By Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei
Learning from the Students

Over the last few days I have had the privilege of sitting on a few meetings of one of the many student groups organizing the student protests and rethinking the Albanian university system. The student protests had started earlier in December seemingly in direct response to the raising of student fees, but quickly encompassed a broad range of issues, including financial aid, education quality, corruption, dorm maintenance, plagiarism, and student representation.

Initially, the response of the government was aimed at dividing the students, by linking them to various political youth groups and an active deployment of government media keen on finding “internal contradictions.” Despite a variety of opinions on issues such as location and form of protest, the students were able to clearly articulate their demands and how these should be fulfilled, and resisted being drawn into destructive partisan politics. Their stance against the “politicization” of the protest, that is, the appropriation of the protest by party politics, managed to hold.

What followed during this ongoing protest, was an endless and increasingly pathetic sequence of memes, threats, and pleas of Prime Minister Edi Rama for “dialogue,” while his lauded Center for Openness and Dialogue fearfully kept its shutters down as the students clamored for their rights outside. As one of the students formulated their rejection of “dialogue”:

Both the students and the Prime Minister lack the necessary academic experience. This means that in their current state the students are only capable of making demands, we cannot talk about something that was already missing in the first place. At the same time, the Prime Minister is not an education expert and he is not in the position of making such statements [concerning education reform], he is not certified for that position.

In other words, the rejection of dialogue is the students’ own admittance of a lack of knowledge, of a desire for education, and a will to learn. They recognize their own weakness, and act accordingly. This is a form of self-knowledge rarely displayed on the political scene.

Nevertheless, Rama and his propaganda czar Endri Fuga orchestrated a number of “spontaneous” talk shows with “students” on several government-friendly TV channels, which one after the other were quickly discovered to be filled with youth party members. The protestors debunked in real time any of the so-called student representatives on display, tweeting out snapshots with Socialist Party officials they had posted on their social media. One of the students “dialoguing” with Rama even outed himself as member of the Socialist Youth Party (FRrESh) and complained about discrimination based on political beliefs. In short: overall, a spectacular PR failure.

This in itself has been an important victory. It has shown that the propaganda machine of the government – once thought to be invincible – can be beaten. No one any longer believes the word “dialogue,” which has been revealed to be an endless, desperate monologue of an autocrat with no real understanding of high education policy. No one any longer believes the promise of “reform,” that the Socialist Party is still picking up the pieces from the previous government – two elections and 5 years later. And no one any longer believes we have an actual government; Minister of Education Lindita Nikolla – who was herself revealed to have performed miserably in university – has remained completely mute, as Rama shouted, grimaced, and erupted on every single TV channel. His machine – and record – is broken. The last remainders of his credibility gone.

But the second accomplishment of the student movement is perhaps even more impressive and a source of genuine hope. The reason it was impossible for any political party, be they government or opposition, to capture the protest and turn it into the standard prefab modes of antagonism was that it was essentially leaderless. Of course, some students were more prominent than others in terms of media representation, but none of them claimed any authority. They all spoke for themselves, which was also clearly stated in their Constitution: “3. We have no representation! We have no leadership!; 8. Everyone talking to the media are representing themselves and not representing the students.”

The principle leaderlessness of the student movement has resulted in a proliferation of dozens of student groups, meeting in bars, homes, and conference rooms, connected with each other through multiple overlapping Whatsapp groups. The lack of hierarchy means they are not “efficient” in any bureaucratic sense, but yet they move with speed and are able to share their ideas rapidly. And because there is no head – and this is essential – there is no head to cut off.

It is precisely their open display of a flat hierarchy, flaunting it in the face of a political class that can only think in terms of a hysterical performance of power, that is perhaps their greatest gift to the Albanian people so far. Because it shows that it is possible to articulate thoughts, ideals, policies, amongst each other without the need for a dominant father figure to approve or reject.

Perhaps one of the largest traumas of communism has been the complete elevation of and submission to an almighty father figure, Enver Hoxha, resulting eventually in a crushing sense of betrayal. This trauma has been reenacted in Albanian society over and over again by later, “democratic” generations. Even if perhaps initially reform-minded and a “different” kind of leader, it has been impossible for Edi Rama to escape the same fate as Fatos Nano or Sali Berisha before him: to reenact the role that has been projected onto him by a people still unable to properly mourn the loss of Father Enver.

Rama’s most recent, painful statements reveal the depth with which this yearning for a leader is engrained in Albanian society. I invite the reader to look at the brief clip from a press conference, in which Rama declares:

Sa i përket plani, plani është shumë i qartë. Unë do të udhëheq protestën e studentëve. Ju mund të qesni, por shumë shpejt do të shikoni se do e kap edhe protestën siç kam kapur edhe të gjitha të tjerat… dhe studentët kanë kërkuar disa gjëra të arsyeshme.

As regards the plan, the plan is very clear. I will lead the student protests. You may laugh, but very soon you’ll see that I’ll capture the protest just like I have captured everything else… and the students have made some reasonable requests.

The clip is simply chilling. Chin down, eyes squinted, scanning the press corps and staring into the camera, as if coming unfiltered from his unconscious, he declares “I’ll capture the protest just like I have captured everything else.” There is no more pretense, there are no more feints: “I will lead the protest of the students,” just like his own fantasies he led the student protests against the communist regime. So deeply engrained in him is the need for a leader, that a leaderless protest is an even greater threat than the absurdity of leading a protest against himself. Then, after a pause in which he nods his head to affirm his statement, Rama lifts up his head and his rational ego again takes over: “and the students have made some reasonable requests.” It is completely unclear how this sentence follows (“and”?!?!?) on the previous one except that they are spoken by the same person: psychosis in HD.

The students have laid bare the psychosis at the heart of Albanian politics with the skill of a gifted therapist. But like every good therapist, they are also human and prone to the same fallibility as the rest of mankind. It would be inhuman of us to expect the students now to behave as perfect example and lead us to an ideal politics. This would again be to transfer our hopes and dreams onto them until we can punish them for their inevitable failure. Again, this is clearly articulated by one of the students:

We realised that in 1991 students helped in the collapse of the system. If students in 2018 also helped in the collapse of the current system nothing would change. We would still remain in that vicious cycle of hatred and irresponsibility. We broke this cycle not by destroying the government but by asking for responsibility, not through blame but through seeking of solutions.

None of this means that it is possible to live without leaders. The internal organization of the student protests shows that certain students take on more responsibilities than others. But the way in which this happens in through dialogue and conversation: not with the government, but with each other. As another student said:

I don’t have anything against a dialogue with the Prime Minister, but I think it is more important to continue the dialogue among the students. It is first us who need to understand each others’ problems. For 28 years, we have been kept unorganized on purpose and have beenneglected by the governments.

Leaderlessness is not a goal but a starting point. It is up to us to live and work in the spirit of their idea: that a different type of leadership is possible.