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What next after the storm in Iran?

As US President Donald Trump praised peace protesters fighting the “corrupt government”, less romantic scenes unfolded in the streets of Iran.

Recent events in Iran have offered an opportunity for some members of the international community to project a Western-centric reading of the country’s future.

Yet, as US President Donald Trump praised peace protesters fighting the “corrupt government”, less romantic scenes unfolded in the streets of Iran as armed thugs sought destruction and physical confrontation. Alongside this, there were others with genuine motives. For some, street gatherings were an opportunity to expose their political views. Other participants were genuinely concerned citizens calling the government to act on the economy.

With such a variety of participants and different agendas at play, recent events cannot be labelled a call for freedom, but rather a temporary period of unrest in an undulating political landscape. I believe this is why the authorities didn’t crack down on the protesters in the same way they did in 2009, when the Green Movement uprising over the disputed presidential election was crushed. While these new demonstrators’ actions will have consequences, the Islamic republic was never at risk.

The protesters motivated by economic concerns descended into the streets in reaction to the government’s budget announcements in early December. These protests could perhaps have been avoided, had President Hassan Rouhani’s government managed working-class expectations in the run-up to the announcement.

The working class has been hit hard by inflation, by banks’ racket on illegal loans, and by a recent 40 per cent increase in the price of eggs (a staple food in Iran). Add to this concerns over the new budget announcements, and you have people prepared to take to the streets.

Alongside this, you have President Rouhani’s expressed desire to tackle corruption within charities. This threat led some supporters of the unsuccessful 2015 presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi – leader of a large charity - into the streets to demonstrate. It seems no coincidence that the riots’ epicentre was in Mashhad, where Raisi’s powerbase lies. His recent summons from the National Security Council seems to indicate further suspicion of his potential role in the protests.

Many in the West who believe that the riots were a call for freedom must have been surprised, not only by the restraint shown by the authorities but also the speed at which the protesters dissipated. The protests were over in a matter of days because they succeeded in achieving their goals. On 30 December, President Rouhani withdrew some of the most controversial aspects of the budget plan. This is a severe setback for the president, still yet to deliver on his government’s over-sold 2016 Nuclear Agreement economic outcomes, especially in terms of foreign investment. The protesters’ short-lived movement has succeeded in weakening the government, but it hasn’t impacted the Republic overall.

Many in the West, such as President Trump, have lent their support to the protests, largely in the belief that the riots are similar in nature to the 2009 protests. Yet, the two events are not comparable: in 2009, the protesters were mostly city-based and from the middle-class. They were peaceful and sought changes within the Islamic Republic. The Green Movement also offered a leadership alternative. The recent protesters have no obvious figurehead and their groups are too small and disparate to cause an upheaval, despite the use of violence. They also operate at or outside the margins of the Islamic Republic and their aim is disruption.

While those who instigated violence drew the bulk of the headlines, there were many among the protesters whose actions were peaceful and legitimate, largely working-class individuals from villages and small towns. Their success in indenting the policy of Rouhani’s government is reminiscent of the way that the 1999 students’ demonstration signalled troubles for the Khatami administration, which subsequently realised that the reforms agenda couldn’t be implemented fast enough to satisfy civil society while respecting Conservatives’ Islamic standards. Recent events could signify another kind of societal discontentment with regard to President Rouhani’s reforms.

It is not only President Rouhani’s economic programme that has been undermined by recent events. Iran’s engagement abroad is also criticised domestically, as it is believed the country’s money should be spent solely on Iranian citizens. Yet, the Republic is under pressure to remain strong at times of intense regional pressure. Saudi Arabia, its long-term foe, is only the tip of the iceberg: Isis is biding its time in Iraq and its Afghan branch is morphing into a powerful enemy. Additionally, some of the recent rioters were armed, raising legitimate questions of whether their funding and supply came from foreign sources. Both President Rouhani and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini, have condemned the role of foreign “agents provocateurs”, an accusation supported by French President Emmanuel Macron.

So what happens after the storm? Although the riots have calmed down, their impact will continue to be felt in a country where the stakes are high. Both Rouhani’s government and the Conservatives will come out weakened in the public’s eyes as they back-track on an attempt at fixing the economy and tackling corruption. However, the authorities will gain credit for the restraint shown to the protesters and – in particular – the tight control they demonstrated over the ideological militia, the Revolutionary Guards. The Revolutionary Guards could still benefit from the situation in the future, claiming Rouhani’s government is weak and attempting to further strengthen their role. The Revolutionary Guards’ head commander has already mentioned the possible involvement of a former official, understood to be former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Indeed, Ahmadinejad’s former vice-president was recently condemned for economic crimes, and the authorities have never hidden their intention to prosecute Ahmadinejad on similar grounds.

What may have most surprised those clinging to the simplistic “freedom” narrative is the role of the ordinary citizens in Iran, who for the most part remained at home. In a post-2009 Republic, Iranians have learned to be content with the system they have. For now.

Dr Anicée Van Engeland is senior lecturer in the Centre for International Security and Resilience at Cranfield University.

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In independent Kosovo, families still search for their missing children

A decade after Albanian-majority Kosovo declared independence, questions remain unanswered. 

On a Wednesday afternoon in March 1999, Albion Kumnova was rounded up with five other men by policemen and put in the back of a van. From the four policemen kicking in the door to the vehicle speeding away, everything happened so quickly that Albion didn’t have time to put his shoes on.

Albion’s portrait sits above the television in his parents’ sitting room in Gjakova, Kosovo. He has thick, dark hair and a handsome face. Whenever she gets a message or phonecall, his mother’s phone lights up with a picture of him on holiday by the sea in Montenegro. Nesrete Kumanova has waged an intense war to find out what happened to her son, who was 21 when he was disappeared.

This weekend marks 10 years since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. A decade before that, brutal fighting erupted between Serbs and Albanians. The subsequent war claimed thousands of lives and further entrenched the split between the two ethnic groups. Between 1998 and 2000, 13,535 people were killed or went missing.

Gjakova was particularly badly affected by fighting. Now, Albanian flags are displayed prominently throughout the town, and there’s a strong anti-Serb sentiment. As Yugoslavia broke up during the 1990s, Serbia was determined that the Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo should remain just that - a province, not a country. From late February 1998, Serbs and Albanians were at war for control over the country, which today has a population of just 1.8 million, and is a mixture of Albanians and Serbs, although the latter in the minority.  

“Every family has at least one person who went missing,” Nesrete says. Some families have as many as 10 missing. They feel unable to mourn them as dead, just in case something miraculous happens.

In 2002, after the war had ended, Nesrete got together with other parents to lobby for information about what happened to their loved ones. They staged hunger strikes, one lasting as long as 16 days, and protested in Gjakova and Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. The experience of hunger was overwhelming. “Being sad and when you have your pain with you, it’s very hard to handle it. But it’s the only choice I had,” says Nesrete. Their action had some impact, as some captives held in Niš, Serbia, were liberated. But her son was not in that group. She founded an organisation, Mothers’ Appeal, which is still going today. How many captives there were, and what has happened to them, remains unclear and a source of intense pain. 

“Without doing what we’ve done, nothing would move,” she says. “We thought we should be more active. Unfortunately, dead bodies are brought back to Kosovo – or their remains at least – and there are 1,600 others still missing from Gjakova.” 

Pristina city centre is decorated with banners and swags in preparation for the 10 year anniversary of independence. In Nesrete’s home, though, there’s nothing to celebrate.

“The independence of Kosovo has no meaning to families missing their loved ones,” she says. “The most important part of our life is still missing.”

The Kosovo government set up a commission for missing persons and gives monthly pensions to families of missing people. However, Nesrete criticises the government for inactivity and giving her false hope. “Everyone says: ‘this is going to happen’ but the result is almost nil. Every time there’s a knock on our doors, there’s another lie. I still don’t know what happened to my son.”

Many Serbs also lost family members in the fighting, but dialogue is impossible for Albanians, says Nesrete. “Serbs are all the same, they have always been like that,” she says. “Almost all of them are criminals. We have no faith in them. Even in the past in our grandparents’ time, they hung out together. They would keep an axe under their pillow and think about how to murder an Albanian. When they are born, they’re born criminals.”

The interpreter who has been sitting on a sofa adjacent to hers pauses, and exhales. “I’m sorry for translating this, but this is exactly what she said.”

To puncture partisan sentiment and show the catastrophe on both sides, Bekim Blakaj, the director of the Humanitarian Law Center, a long-established human rights organisation, has been helping to compile a book of every single missing or murdered person across Kosovo from 1998-2000. The project, undertaken by the centre, has been gruelling but necessary. “Our aim is to have a narrative for each and every person and a factual history. It is to stop the manipulation of numbers of victims and denial,” he says. “Albanians use some incredible numbers, that Serbian forces have killed more than 20,000 Albanians, which is not entirely true.”

The NGO goes into schools to do workshops, and Bekim says the children routinely cannot believe that Serbs were killed by Albanian fighters. Ten years after independence, Serb and Albanian children who were born after the war are still often picking up biased narratives from friends and relatives.

Each person listed in HLC's book has an average of eight sources to verify what happened. The work has been emotional and exhausting and several researchers were so burned out that they had to resign.

“It’s very hard because you have to be clear to the families that you can’t help them and you are just documenting what happened,” says Bekim. “But despite that they keep phoning you and you feel very bad when you can’t really do anything, especially when it comes to the missing persons. That’s the worst. But they keep calling you back.” Bringing victims together has helped some of them soften slightly. "At first they looked at each other as though they were enemies," says Bekim. "But then they realised that both sides were suffering and that they were victims with the same needs. Nowadays the situation is different – they are trying to cooperate."

Likewise, Nesrete has compiled a book with Mothers’ Appeal – it’s a list of people in Gjakova who went missing, with exactly what happened to them. It won’t bring Albion back, or give a gravestone or a funeral or any real closure, but it’s something. It’s all she may ever have.