EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

In addition to the coronavirus pandemic shaking all affected countries to the core, Europe’s youngest nation was struck with a political crisis causing even more uncertainty and distress for its citizens. Following the October 2019 elections in Kosovo, the new government, led by the Vetevendosje (Self-determination) party, was formed only in February, and by the end of March it already fell apart amid a no-confidence vote. Even more surprising is the fact that the no-confidence motion was triggered by the second biggest coalition party, LDK (Democratic League of Kosovo). The fall of the government in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis suggests that the spread of the virus and disagreements over how to approach the fight against it were at the centre of the conflict inside the government coalition. However, the underlying causes run much deeper and involve domestic as well as international interests and power struggles.

The tip of the iceberg was PM Kurti’s dismissal of the LDK’s Minister of Interior, Agim Veliu, in mid-March due to disagreement between him and the PM over the introduction of the state of emergency. The declaration of the state of emergency was advocated for mainly by the President Hashim Thaci, whose position would be strengthened if that was the case, and supported by the LDK, former ally of the PDK (Democratic Party of Kosovoa) and PDK’s founder and former leader, the incumbent President.

Prior to this dispute, the PM was already criticized by the LDK for his approach to revoking the 100% tariffs on goods from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, introduced by the previous PM Haradinaj (Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK) by the end of 2018. While Kurti proposed a gradual lifting of the tariffs, the LDK leader Isa Mustafa required their immediate and complete removal. Kurti argued that the immediate abolishing of the tariffs would not open the way for continuation of the dialogue with Serbia but allegedly rather for an already arranged agreement between President Thaci and Serbia’s President Vucic. As Kurti, coming from Vetevendosje which started as a protest movement and not associated with the post-war elites, is not a well-established politician on the international scene and does not have as strong influence in Kosovo as the leaders of the traditional political parties, he preferred a more careful and cautious approach to the negotiations with Belgrade, based first on a review of the already achieved agreements on specific issues and their real implementation.

Kurti’s careful attitude towards the dialogue and refusal to rush the negotiations would mean prolongation of the process and delay in reaching a final agreement. This would be inconvenient not only for the President, who already invested plenty of time into negotiations with the Serbian President and had an agreement (no matter how risky one) at his fingertips but also for the current US administration, which views the Kosovo-Serbia issue as an opportunity for a foreign-policy success reachable before the upcoming presidential elections. The President is thus backed by the US President Trump, through the Special Envoy Richard Grenell, to get any agreement acceptable for both sides even if it would include an exchange of territories, without any consideration what this provision may mean for the stability of both countries as well as the whole region. The LDK, traditionally very close with the US, did not show much loyalty to its coalition partner and supported the US interests instead. This was the case especially for LDK’s older wing (represented mainly by Isa Mustafa), previously in the government coalition with the PDK. On the contrary, Vjosa Osmani, the young face of the LDK during the election campaign, and the LDK Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment, Lumir Abdixhiku, both did not support the no-confidence vote.

While the US openly supported any agreement between Thaci and Vucic, with President Trump encouraging both sides to use this opportunity and suggesting they would be invited to the White House to commemorate their agreement, some European countries are following the situation with caution. The potential change of borders in an attempt to establish more ethnically homogenic states (establishing Serbia’s control over Serb-dominated municipalities in northern Kosovo in exchange for Kosovo’s control over the Presevo Valley in southern Serbia inhabited mainly by Albanians) resembles too vividly the episodes of ethnic cleansing and forced migration in modern history of the region as it would probably lead to more migration and marginalization of the minority groups in both countries. Furthermore, the “land swap” would create a very dangerous precedence for the whole region with a complex mixture of national and religious minorities. The concern with the dangerous consequences the deal would have for EU’s closest neighbourhood were voiced by Germany and supported by several other Member States. However, the former EU High Representative, Federica Mogherini, said that the EU as whole would support any agreement accepted by both sides.

One can also speculate whether the drift between the dominant wing of the LDK and the PM is not caused also by the ambitious agenda in the fight against corruption and rule of law that the PM was trying to push through. During its many terms in the government, the LDK has established its influence over various key sectors and institutions in the country, and can be blamed for the widespread corruption, nepotism and inefficient democratic institutions as much as PDK and other parties previously in power. There are also several ongoing prosecution cases against the LDK members for the abuse of office and corruption.

The reason why the short life of the Vetevendosje-led government is unfortunate is that it was the first time the well-known war criminals were not part of the government, and the PM pushed forward an ambitious reform agenda towards establishing rule of law in the country. Both factors could contribute strongly to increasing Kosovo’s international legitimacy and trustworthiness, possibly opening doors for more willingness of some countries to the recognition of Kosovo’s statehood. The October elections result presented a reason for hope for a better future for Kosovo and freeing the country from the systemic corruption, political interference with the rule of law institutions and grip of war criminals. The President used the vacuum created by the no-confidence vote and gave the mandate for creating a new government to the LDK, allegedly violating the constitution for not respecting the Vetevendosje’s victory in the elections. According to the latest news, the LDK could be able to form a new government without Vetevendosje. Instead, its coalition partners would be the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), led by former prime minister Ramush Haradinaj (questioned in relation to war crimes by the special court in The Hague), the New Kosovo Alliance (AKR), led by former foreign minister Behgjet Pacolli (a very rich and influential Kosovo oligarch), the Social Democratic Initiative (NISMA), whose leader was a former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, previously tried for war crimes, and some ethnic minority communities. It is important to not forget that approval for the establishment of a new government was granted to LDK by President Thaci, who himself is being prosecuted for leading organized crime activities and ordering and personally overseeing war crimes during the KLA operations.

As if the coronavirus pandemic was not challenging enough, the latest political developments in Kosovo paint a very grim picture for the young country and potentially the wider region. The election outcome, promising a long-awaited change, was quickly swept away by the intervention by the President, LDK and the US, putting war criminals and oligarchs back into power and paving the way to a hazardous agreement between Kosovo and Serbia with potentially destabilizing consequences both for the country and the wider region. Meanwhile, the EU, which is officially facilitating the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, is watching passively while being bypassed, and will only later have to deal with the potential consequences of the reckless power games of Kosovo politicians and the US.

Jana Juzová

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