COMMENT: Kosovo’s escalating political crisis shows few signs of abating

COMMENT: Kosovo’s escalating political crisis shows few signs of abating
Kosovo's new president-elect, Hashim_Thaci.
By Alex Young in Pristina March 9, 2016

The release of tear gas in the Kosovo Assembly is becoming such a regular occurrence that many MPs have now invested in gas masks. Whilst the first such act was tragic for Kosovo’s Assembly, the seven or so subsequent attacks have made a farce out of Kosovo’s democracy. Following a spate of attacks on political party offices, there are growing concerns about the unravelling of a coalition agreement that has now all but served its purpose. With dissent escalating in all quarters – within government and amongst the opposition – the call for early elections grows ever louder.

Amidst the fury and white smoke, Hashim Thaci, Kosovo’s divisive former prime minister and current foreign minister, finally became president-elect on February 25. Despite considerable opposition inside and outside parliament, Thaci secured the requisite simple majority in the third round of secret Kosovo Assembly voting, having failed to secure the two-thirds majority required in the first two goes. Thaci ultimately required a deal with Kosovo Serb MPs – which is believed to include additional government positions – to ensure at least their presence, if not their active support. Thaci has since launched a PR campaign proclaiming his election a victory for all of Kosovo.

After a day of high drama and controversy, three opposition parties have now filed an appeal to the constitutional court claiming that there were various violations during Thaci's election. Thaci's only opponent for the post – Rafet Rama, an MP from the same party – didn't even bother voting for himself, making a mockery out of the need for democratic contestation. There are also doubts about the very quorum required. A 2011 constitutional court verdict annulling the election of Behgjet Pacolli as president purportedly created a precedent requiring that all MPs be present during voting (save where formally excused or suspended by the Speaker). 39 MPs were absent when Thaci was elected.

Thaci’s election as president was one of the cornerstones of the December 2014 coalition agreement between his Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) of current prime minister, Isa Mustafa. Whilst justified as the only means to end months of political deadlock, the LDK’s decision to get into bed with one of its most hostile opponents alienated many of its diehard supporters. Mustafa was at the time widely accused of having put his own personal interests before those of his party. Many claimed it would be impossible for the coalition to function effectively.     

But with Thaci having secured his ultimate goal of the presidency, for which he depended upon Mustafa’s whipping of LDK MPs, there is now very little incentive for him to demonstrate any loyalty to the coalition. Mustafa faces a desperate bid to uphold his party’s interests in a context of growing internal divisions over support for Thaci’s presidency. From Thaci’s point of view (as de facto leader of the PDK, despite resigning the post), the rationale for early elections is quickly becoming stronger. Engineering the case for such elections, however, could require further political tension and paralysis.

Indeed, such tensions are increasingly spilling over into acts of violence against property and individuals. Several LDK offices have been attacked in recent weeks, including its headquarters in Pristina and those in Peja, Gjilan, Mitrovica, Istog and Gjakova. A car owned by the chief of the LDK’s parliamentary group, Ismet Beqiri, was also set on fire. 

Opposition leaders – Albin Kurti (Vetevendosje), Muharrem Nitaj (Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK) and Zafir Berisha (Initiative for Kosovo, NISMA) – have vowed to continue blocking the Kosovo Assembly. Boycotts have also been mentioned, whilst further protests have been scheduled for later in March.

Vetevendosje – whose leader, Visar Ymeri, was recently arrested on assault charges along with other party members – has turned its ire on Kosovo’s minority Serbs, with party activists overturning a truck carrying Serbian products in response to a dispute over Albanian-language textbooks which were prevented from entering Serbia. Ethnically-motivated violence, especially where the perpetrators are not brought to justice, bodes ill for stability in Kosovo and the progress of dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, which is so crucial to both sides’ EU ambitions. 

Marty matters

Another destabilizing factor is the soon-to-be-established Specialist Chamber, which will later this year issue indictments against senior Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) officials in relation to allegations contained in the Marty report, which examined war crimes during the 1998-1999 civil war in Kosovo between Serbia, of which Kosovo was a province, and its majority ethnic Albanian population.

This report, adopted by the Council of Europe in 2011, included charges of inhuman treatment of people and killing of prisoners with the purpose of removal and illicit trafficking in human organs – allegations which refer specifically to Thaci and other members of his so-called 'Drenica Group' (which includes Kadri Veseli, the current head of the Kosovo Assembly) inside the KLA.

The chief prosecutor, David Schwendiman, clarified that Thaci is not immune to prosecution. Thaci himself says “we have nothing to hide”. Even so, his ascension to the presidency will raise the stakes in any indictment, and could throw him into a confrontation with the international community.

Since 1999, many deep-seated, historical personal and political disputes were set aside to aid the cause of Kosovan independence. With Kosovo’s political system facing considerable upheaval in the coming 12 months, the jockeying for power and influence has only just begun in earnest.

The international community has invested heavily in the sucess of Kosovo – a success that has involved turning a blind eye to a litany of failings (including widespread electoral fraud in 2010), and those responsible for them. This is by no means a temporary political crisis, but the latest manifestation of an ongoing battle for the state and its resources.

With the crisis showing few signs of abating, the time has come for the international community to find new partners in Kosovo.