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Vjosa Osmani, then the LDK's candidate for prime minister, casts her ballot in October 2019 in Pristina.

Just weeks before next month's snap elections, Kosovo's interior minister and a leading voice in one of its top parties has been accused of taking a sexist, body-shaming swipe at the Balkan state's most powerful woman.

Agim Veliu said he didn't know that Vjosa Osmani, Kosova's acting president and parliament speaker, was "so big that she needs a space as big as the presidency [of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) and] that [the leadership] should be removed [in order] for her to come [back and join the party]."

Veliu was referring to Osmani's demand that the LDK's top leadership resign before she returns to the party in which she served as a deputy chairwoman. She was expelled from the LDK in June after disagreements with its presidency.

In Veliu's full comments, published on January 5, a journalist follows up by asking what he means by calling Osmani "big."

"The way I say it," he responds.

Asked whether he regards that as insulting language, Veliu says, "She considers herself big if she thinks a [LDK] presidency should be removed [from office] for her to come [rejoin it]. She considers herself to be big."

Asked to further explain, he declines: "No, no, that's all I'm saying. I don't want to complicate it further."

'Bullying,' 'Misogyny'

It's unclear how perceptions of misogyny or sexism might affect voters in a region where many patriarchal norms and stereotypes against women persist.

"Life in politics is seen as a life dominated by men," Luljeta Demolli, executive director of the Kosovar Gender Studies Center, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "And it would be better for Agim Veliu to support women entering politics with more democratic language and not such language, because we clearly see that they are afraid of women [and] afraid of women's votes."

Osmani has, however, had more important things to think about than Veliu's seemingly sexist swipe at her.

This week alone, the 38-year-old politician and professor of international law has dissolved the legislature after the Constitutional Court declared the ruling coalition illegitimate, scheduled new national elections, and urged the incoming U.S. administration to review Kosovo's recent "pledges" to Washington regarding mainly economic issues with Serbia.

But an Osmani adviser, Egnesa Vitia, took to Facebook to demand Veliu's "immediate dismissal" over the remarks. Vitia said the comments were "unforgivable, intolerable...disgusting" examples of "bullying" and "misogyny."

Agim Veliu
Agim Veliu

The National Assembly's Group of Women caucus told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that Veliu's statements were "unacceptable."

"The use of pejorative vocabulary that insults women is unacceptable and as such should not be used by anyone, much less by politicians," it said.

While she's not the first female president since Kosovo declared independence in 2008, Osmani in February became the first woman to serve as speaker of the National Assembly.

Veliu, who is expected to stay in the caretaker government until the February 14 parliamentary elections, is also a deputy chairman of the LDK.

Osmani was also previously the LDK's candidate for prime minister. She has conditioned a possible return to the LDK on the departure of its top officials, including Veliu.

Osmani also continues to explore the possibility of launching her own political group, tentatively called To Dare.

Scrambling For Votes

The six-week run-up to the elections follows a year of particularly acrimonious politics in the partially recognized Balkan state of some 1.9 million.

Powerful ex-President Hashim Thaci stepped down in November to face war crimes charges at The Hague stemming from Kosovo's war of independence in the late 1990s and its aftermath, which led to Osmani being made acting president.

And multiple governments have fallen since the LDK and the upstart Self-Determination movement unseated Thaci's former guerrilla allies in the 2019 elections.

These political uncertainties left a haplessly weak, LDK-led government in charge during landmark U.S. and EU efforts to restart Kosovo's path to normalization with neighboring Serbia, which still opposes its former province's independence, declared 12 years ago.

Kosovo's leading parties -- the LDK, Self-Determination, and the former ruling Democratic Party (PDK) -- will be scrambling for every vote in February elections seriously constrained by the coronavirus pandemic.

Osmani wrote this week to another pioneering female politician, the longtime speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, to congratulate the California Democrat on her reelection for a fourth term chairing the lower house of Congress.

"As a fellow speaker, and crucially both the first women in our respective posts, I cannot stress enough the example we set today for future generations," Osmani wrote.

'Sexist Labels'

Osmani is a trained lawyer who led Kosovo's successful legal defense of its declaration of sovereignty before the International Court of Justice in 2008 and served as President Fatmir Sejdiu's chief of staff a decade ago.

She teaches international law at the University of Pristina (where Veliu studied law) and has written extensively on gender issues.

In 2019, Osmani wrote a chapter on the origins and effects on society of "stereotypes and sexist labels toward women" for a philological series published by an Albanian cultural and ethnological institute in Pristina.

She cited the prevalence in local language and literature of "hatred, contempt, anger, reproach, irony, ridicule, despair, contempt, resentment, disappointment, disbelief, hostility, envy, jealousy, disgust, and many other attitudes of contempt for women."

In an abstract of the work, she concludes, "Such negative stereotypes and labels ideologically justify the inferiority of women in society."

Written by Andy Heil in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan Service
Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America, was named in the original "foreign agents" list, as was Voice of America.

Two international rights watchdogs have expressed concerns over the inclusion of the five Russian citizens on a controversial list of foreign agents seen by the West as a way for Russian authorities to clamp down on dissent.

The UN Human Rights Office and the OSCE's Representative on Freedom of the Media both on January 8 decried the move, saying that it curbs free speech and democratic practices.

"The UN Human Rights Office regrets the inclusion of the five individuals in the foreign agents list, which targets human rights defenders and journalists and appears to be aimed at limiting their freedom of expression and speech," Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the UN Human Rights Office, said in a comment to RFE/RL on January 8.

The Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media added in a separate comment that the move "narrows the space for freedom of expression, freedom of the media, and free flow of information in the Russian Federation."

"[All] OSCE participating states have repeatedly affirmed (including in their 2018 Ministerial Council Decision) that the media in their territory should enjoy unrestricted access to foreign news and information services; that the public will enjoy similar freedom to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority regardless of frontiers, including through foreign publications and foreign broadcasts; and that any restriction in the exercise of this right will be prescribed by law and in accordance with international standards," the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media said in a written statement. .

On December 28, Russia said it had placed five people -- three journalists who contribute to RFE/RL and two human rights activists -- on the Justice Ministry's registry of "foreign mass media performing the functions of a foreign agent."

Previously, only foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and rights groups had been placed on the registry, in keeping with Russia's passage of its controversial "foreign agents law" in 2012. The law was later expanded to include media outlets and independent journalists.

The three listed individuals affiliated with RFE/RL are Lyudmila Stavitskaya and Sergei Markelov, freelance correspondents for the North Desk (Sever.Realii) of RFE/RL's Russian Service; and Denis Kamalyagin, editor in chief of the online news site Pskov Province and a contributor to RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Prominent human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov was also named to the registry, as was activist and Red Cross worker Daria Apakhonchich.

On December 29, the ministry expanded the list again, adding the Nasiliu.net human rights center, which deals with domestic violence cases.

The additions bring the total number of individuals or entities listed to 18, the majority of them affiliated with RFE/RL.

According to Russia's controversial "foreign agents law," any individual who distributes materials of a publication or a legal entity recognized as a foreign agent, participates in its creation, and receives foreign funding from abroad can be recognized as a "foreign media agent."

The Justice Ministry did not explain on what grounds it included the recent additions of the five individuals and one entity to the registry.

Russian officials have previously said that amending the "foreign agents law" to include mass media in 2017 was a "symmetrical response" to the U.S. requirement that Russia's state-funded channel RT register under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

U.S. officials have rejected that claim, arguing that the U.S. and Russian laws differ and that Russia uses its "foreign agent" legislation to silence dissent and discourage the free exchange of ideas.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based rights group, called the law "devastating" for local NGOs, saying more than a dozen had been forced to close their doors.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as a whole was listed in the original registry in December 2017, along with several of RFE/RL's news sites focusing on events in Russia and Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America.

In November 2019, the list was expanded to include Sever.Realii. In February 2020, the Russian Justice Ministry added RFE/RL's corporate entity in Russia.

RFE/RL has said it is "reprehensible" that professional journalists were among the first individuals singled out by Russia as "foreign agents."

The Council of Europe also has expressed concerns over situation, saying that the foreign agent law in general -- "stifles the development of civil society and freedom of expression."

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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