COMMENT: Kosovo’s divisive presidency

COMMENT: Kosovo’s divisive presidency
Kosovo Police Ready For Parade. Photo by CC
By Alex Young in Pristina January 27, 2016

Back in April 2011, the then US ambassador to Kosovo, Christopher Dell, engineered the appointment of Atifete Jahjaga, a relatively unknown former deputy director of the Kosovo police, as president of the fledgling state. A compromise, consensus candidate, Jahjaga has served with distinction and decorum. With her mandate expiring in early April, the indirect election of her replacement by the Kosovo Assembly is imminent. Amidst a political crisis that has brought violence to the streets of Pristina and the arrest of opposition MPs, the campaign adds a new dimension to already simmering tensions. 

Hashim Thaci, Kosovo’s former prime minister and current deputy prime minister and foreign minister, has long eyed the post. A deadlock-breaking December 2014 coalition agreement between Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and its fierce rivals, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), included a promise of support for Thaci’s presidential bid, with the LDK’s Isa Mustafa assuming the post of prime minister in return.

As the secret ballot approaches, however, strains within that governing coalition threaten to derail Thaci’s ambitions. Factions within the LDK could withhold their support in order to secure political concessions; around seven LDK MPs have publicly declared their opposition to Thaci’s election, with others expected to follow suit. If no candidate secures two-thirds support in the first two rounds of voting, then a simple majority is required in the third round. Failure in the first round of voting could give further momentum to the anti-Thaci factions.    

Thaci also depends upon the support of Srpska Lista (Serbian List), which demands the establishment of the long-delayed and much-anticipated Association/Community of Serb Majority Municipalities. One of the key elements of the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo following the civil war and subsequent declaration of independence by the latter in 2008, the Association has courted the collective fury of the Kosovan opposition. Any suggestion of further concessions to the country’s Serb community, which continues to block the establishment of the Kosovo Armed Forces, will heap further pressure on the ruling coalition.   

The ongoing political crisis has seen 13 of the 31 opposition Vetevendosje (Self-determination) MPs arrested, including the party’s leader and figurehead, Albin Kurti. Constitutional provisions requiring parliamentary consent before such arrests have been ignored, and there are serious concerns about abuses of power by a country that Freedom House now refers to as a “semi-consolidated authoritarian regime”. The latest protests on January 9 again saw violence on the streets of the capital Pristina. The extent of the crisis is such that an international mediator is being touted.

An apparent precedent stemming from the Constitutional Court’s 2011 annulment of the election of Behgjet Pacolli as president suggests that all Kosovo Assembly members (except those excused by the Assembly chair) must be present when the vote for a president takes place. If this actually happens, then Thaci’s bid could easily be defeated. But were the 2011 judgement to be simply ignored, then the discrediting of the country’s Constitutional Court would be complete.  

Shadow of indictment

The equation is further complicated by persistent speculation that Thaci will be amongst those indicted by the soon-to-be-established Specialist Chamber, established to process crimes committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) during the civil war with Serbia, whose political arm he spearheaded. The Specialist Chamber, which will operate out of The Hague, is expected to start issuing indictments this autumn. The arrest of a serving head of state would severely damage Kosovo’s credibility internationally and prompt an unseemly confrontation with the global community. 

Thaci’s standing has already been affected by the failure to secure Unesco membership, further sovereign recognition for Kosovo’s independence or visa liberalisation for its citizens, though there have been some positive signals from the EU concerning the latter. Thaci has been criticised for appearing to use the foreign ministry post to shore up personal support in the event of a possible indictment, but has resisted opposition calls for early elections.

With Thaci dependent on an alignment of various political factors – notably the LDK and Srpska Lista – and with uncertainty about whether every Assembly member is required to vote, the entire process of choosing a president could well collapse. General elections would inevitably follow. In a climate of politically motivated violence and arrests, Kosovo’s democratic credentials would be sorely tested. With allegations of ballot stuffing, missing votes and voter fraud having tarnished the 2013 elections, any new elections would be fraught with difficulty in the current climate.

Jahjaga – the region’s first female president – has helped guide Kosovo through the growing pains of contested independence. Amidst a deteriorating political environment, the best solution for would be another apolitical candidate – a president for all Kosovo’s citizens who could mediate between the country’s destructive political dynamics. Jahjaga is, however, seemingly unwilling and unable to extend her mandate, despite murmurings of international support.   

A divisive figure, a Thaci presidency bodes ill for finding a long-lasting resolution to the most damaging political crisis to have affected Kosovo since its independence in 2008. Guided by personal and political interests, the prospect of Thaci as the head of this young state remaining statesmanlike and reconciliatory is bleak. There is still time for a compromise candidate to emerge, but today’s Kosovo remains short on compromise.