COMMENT: Kosovo’s guns versus its roses

COMMENT: Kosovo’s guns versus its roses
Today's election battle lines reflect the divisions during Kosovo's struggle for independence.
By Alex Young in Belgrade June 7, 2017

A full year short of the end of its mandate, a vote of no confidence in May finally brought to an end Kosovo’s anaemic government. Snap parliamentary elections this weekend have been dubbed a battle of ‘the Guns’ versus ‘the Roses’: the parties of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) old guard against those who once advocated peaceful resistance against Serbian oppression. Against a backdrop of looming indictments from the newly-established Specialist Chambers in The Hague, the elections promise to be the most contentious in the country’s short history.    

The so-called ‘Guns’ comprise Kosovo’s largest party, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), the Initiative for Kosovo (NISMA) and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK). The latter’s leader, Ramush Haradinaj (the KLA’s former head), emboldened by Serbia’s failed attempt to have him extradited from France on war crimes allegations during Kosovo’s civil conflict with Serbia in the late 1990s, is their candidate for prime minister. 

The KLA old boys have been forced into a pre-electoral tie-up by impending indictments from the Specialist Chambers, which will become fully functional in the coming months. The chambers will investigate a range of allegations against KLA members, including crimes against humanity and war crimes, deriving from the Council of Europe’s infamous 2010 Marty Report, which prompted the EU to establish a special investigative task force. Mentioned in Marty’s report are Hashim Thaci (Kosovo’s current president), Kadri Veseli (the PDK’s new head) and Fatmir Limaj (NISMA’s head), among others. 

These indictments threaten to remove the very people who have effectively captured Kosovo and its institutions since Nato’s intervention back in 1999 to stop the civil war in the then Serbian province between the ethnic Albanian majority and the ethnic Serbs, and the now independent country’s subsequent administration by the UN. To mitigate the ramifications on the very core of their respective power bases (especially enterprises accused of being corrupt and criminal), old disagreements have been temporarily laid to rest. The hasty and shallow nature of their rapprochement (motivated as it is by personal interests), however, bodes ill for the prospect of stable and effective governance.       

Opposing the ‘Guns’ are the ‘Roses’, who offer much in the way of technical competence but little in the way of charisma. The Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) of Prime Minister Isa Mustafa has joined forces with the New Kosovo Alliance (AKR), led by Kosovo’s wealthiest businessman, the copper-haired Behgjet Pacolli, and the newborn Alternativa. Kosovo’s minister of finance, Avdullah Hoti, is their candidate for the post of premier.

Then there is the often radical Vetevendosje (Self Determination) and their candidate Albin Kurti, who achieved international notoriety last year following a spate of tear gas attacks within Kosovo’s parliament. Vetevendosje has capitalised on national sentiment by opposing a demarcation deal with Montenegro that is a pre-condition for visa liberalisation and continued dialogue with Belgrade. 

Each option has made some audacious electoral promises. The PDK-AAK-Nisma coalition has promised 25% pension increases, a 30% rise in public sector pay, visa liberalisation within three months and €400mn in agriculture investments. The LDK-AKR-Alternativa coalition promised economic growth of 8% and for the state budget to increase to €5bn. Vetevendosje, meanwhile, will apparently double pensions.

Riven by division

Whereas the electoral equation for Kosovo’s Albanians is clearer than it has previously been, Kosovo’s minority Serb community has been riven by division. The Serb vote in parliament is prized because it is a prerequisite for constitutional changes required to transform Kosovo’s Security Force into a fully-fledged army. Some in Belgrade, which has given its strong backing to Srpska Lista (Serbian List), suspect that Pristina is behind the new options that have emerged. 

Those opposing Belgrade’s preferred choice – such as the Party of Kosovo Serbs (PKS), established by Aleksandar Jablanovic (once a minister in the Kosovo government and secretary of state in Belgrade) – have been accused of being traitors. Offices used by the PKS founder and his father Dragan, the mayor of Leposavic (one of the four northern municipalities), were attacked by automatic weapons fire in early June, though no suspects have yet been identified. Other lists competing for the Serbian vote have complained of Belgrade-supported intimidation, including threats of dismissal from jobs funded from Belgrade’s purse.  

Though the EU has deployed a monitoring mission, much of the vote garnering will be done prior to election day. Votes will already have been bought (judging by previous elections) and public sector employees whipped into line. Civil society, with widespread support from the international community, has launched a high-profile “I will not vote for corrupt candidates” campaign, but it has largely fallen on deaf ears. Effecting change through the ballot box remains as challenging as ever.     

Though the PDK-AAK-Nisma coalition is expected to come out on top, the process of government formation remains highly uncertain. The prime fear is a political stalemate similar to that which until lately bedevilled neighbouring Macedonia, with the president refusing to grant a mandate to those who came second but who can muster up a governing coalition. President Thaci has already shunned the notion that Kosovo’s president should remain politically neutral. 

In 2014 it took six months after the elections for a new government to be formed. Any such delay this time would breed political turmoil that may well spill over into Macedonia, itself taking post-crisis baby steps; especially as KLA war veterans, riled by the Specialist Chambers’ indictments, seek to distract from the perceived prosecution of the KLA’s legacy by threatening instability.  

The elections could also further derail the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue process that has all but reached a dead end. Kosovo’s failure to establish an Association/Community of Serb-majority Municipalities (a key plank of the Brussels Agreement, an EU-brokered deal to normalise relations between Kosovo and Serbia) has virtually eliminated the possibility of further compromise, and a spate of security incidents earlier this year led to a spike in tensions between the two. However, hopes are high that the inauguration of Serbia’s new president, Aleksandar Vucic, could create new momentum.

A PDK-AAK-Nisma government of state capture will do little to reform Kosovo’s brittle and compromised state institutions, especially where justice and the rule of law are concerned. International patience with Pristina is running out, as is that of its citizens (many of whom have left in their droves in recent years). 

Snap elections, therefore, provide an important opportunity for Kosovo to achieve the one condition for visa liberalisation that Europe really cares about – demonstrating a track record in tackling organised crime and corruption. Anything less will leave the country increasingly isolated and resentful, blaming others instead of taking responsibility for its own destiny.