By Catherine Bohne
My name is Catherine Bohne and I live in the far North of Albania, in Valbona Valley National Park. I am an American, although I hope in the coming years to earn an Albanian passport. I say “earn,” because when you fall in love with – and chose – a country that doesn’t happen to be where you were born, I think you often find yourself having to work a bit harder – whether you like it or not – to convince that country to accept you. Whether you are an Albanian in the UK, or an American in Albania, you have to prove yourself.
I came to Albania in 2009 as a tourist. I landed in Durres port and took a furgon the very next morning to Tropoja. Within 24 hours I was in love. I was very lucky, because the Selimaj family decided to adopt me and since 2010 I haven’t returned to America, not even once.
I was asked to participate in the KRIIK “We the People: Citizens’ Participation and Direct Democracy in Albania” conference as a civil society representative because my NGO “TOKA: The Organization to Conserve the Albanian Alps” has been fighting since 2015 to stop the construction of 14 hydropower plants along 30 km of the Valbona River, 8 of which fall within the protected area of Valbona Valley National Park. I was specifically asked to address business and development issues, but also the question of “why a foreigner would devote so much energy to fighting for Albanian justice,” the implied subtext being “when so many Albanians don’t.”
At first I thought the latter part of this suggested focus was a bit silly, and feeding into my historic experience of media coverage (not just in Albania) which can be for the “Timmy fell down a well” sort of story – basically that whatever is odd gets reported. Thus news crews travelling to Tropoja to film me hanging up laundry – as if this were a miracle – when millions of Albanian women are hanging up laundry every day (and needless to say – but I will – no one is filming that). After sitting through the first day of the conference however, I realized the profound aspect of this question; which is not so much why do I bother so much to fight for justice, but why would anyone? And more than that, what sort of mental assumptions – mental attitudes – what sort of “fertile ground” must exist, to shift any individual from being a passive victim of events to being someone who stands up? In my case, I feel like I should admit that I am such a “fertile ground” that I find myself believing it’s important to stand up even when you don’t believe you can win. That the simple standing has value, above and beyond the potential for victory. Or to put it another way, that the standing itself is a kind of victory, and in the end must be done. But why? And what gives someone that idea? And that, I think, is the interesting question.
I want to interject here to point out that the conference itself was a powerful message against the idea that I am personally in anyway remarkable, whether as a foreigner or as an individual. From Res Publica, to Pranvera Borakaj, to ish-President Moisiu, to Kathy Imholtz to Albana Shtylla the conference was full of people who are “standing up” in one way or another. What I see is not a foreigner/Albanian divide, but a stander-up/passive divide, and that I think is the question which is most interesting, and which I will attempt to address, as I do think it’s an important question. A functioning democracy, or any political system which represents the will of “the people”, requires the large-scale existence of these “stander-uppers” – those people willing to take the time and risk and who will spend the energy. And why do we all do this? What is the “it” that makes the difference between the two ends of the involvement spectrum?
Put another way, on the first day of the conference, someone said something like: a functioning democracy is one in which people feel that they can “force accountability from Government.” This is both historically and philosophically quite a radical idea, going back at least to the Magna Carta. Mostly springing from the French Revolution. Possibly further for all I know. It’s a nice idea. It’s an idea that I like (without possibly quite so much head-chopping). So put another way, why are there some of us who feel we can “force government” – or that we should at least make the effort to try – and why are there so many others who have no hope at all and don’t bother?
In order to think about this, using myself as a test example, I made a table of “issues” or “aspects.” The following is my ad hoc list of attitudes which could go one way, or another opposite way. Things which might be inhibiting, or turned the other way might be things which free us to be powerful. Things which make the difference between standing up, or . . . not.
Hope: Or we could call it “faith.” Basically, no one in their right mind would ever stand up for anything, if they didn’t believe that standing would be meaningful. Even martyrs, I imagine, believe that their sacrifice will be remembered. Of course no one is willing to become a “Dëshmor e Kombëtar” (a national martyr) for every little thing, but Albania and Kosova are all heaving with graveyards and monuments that show there is a perfectly Albanian tradition of sacrificing for a greater good, and believing that that sacrifice will have value, be (in short) remembered, and that memory will be a force.
So why, when we are so willing to be killed and buried, do we not stand up on a more every-day level?
In Tropoja I can attest that your every-day person quite rightly fears a series of irritating and perilous repercussions to our standing up. While we might be willing to die for something, it is entirely possible that if we aren’t willing yet to go quite that far, we know that our living will be made impossible. Is it worth it?
In the case of TOKA’s fight against HPP, in 2016 we experienced the following: Immigration Police pursued me (and according to rumor were bribed to do so) as an unregistered immigrant. Despite the fact that the worst possible legal repercussion for this is in fact a fine, it was locally perceived that I’d better run. So I did, right to the lawyers in Tirana. Next, criminal charges were filed against me, and 2 other people, for dangerous threats (“Kanosje”). In fact the case was ultimately thrown out of court as being groundless (the basis of my threats being expressing an opinion in media) but in another time, I could have been thrown in jail indefinitely. Thirdly, Government inspectors were sent on a daily basis to the Selimaj family with whom I’ve been living for seven years. Had they found anything irregular, the family harboring me could have faced quite seriously crippling financial fines and penalties. Fourthly, the local electricity authority staged a series of arrests for “meter-tampering and electricity theft” against local business owners, who just happened to be speaking up against hydropower development. This was probably the worst and most clever of pressures applied to us, since the decision to arrest our “dangerous offenders” took place after 5 pm on a Friday, which allowed them to be held for 72 hours without contact, during which time a media smear campaign was launched.
Now why am I telling you all this? It’s to say: your average Albanian is quite right to fear concrete repercussions. I am telling you here that they do happen, and that powerful people will throw anything they can against you. Had the court judged differently in the case of the electricity theft charges, those people who had stood up to Hydropower development might quite easily have been locked up indefinitely as “dangerous criminals” and the key thrown away.
But I do think it’s an important point to make: that in the here and today of Albania . . . none of it so far has worked. These attacks have washed over us, and left us if anything more confident of succeeding. But I should admit that it doesn’t work this way for everyone. During their time in prison, the people accused of electricity theft met a man – an accused murderer – who had been locked up for a year. But what is weird? His brother had been locked up with him, also for a year – just “because”. The brother had nothing to do with the murder. They have been there for a year, and had no hopes of going to trial any time soon, since they couldn’t afford a lawyer. And this is what still happens to small people in Tropoja.
So now we have to ask ourselves: How far can your average citizen go? How much can we expect of anyone, when we know what they will be subjected to? Who is willing to stand up, and who won’t? And why would they?
What do we ask of ourselves, what is fair, and what can we expect? A “stander-up” believes that the system will work, or that they can force it to. A passive stander-by knows the system doesn’t work, and they will pay the price. My personal experience is that the system to date neither works nor doesn’t work, and probably that it mostly it doesn’t for normal people. Of course, if you have media attention, and even diplomatic attention, you’re relatively safe. Probably seriously safe.
This is not a very good model for functioning, but it is reality. We need to fix this, if we seriously expect to ask others, not interested in becoming martyrs, not only to “stand up” but to become reasonably involved citizens.
The Freedom to Act: In Albania, there is a whole class of pressure which I as a foreigner am free from, but which my years here have taught me is not inconsiderable for Albanians. These are the ties of family and loyalty, which are admirable as long as you’re facing a simply us-against-them scenario, but which become crippling when family loyalty prevents you from speaking your mind. Or even speaking up to your family. Families here are insular and hierarchical. Their chief driving principle is self-protection. For good historical reasons.
This is a class of pressure, which I am not qualified to address, or criticize. But I see that it exists, and it can exert a huge force against “standing up.”
As I respect Albania, so I respect this deep family structure. I would only add that perhaps families could evolve to encompass a spirit of debate. Could embrace a spirit of self-perfection. Towards that end, I remember the quotation attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Not for me to judge, but only to hope. And encourage.
Education and Skills: Crucial to the difference between being a passive victim of history as opposed to being an empowered actor is understanding and being able to navigate the system within which you function.
This means – to my mind – that if Albanians knew the law, they would be better able to utilize it. The hydropower projects which we are facing in Valbona have clearly stomped all over the law – forging signatures, ignoring deadlines, failing to demonstrate responsibility within pretty clearly defined legal parameters. They have been able to get away with this because the government colludes with them, either for short-term profit, or at best for a hope of “least possible bother.”
How does an average citizen stand up to such an egregious and powerful situation? By knowing the law, and calling it into force.
I will be the first to say that this is not easy. Since January 2016, I have been trying to read and understand the Albanian legal system, and I will take this opportunity to say that this is not even faintly easy. Probably it is not even possible without expert qualified help. But . . . it is possible. At least to know vaguely where you are.
But how would you find this out? How did I? How could anyone?
When I moved to Valbona, there were no telephones, no internet. You had no way of doing anything, finding out anything, other than driving unannounced to visit someone, to ask questions. Which there was no guarantee were being answered fairly or accurately or honestly.
This is different now. Even Valbona has the internet, and we can know, at the very least, what the government says, what the law says, what is written. But in order to do this, you must be able to use modern technology. Otherwise we remain at the mercy of hearsay, and “so-and-so told me so.”
Can your average citizen do this? Well no. This must change.
Funding: Fighting takes money. Any activity takes money. Even if it is only the money to travel to Tirana and talk to people, it may be a couple hundred euro for each trip. If it means having access to written government documents, you need to pay for an internet feed (maybe 100 euro per month). Of course you need a decent computer. If you have to buy it for yourself, just for this, it might be anywhere from another 500-1000 euro. If you need to hire a lawyer to fight your case, it will be 10s of thousands of euros.
There is no way around this. Even if you had all these things, if you file suit (as a stander-up) the Albanian legal system can demand that you post a financial guarantee to secure your lawsuit. This could be as much as all the potential lost profits to the developer.
Imagine, for example, if the Albanian Government enacted a Swift-ian law to eat children. Say you didn’t want to have your daughters and sons slaughtered as meat. If you wanted to fight this law, you would privately have to post a financial guarantee equal to ALL the money the butchers might make during all the time your lawsuit might take. Can you do this? Probably not. Does it make it a case not worth fighting? Of course not.
But where will the money come from?
Gender: It is a simple fact that as difficult as it is to find a man willing to fight something, a “normal” woman in Albania has very little chance of standing up to anything, unless she has a man to speak through, to speak for her, or to help her to speak. Now, I am a woman, and I’ve had risen to prominence fairly easily. But I have also paid a price.
It seems to me that no Albanian woman can have a voice, unless she is willing to pay an unpayable price.
This needs to be addressed.
Recourse: At the end of the day, I am an American citizen. People probably imagine that when push comes to shove I can run back under the shelter of American citizenship, and in some cases this has already proven true.
But I would take this opportunity to remind you that America has her fair share of martyrs. In the spirit of my land, I will say: Tell it to Karen Silkwood, tell it to Martin Luther King. Tell it to the Dakota Pipeline protesters, that to be American is to be untouchable. It isn’t true. The truth is that greed, selfishness, and injustice will always be trying to rise up. And they will succeed, if not checked, if not fought, because they are powerful, and seductive and convincing.
The arguments for a decent basic life, in which we are all reasonably free to simply do the best that we can, to find our own stumbling way to a better future, to make our limited personal mistakes and win our own personal limited victories are ours. We are not privately perfect, nor will we be collectively perfect. And yet . . . together? If we believe in a collective future, in which the pursuit of happiness is what it was originally posited to be: the greatest possible happiness for a community of interdependent citizens, in which the collective good could be sufficient to allow us to make our private mistakes, without permanent damnation . . .
There is no guarantee of happiness. There is no perfect state, which can be achieved, after which none need think or act. There is not even a way of getting there without thinking or acting. There is not nor will there ever be an end, to thinking and acting, not until we’re all dead. The most important question is, what must we give to each other, to help each other. To help each other think and act. To leave our roles as victims, and transform ourselves into being people who matter, who help each other be and matter. How can we become the people who have the small confidence to push forward and change the world?
A version of this article was presented at the KRIIK “We the People: Citizens’ Participation and Direct Democracy in Albania” conference held in Tirana on February 2, 2017.