From: Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

For seven days now, Albanian university students from all cities in the country have been protesting in Tirana and elsewhere against the education policies of the Rama government. The concrete event that triggered the protests was the approval of Council of Ministers Decision (VKM) 288 from May 21, 2018, whose art. 4 mandates extra fees for students retaking exams. But even though the Council of Ministers on December 6 decided to withdraw VKM 288 art. 4, the protests continued and grew exponentially.

The background

The discontent of the university students has been brewing for several years. One of the main causes is the educational reform implemented by the Rama government, represented by Minister of Education Lindita Nikolla. The reform opened up public education funds to private universities, often linked to political parties, allowing them to “compete” for funds and students. As a result, public education became both more expensive, and less accessible. Meanwhile, corruption and plagiarism are widespread among faculty, and dormitories remain without even basic facilities.

In November 2016, student protestors threw an egg at Prime Minister Rama in protest against the reform, after which, in February 2017, the government pursued prison sentences. In March 2017, the 8 students were convicted to 60 hours of community service by a judge with close links to the Socialist Party. Also in November 2016, student activist Mirela Ruko poured a bottle of tomato sauce on Minister Nikolla, attending a party-political youth event. In both court cases, the government relied on a law left over from the communist dictatorship, which offers extra protection to state officials in case of “assault.” Neither Rama or Nikolla were hurt during the incidents.

Also in November 2016, police prevented students from protesting in front of the Ministry of Education against the fact that the new university admission system, which favored private universities, had resulted in many delays. As a result, many public university faculties were without students, and students without faculty, while private universities, often related to political parties, saw a stark increase in admissions – and profits.

In spite of the reforms, the University of Tirana received a devastating accreditation report in November 2017, only partially meeting the government’s quality standards. Corruption and malpractice remain widespread, while no visible investments have been made by the government. As recently as October 2018, student protestors were forcibly removed from a speech of Prime Minister Edi Rama.

Dialogue or Dialectics

Today, a week in, the protests have grown massive and the government noticeably anxious. This anxiety is not so much related to the students’ demands; it is primarily caused by the fact that the students have refused any dialogue, representation, or negotiation. Their position has been very clear: legally implement our demands, and we will cease the protest. We don’t demand resignations, we don’t want to bring down the government, we just want our demands to be met – nothing more, nothing less. In formulating their position this way, the students assured that it would be difficult to cast their protest as a scheme of the opposition parties – something the government has consistently tried so as to delegitimize the protests against the destruction of the National Theater and the demolition of the homes in the Astir and Lapraka neighborhoods.

In order to encapsulate the student protests into the manichean political logic of government vs. opposition, and therefore render it harmless, politicians from both sides have tried to appropriate, infiltrate, divide, and demonize the protesters, so far without any visible result. The latest attempt is the invitation to “dialogue” by Prime Minister Edi Rama, live on Facebook, transmitted through his video channel ERTV.

The way in which TV channel Ora News presented this “dialogue” of the Prime Minister was, perhaps unintentionally, and excellent illustration of the ideological battle that is taking place. It presented Rama’s Facebook video next to the student protests in a split screen, mixing the two soundtracks, fading in and out between the Prime Minister and the protesting students. The result was not a dialogue – Rama only speaks in monologues, and also this time spent nearly two hours ranting to the camera – but a dialectics between on the one hand a multiplicity of voices proclaiming a single truth, and one voice making a multiplicity of useless rhetorical gestures: pleas, threats, anecdotes, arguments, excuses.

More than once, Rama insisted that dialogue was the only possibility, “come one, let’s sit down, anyone.” But desperate to find a single person willing to engage with him, Rama’s interlocutors became imaginary members of the opposition, internationals, former cabinet members. An increasingly paranoid and frustrated “artist-politician” faced all his ghosts of Christmas past – live on Facebook.

The absence of anyone to “talk with” was exacerbated by the fact that there is no single articulation of the students’ demands. After the letters of the students of the University of Tirana and the Agricultural University of Kamza last week, during the weekend at least two other letters were published in the media, and all of them were forwarded to one or more representatives of the government. Rama claims that these demands would be contradictory and confusing, and that he therefore needs a negotiating partner. The students, on the other hand, always refer singularly to their “demands,” as if they are internally consistent and clearly communicated.

The Production of Truth vs. Democratic Materialism

The apparent contradiction lies in the fact that the two actors – the student protestors and the Prime Minister – occupy completely incommensurable positions.

On the one hand, the student protestors are guided by a single truth: equitable, accessible, and affordable education should be available to all. In spite of the multiple and increasingly sophisticated formulation of their demands in several distinct letters, the students nonetheless speak with a single voice saying essentially the same thing – much to the bewilderment of both the political class and the media establishment, used as it is to the endless deformation of language.

When after Rama’s monological “dialogue,” an Ora News reporter asked the students about the aim of the protest, how long it will take, whether they’ll negotiate with the government, etc., one after the other student gave an answer in the same vein: we have made our demands clear; they are not negotiable; we will continue until they are fulfilled. The increased desperation of the journalist was palpable as she interviewed student after student, hoping to find an inconsistency, and lapse, a weakness. She found none. No matter how different the students, they all spoke with determination, certainty, and clarity.

On the other hand we find the Prime Minister, guided by nothing but the will to power. He has changed his position on any topic more often than anyone cares to recall. He has spoken so much – his speeches often last hours, his Facebook rants are pages long – that it would be a miracle even he himself would remember his actual position on any topic. He is a man who knows no truth. His rhetorical show, instead, aims at something completely different: overwhelming the opponent, charming the victim, subduing the interlocutor into a compliant stupor. He has launched his speech, alternately halting and breathless, at his opponents, and at any diplomatic envoy that sets foot in his office. Countless are those who have fallen for his sophistry, bedazzled by wallpaper, doodles, shining marble – or their equivalents in language. In desperation, Rama even invited the students to “occupy” his own office, in the hope that the central heating of the Center for Openness Dialogue might do the trick.

Rama knows no truth – he only knows languages and bodies, and the desire to master them. In this, he is an exemplary exponent of what the French philosopher Alain Badiou has called “democratic materialism.” In democratic materialism, truth is inconceivable. Therefore, it considers the foundational claim of the student protest incomprehensible.

When the protestors claim that their protest is not “political,” when they denounce the “politicization” of their protest by the opposition and government, and remove any representative of any political party from the microphone, they do so not because the protest strictly has nothing to do with politics per se. On the contrary. What the students mean with “political” is precisely the specific politics of democratic materialism – the endless rhetorical dance of which “compromise” and “corruption” have become the watchwords. If the student protests are political, they are political as – considering their context – a completely new form of politics: a politics based on principles and truths.

Truths are fragile, even if they are strong. The student protests will continue to be strong if their core remains animated by the desire for its truth of equitable, accessible, and affordable education available to all. This is what binds all those participating in them, young and old, woman and man, from Tirana or the regions. This belief in what is right and just – rather than the mundane hunger for power – is what can make this protest like none other in decades. The only need is to keep believing.