December 4th, when architecture students were told that they would have to pay a fee for each backlog. Hence began a protest that involved several cities in the country, bringing 15,000 students to the Ministry of Education.
How spontaneous and how organised is the mass mobilisation we are seeing?
The December 4th protest began thanks to the students. Free students. I repeat this because our main problem is the infiltration of militants sent by the parties, who would like to exploit us for their profit. Most of the kids you've seen on the streets in recent months are not politicised, they come from normal families, many from medium-low backgrounds; they do not earn anything from the protest, in fact they risk personally. In a corrupt country like ours this makes the difference, this is something new and it is our strength. The activists of the Movement for the University are working to keep the mobilisation and the level of information among the students constant; but also for us, who have organised events for years, the December reaction was a surprise. A beautiful surprise.
So the mobilisation is spontaneous, but you and the other activists of the Movement for the University work to keep it alive. Correct?
We continue to do what we have always done: mobilisation and awaraness-raising. We do not claim any leadership, we try to lend a hand and share our experience with all the students who desire to participate in the protest. To communicate our initiatives we use a FB page and an Instagram profile .
What did you ask the government for? What is your goal?
Our protest is a direct result of the higher education reform launched in July 2015 [by the first Rama government, ed.]. The reform is based on the neoliberal idea that competition between public and private universities (in Albania, the latter outnumber the former) will raise the level of services and educational offer. As of now, public universities have only raised their fees, and naturally so: if the state budget for education allocates 50% of its resources for private universities, public ones will have to bill the students. In Albania most of the students work, but a BA year costs around 350 Euros, which is more than the average monthly salary. The enrollment in the MA is much more expensive, around 1,700 Euros.
In Tirana there are students from all over the country: imagine that every January, to pay fees, they take a bus home, ask their families a huge effort, and return to Tirana with just enough cash to enroll. Then you have to survive in the country's most expensive city, in dilapidated dormitories, with no heating, without the basic infrastructures to study, without libraries. Our situation is unsustainable, for what education and what perspectives are we making these efforts? What we are asking for is the abolition of the 2015 reform and a serious public investment for the construction of a quality university system that is accessible to everyone.
We could say that yours is a leftist movement...
If we want to use categories, yes: we are fighting for the right to a public education, for the rights of young women, against corruption and the pattern of power that makes our country poor. But in the movement there are different ideological positions... what matters and makes us different is that none of us is member of a party. Right now the Democratic Party, but also the Socialist Party for Integration (LSI), the current opposition parties to the Rama government, are very aggressive. They see a real mobilisation, not controlled by them, and they want to take possession of it. They want to replace Rama, we want access to education. These are two very different motivations. Our movement deals with universities, nothing else. We have nothing to do with the opposition, which is responsible for this situation just as the current government.
What do the teachers say? Which side are they on?
Most professors support us: they know the conditions of our university because they work there. Last Friday, for the first time, members of all faculties of the University of Tirana gathered and decided to support the students. We also have cases of "unwanted support": teachers who tried to join the protest, but had to abandon it because they were publicly accused by the students, some of corruption in the examinations and some of harassment. The situation is mixed, in principle solidarity is in force.
What about feminism? Is it a factor of the student movement?
I would say that feminism is at the centre. This is the first mass protest in which women and the rights of Albanian women are a topic. The majority of the movement is made of girls, and it is not surprising, because this university reform penalises them above all. Let's be clear: what does an Albanian woman do without access to education? She is handed off from a father to a husband. In the movement the boys are on our side, but the girls are the bravest. Because we have much more to lose. This is another aspect that is sending power into paranoia.
What do your parents tell you? How do you deal with the generation gap?
In truth, many parents support us. We had grandparents in the parade, can you believe it? But it is obvious that we come from a patriarchal society, it is about changing the mentality. One day there was an interesting debate, inside the movement, about the opportunity to demonstrate in a skirt. So you know what we did? We all went in a miniskirt and without a bra. It was a protest inside the protest. I liked it a lot.
What role does Europe play in your mobilisation? I speak of Europe as a social model, as a future perspective and a cultural reference.
Our movement is born from the conditions in which our country lies, but we do not claim its Albanian-ness, it would be absurd: we try to take a cue from those countries where things are better, even if we know that every country has its problems, my generation does not idealise anymore. At the moment all public faculties are occupied: we organise readings, projections, debates on social movements in Europe and the world. We make comparisons, because it is useful to understand that certain requests in other parts of the world have already been made; and we received messages of solidarity from students from all over Europe, including Italy. The government tells us that the coffers of the Albanian state make a free public education impossible, we say that it is precisely this state of affairs that makes it necessary, and that this already happens, in Europe and in the world. Together with the teachers we have analysed the educational systems of seventeen European countries, comparing how much these states invest in public education in proportion to their GDP and their average salary. We are not talking about utopias, but about feasible policies.
Given the state of Albanian welfare, we understand why your requests are seen as ambitious. In this sense, even if you reject parties, yours is a political movement, because getting what you ask for requires a whole series of reforms in the field of public taxation that do not happen overnight, it takes a new cultural paradigm. It is normal for you to be seen as an alternative for the country. Are you sure you do not embody a new cultural elite?
See, asking ourselves these questions is exactly what we need to avoid right now. This country has many problems, the good thing about the Movement for the University is that it is not colluded with power. During the Berisha regime we could not have had such demonstrations, but political power in Albania remains ill, there has been no change, and we are not ok with that. During the protests before the Ministry of Education, some party militants tried to divide us by using the temptation of politics: "Enough with this, let's go to the Prime Minister's office, let's knock down Rama". Even the militants of the Socialist party tried, they came to the faculty and said: "We are students like you, but we want to go to class". So we voted: most wanted to continue the protest. The Movement for the University must stay away from these dynamics. We do not demand the resignation of the Rama government, because this would involve its replacement with another government that is equally responsible for the state of our university. At the same time, we do not listen to Rama, who said he wants to talk to a leader. The day we will seto to identify a leader our movement will be over.
So what will you do? What is the plan?
We will continue to occupy. 75% of students agree on blocking classes, no faculty will resume activities. Initially Rama called us drop-outs, then he changed the tone, agreed to answer students' questions and stated that he will listen to our requests. Propaganda: until the 2015 law is cancelled, all this is irrelevant for us. It is possible that we will return to the streets, but we do not even know it, because we are spontaneous, politicians must deal with this novelty.
Do not you fear that all this spontaneity will get out of hand?
We are talking about the biggest mobilisation in 28 years of "democracy", the system is still in shock. So far the demonstrations have been peaceful, no one has ever dared to throw anything, and so it must stay, the students are against violence. The only moments of tension, as I have told you, were caused by the representatives of the parties who tried to manipulate the movement, and who are very aggressive with us: they really hate us. In the last few weeks, we have had the police inside the faculties. According to the law, police cannot enter university, except for environmental disasters. Some of their actions have been physical, and that's not good, it's not good that the government has allowed it.
The President of the Republic, in his statement, invited politics to consider the requests of the students. Do you feel protected by the highest state office?
Oh God, Ilir Meta represents everything that does not work. Nice words, but unfortunately we know who pronounced them.
What about journalists? Do the media tell the protest?
There are very attentive media, especially opposition ones, for the reasons mentioned earlier, but our statements are often cut or manipulated. We try to make our message simple and clear, and for this reason we accept to participate in the talk shows where we are invited. Most of us are not prepared for communication, but since the protests started I have seen incredible things, girls coping with the prime minister and giving him a hard time. I saw courage.
Is there a connection between your protest and other claims of Albanian society? I think of the environmental demonstrations of a few years ago, or the recent controversy over the demolition of the National theatre.
I repeat: we do not try to create links with other political issues, but we are open to anyone who wishes to demonstrate for the university; in the street at our side there were representatives of the events you mentioned, environmentalists and activists who defended the National theatre, but there were also elderly people, parents, families, ordinary citizens... The only ones we do not want on our side, I will repeat it until exhaustion, are the members and representatives of political parties, both government and opposition.
No parties. I swear I've noted it. But explain to me know how you recognise these "infiltrators".
It's how they speak. And then thank God there is the Internet: we see from FB if they have taken pictures with politicians, if they are active; in that case they do not come to us simply as students.
Let's say that my family is from the Democratic Party, and my father has published a selfie of him with Basha, because when he was mayor he came to inaugurate the building site where he worked... I try to join the protest, but I am marginalised on the basis of my father's FB. It does not seem like a very democratic criterion...
Everyone is welcome, do not misunderstand. It is not a matter of political belief, it is not discrimination; it is about isolating people who try to mix with us by order of their party. Maybe out of here it is hard to understand, but in Albania politics is not made of ideas, it is made of factions, that's why we do not want it. Even this parallel that they make with the nineties is a historical manipulation useful for their struggle for power, which we are not interested in.
Speaking of stretched historical parallels... Here in Italy the temptation to see an Albanian '68 is very strong. What do you think of this way of looking at Albania? Is it not diminutive to describe you as a part of Europe late on schedule?
I do not know how to answer you. Without a doubt we feel that it is time for us too. We come from 45 years of dictatorship and 28 of "democracy" with quotes, years when generations of young people have not raised their voice like we are doing now. I think we are different from the young people of the nineties: the students of the transition period, my parents, came out of a dictatorship and had no real perspectives in social terms. Democracy and wealth were the dream, many realised it by leaving, but instead of the '68 we had '97 (I was little, but I remember the war...). Now here we are: once again with no prospects neither inside nor outside the University, but aware and not depressed. We do not want to seek asylum in Europe, we do not want to end up on the streets trying to feed ourselves and survive. We want to turn this shit around. Without this hope, everything in Albania would be too dark: in a sense, we have to believe it. If we want a better society, a society without corruption, murder and violence against women, we must ask for more education. A different society passes through the university.
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