Seeing members of parliament very day on television is common in Kosovo. Meeting them in person is a different story.
Even in a small country of less than two million people, it can be difficult for citizens to meet regularly with their representatives. The National Democratic Institute’s recent public opinion research in Kosovo found that more than 80 percent of respondents “rarely” have the opportunity to meet elected representatives and discuss their issues, concerns and demands. This, in part, is due to the fact that members of parliament (MPs) in Kosovo do not have constituency offices in local municipalities and often lack staff who can help them organize routine meetings with citizens. As a result, citizens of Kosovo often perceive their MPs as detached and isolated from the people they represent.
In April 2018, five MPs from Gjilan gathered with 120 citizens to talk about their concerns, the first of a series of town hall-style Assembly Days held in municipalities throughout the country. Since then, more than 40 MPs have taken part in Assembly Day meetings in other municipalities, including Ferizaj, Gjakova, Kamenica, Mitrovica, Peja, Podujeva and Prizren, with more than 800 total citizens in attendance.
Assembly Days are a new initiative of the Kosovo Assembly’s Forum for Parliamentary Transparency and Openness, in line with the Assembly’s efforts to foster communication between citizens and elected representatives. With the support of NDI and funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Forum, which includes politically diverse MPs, parliamentary staff and civil society members, has worked to put the Kosovo Assembly’s commitment to the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness into action. Since 2015, the Forum has increased opportunities for the public, civil society and media to engage directly with the Assembly, from the Assembly Day town halls to a set of online portals. These online portals allow citizens to track new pieces of legislation, as well as attendance and voting history for each MP.
"Today’s meeting with citizens of Gjilan showed that there is a need for more interaction of parliamentarians with citizens. This was a great experience." -Zenun Pajaziti, chair of the Forum for Parliamentary Transparency and Openness
Citizens have expressed strong appreciation for MPs who have come to these public meetings, with one woman in Mitrovica saying it was “the first such meeting since 2001.”
To ensure these events would, above all, provide citizens the chance to speak and share their opinions, MPs decided to give the microphones immediately to citizens, rather than taking the floor one by one, which they believed would take too much time away from citizens. Without an agenda, citizens began sharing feedback, asking questions, and raising their concerns.
“It was great to see that many citizens responded to the meeting and had many questions. Similar meetings with citizens need to be organized more often, not only to learn about concerns of citizens but also to answer the questions they have for us.” - Arberie Nagavci, Ferizaj MP
In most municipalities, citizens wanted to talk about issues that affect their daily lives: corruption, unemployment, lack of health insurance and low quality healthcare, and little investment in roads and local infrastructure. European Union visa liberalization – which would allow citizens of Kosovo, the last country in southeast Europe, to travel to Schengen zone countries without a visa for 90 days –was also at the forefront in citizens’ minds. They also raised concerns about how their representatives speak to each other in parliament and lamented how few opportunities they have to reach out to MPs directly.
“These meetings must be organized more often, because citizens need to talk to their elected representatives on a regular basis.” - Mitrovica citizen attending a town hall meeting
A primary concern for citizens of Mitrovica was the ongoing dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia to normalize post-war relations and the fate of Kosovar Albanian citizens in northern Mitrovica, who were displaced from that area.
“People of Kosovo, across all municipalities, have many problems and concerns, and Assembly Days are a good mechanism to directly address them with elected representatives.” - Ferizaj citizen attending a town hall meeting
MPs were open, honest and direct with their answers to the issues raised. For many MPs, this was their first time being confronted with citizens’ concerns directly, giving them an opportunity to see the importance of meeting citizens outside of election campaigns. At the same time, these meetings helped citizens understand that their MPs can and should be reminded of their responsibilities to citizens, the promises they made during election years, and the opportunity they have to stand for the political views they represent.
Realizing the importance of these meetings, the Forum for Parliamentary Transparency and Openness has pledged to continue and expand the Assembly Days initiative, engaging as many municipalities as possible to increase direct interaction between citizens and elected representatives in the months and years to come.