• "Society in Kosovo has two options, either to fight the evils within it of crime and corruption, or to remain on the margin of democratic countries... The cause of democracy has been betrayed by many people, including some who won seats without deserving election to them." — Alma Lama, Member of Parliamentary Assembly from the LDK Party, Kosovo

The name of Alma Lama, a feminist political leader in the Balkan republic of Kosovo, is unknown to Americans and Western Europeans. That is unfortunate, because Lama has taken a necessary, strong stand in favor of women's rights. Although Kosovo is under U.S. protection, the legacy of Yugoslav Communism and recent radical Islamist infiltration have merged to foster incidents of aggression against dissenters.

Ostracism is a common form of intimidation employed by the Stalinist left. While fascists and Islamist extremists act typically against their opponents by direct physical assault, Stalinists in the West have reserved such crude methods for the few opponents they consider genuinely dangerous to them. They prefer, when they can, to isolate their critics by oral slander and gossip, supplemented by printed libels, with the aim of discrediting them and preventing a wider audience from paying attention to their views.

Alma Lama.

Alma Lama, interviewed in Kosovo in late in February, represents such a case. Born in Albania, she graduated from the University of Tirana in language and literature, then in 2002 went to Kosovo, where she contributed to media agencies[1]. She also visited the U.S., honing her professional skills by participating in the Women in Public Service program sponsored by the State Department at Wellesley College, in 2012. Mainly, however, she worked for leading Albanian language media, including the public Radio Television Kosovo (RTK) and the most popular broadcaster in Albania, Top Channel; and became known as a promoter of investigative reporting in the Western style, basically unknown in the region.

Lama was then solicited in Kosovo to join the Self-Determination Movement, led by a charismatic radical philosopher, Albin Kurti, who had been active in the political wing of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) during the 1998-99 NATO intervention, and imprisoned in Serbia after the war. He launched the Self-Determination Movement (known in Albanian as LVV) in the first decade of the 21st century, with a message of resistance to foreign meddling in Kosovo -- a message welcomed by many.

It was often said, before the decline of professional journalism and the rise of advocacy polemics, that journalists should not work for politicians or become political activists themselves; many referred to such actions as "crossing the line." But as public attitudes polarized, such instances became common, and the temptation to become involved in "a cause" has been strong, especially in ex-Communist countries such as the successor states of former Yugoslavia. Moreover, the Serbian onslaught against the civilian populations of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Kosovo compelled journalists to take sides.

To many, including Lama, Kurti, seemed the only honest political figure in Kosovo. She joined LVV, and when the movement became an electoral party and presented her among its candidates for the Assembly of Kosovo, the national legislature, she was one of 12 members elected in 2010. The success of LVV at the ballot box was a surprise to some observers, who had not realized the depth of the disaffection Kosovar Albanians felt toward local politics.

Lama remained an LVV deputy in the Assembly until 2013, when she broke with its parliamentary delegation[2] soon after Kosovo Muslim women were assailed by an Islamist extremist, Imam Irfan Salihu. Salihu was relieved of duties at his mosque in the southern Kosovo spiritual center of Prizren, as described in The Weekly Standard in June 2013, after he erupted in a diatribe against Kosovo Muslim women, whom he deemed insufficiently observant of Islamic morals as he prescribed them. He railed against them as alleged "prostitutes" and called on husbands to abandon them. Salihu criticized only the supposed immorality of women, not of men.

Although its population is at least 85% Muslim, Kosovo is defined constitutionally as secular. For example, the headscarf and religious instruction are excluded from public schools. Women including Kosovo president Atifete Jahjaga are prominent in official capacities, but dress according to fashionable Western norms. Salihu was condemned by women from the three main parties in the Assembly. Lama, representing LVV, Teuta Sahatçiu from LDK, and Vlora Çitaku, the Kosovo minister for European integration and a former deputy from the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), which is made up of prominent KLA leaders, joined other female Assembly members in denouncing Imam Salihu.

Lama, however, said she was then shocked when LVV leader Kurti, who had been known throughout his career as an atheist, proposed a political opening to a tiny Islamist entity, the Justice Party (PD), which had only three seats in the 120-member Assembly and was apparently modeled on the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Kurti and LVV refused to defend Lama against attacks by the Islamists, and, according to Lama, LVV further called for protecting the headscarf and introducing religious lessons in state schools, just as the Islamists demanded. Lama, who says she is not religious but respects the rights of believers, stated that as a feminist she refuses to accept any compromise with restrictions on women's dress or other habits.

The shift by Kurti toward the Islamists, coming so quickly after the crude assault on the reputation of Kosovar Muslim women by Salihu, was not only surprising, it seemed both opportunistic and unproductive. An alliance with Islamists would not improve LVV's political chances, but could harm its credibility as a principled party. (Kurti and the rest of the LVV leadership, previously cooperative with media efforts, have failed to respond to requests for interviews.)

In addition, Lama said, "The influence of Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood is political suicide for Kosovo." She explained a paradox about life under past Serbian rule that had previously been mystifying: the terror regime of Slobodan Miloševič had allowed mosques to remain open in Kosovo, meanwhile expelling local Albanians from their jobs, excluding them from schools, and denying them health care. The intention of the Serbs, according to Lama, was to divide the Albanians along religious lines and to reinforce the image of the latter as Islamists.

Lama's rejection of complicity with Islamists is hardly unique in her environment. On February 19, media in Albania and Kosovo published an interview with Veton Surroi, a leading journalist and author; it was entitled, "The 'anchor' of the Albanians must be set in Berlin, not in Ankara." He criticized the regional intrigues of the current Turkish administration, noting drily that, "the Erdogan idea of democracy is rather different from that of Europe."

Similarly, on February 24, Koha Ditore [Daily Times], the high-quality Kosovo journal of record, founded by Surroi, printed a column by Ramiz Lladrovci, "Serbian ideology and Wahhabism, two major risks for Kosovo;" it warned that, "the Islamist movement, oriented firmly toward Wahhabism… is already present in Kosovo, but is advancing, with its leaders, both known and unknown, becoming more aggressive, and more vocal in their interference in people's lives... political leaders, even including Albin Kurti, take care not to offend such groups." Lladrovci charged that officials of Serbian intelligence agencies, whom he identified by name, had long established a network of collaborators inside the Kosovo Islamist movement.

Thus Lama departed from LVV and, after reflecting, joined LDK's Assembly group. The reaction to her evolution, as she recalled it, was appalling. Her former party associates insulted and shunned her. Muslim radicals threatened her on e-mail and social networks. People who had been trusted as friends responded to mention of her with crude slurs. One said in an interview that someone should "nail" her, and topped it with unprintable sexist epithets. When reminded that in America "nail her" also has a sexual connotation, he said, "Do that, too." Another accused her of being anti-Muslim, although a leading Kosovar Sufi was quick to express his respect for her.

Lama pointed out that the propaganda against her by Muslim radicals alleged she had become an apostate from Islam, and deserved the death penalty. Although she is an elected legislator, she requested police protection, which continues. At the end of the interview, she mentioned her anxiety about going home on her own late at night.

Notwithstanding the defamation she faces, Lama continues working productively and conscientiously for her fellow-citizens. Last year, the Kosovo Assembly passed a law she had written and proposed, to shield journalistic sources -- perhaps the most advanced such regulation anywhere in the world. The shield law covers "printed media (including brochures, posters, leaflets, magazines and newspapers), film/video records, radio transmissions and television transmission, audio recording and reproductions, transmissions of services by messages." Its guarantees extend to "cameramen, photographers and their support staff, such as drivers and translators, etc.," as well as self-employed news-gatherers. Safeguards are established on all work materials including "documents, notepads, sound or film cassettes, recordings, video, photographs or other unpublished means."

It further establishes a right to silence by journalists for protecting sources, both in court and during criminal investigations. Journalists may be compelled to identify sources only to prevent a homicide, based on a court order, and after appropriate legal arguments. Absent such a procedure, "searches of houses, buildings of media companies, or any online public communication company, news agency, cars of these companies or agencies, or homes of journalists" are prohibited. Journalistic source content is even shielded when it is received from a third party who has obtained it illegally, if journalists choose to remain silent.

Lama has continued her media dialogue with the Kosovo public. On February 24, 2014, in the Kosovo daily Zëri [The Voice], under the title, "Building democratic culture," she wrote, "Society in Kosovo has two options, either to fight the evils within it, crime and corruption, or to remain on the margins of democratic countries, where failure and dysfunction dominate... [O]rdinary citizens tend generally to shift blame from themselves to politicians, whom they view as the bearers of crime and corruption... but a comprehensive means to exit a corrupt system is required... Votes are said to be for sale – meaning the purchase of intentions and a conscience... [Electoral] commissioners arrange deals among the parties, trade off votes and candidacies, and discuss who pays the most... [Deputies] who are illiterate or have finished no more than middle school, or with criminal records, use the parliament to shelter their crimes."

Her criticism of political venality articulates the grievances heard among millions of people in ex-Communist countries today, most notably in Ukraine, but also in the Balkans, especially Kosovo, Albania, and Bosnia-Hercegovina. She warned in Zëri that in Kosovo's elections "the cause of democracy has been betrayed by many people, including some who won seats without deserving election to them." She identified the manipulation of the electoral commissioners as the main problem, especially in remote villages where local officials distribute votes in advance among parties. She called for public counting and scrutiny of ballots, by all commissioners acting as a group, in the presence of observers from civil society, as well as the Central Electoral Commission, rather than in the closed company of their party adherents. She pointed out that Albania has adopted such practices, producing a significant increase in electoral transparency. Finally, she warned that foreign embassies in Kosovo cannot secure the integrity of voting, and that no international power can erect a democratic state or culture in Kosovo, despite the vast payments they have distributed there.

Lama concluded, "The time is now for every citizen to be held accountable in the vote, to abandon the mentality of voting according to family or clan affiliation, for young people to clean up the parties, with each party renouncing the deformation of the citizens' wishes, and for all institutions to guarantee fully elections that are free and fair, while they now stand at the edge of crisis."

She deserves support around the world.

[1] Such as the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, United Press International, The Washington Times, and BBC News.
[2] After some months as an independent legislator, she eventually joined the conservative, non-violent Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), which unlike LVV and other leading forces in government, had not been involved in the KLA.

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