COMMENT: Tears for Kosovo’s democracy

COMMENT: Tears for Kosovo’s democracy
By bne IntelliNews November 30, 2015

Tear gas and plum brandy in the Kosovo Assembly, violent confrontations with riot police outside and ministers pelted with eggs: Kosovo’s fledgling democracy is facing its most profound crisis since allegations of ballot-stuffing tarred the June 2014 elections. Spearheaded by the charismatic and increasingly controversial Vetevendojse (‘Self-Determination’) leader, Albin Kurti, the Kosovo opposition continues to blockade parliament. Ahead of the 2016 presidential elections and establishment of the Specialist Chamber to process alleged crimes by senior Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) figures, Kosovo faces further political gridlock and heightening tensions. 

The opposition’s campaign is ostensibly motivated by two issues. First, it is claimed that an August 25 agreement on the general principles of the Association/Community of Serb-majority Municipalities (A/CSM) undermines Kosovo’s sovereignty. The main point of contention concerns whether or not the A/CSM will exercise executive competencies; namely, whether it will be akin to the Republika Srpska, which has often paralysed Bosnia & Herzegovina.

The Agreement itself refers to a full “overview” for the A/CSM in areas such as education, health, urban/rural planning and economic development. Belgrade is also permitted to provide direct and transparent budget contributions. A key element of the breakthrough 2013 Brussels Agreement between Belgrade and Pristina, the A/CSM had been longed delayed and a draft statute is eagerly awaited. And yet despite a lack of details, over 200,000 people have signed a petition opposing the A/CSM's establishment.

On November 8, Kosovo fell just three votes short of realising its dream of becoming a Unesco member, after a divisive campaign which pitted an Orthodox priest against Kosovo politicians. One day later, Kosovo's constitutional court suspended implementation of the Agreement until January 12 (after it had been referred for consideration by Kosovo’s president, Atifete Jahjaga) prompting vehement reactions from Belgrade and Serbs in Kosovo.

Border issues

A further bone of contention is the demarcation of Kosovo’s border with Montenegro, according to which the former would lose thousands of hectares of uninhabitable land. Ramush Haradinaj, leader of the AAK and former leader of the KLA, has accused the government of betraying all those who fought for Kosovo’s independence.

Three opposition parties – Vetevendosje, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) and the Initiative for Kosovo (NISMA) – have demanded that both agreements be scrapped.

Some constructive voices have emerged. Kosovar Prime Minister Isa Mustafa called for EU intervention in the border demarcation process, whilst two MPs – Ilir Deda (Vetevendojse) and Vjosa Osmani (LDK) – proposed the establishment of an opposition-led Assembly committee on the matter. The question of the Association, however, remains dependent upon the constitutional court, whose independence has long been questioned.

The real motivations of the opposition mean that any resolution to these issues will be temporary. There remains deep-seated dissatisfaction with Mustafa’s decision to form a coalition with the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) of Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci after six months of gridlock following the 2014 elections. Haradinaj, meanwhile, is understood to harbour grievances for the killing by Macedonian security forces of 14 National Liberation Army fighters (remnants of the former KLA) in Kumanovo last May.   

In early October, Kurti released a tear gas canister within the Kosovo Assembly, prompting a warrant for his arrest. A spate of similar incidents followed, whilst various government ministers – including Mustafa, Justice Minister Hajredin Kuci and Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi – were pelted with eggs.

Having disappeared underground, Kurti addressed crowds in Pristina (Vetevendosje claim 35,000, police estimates closer to 10,000) during protests coinciding with Albanian Flag Day on November 28. Kurti was subsequently arrested at Vetevendosje’s headquarters, along with some 86 party members, leading to accusations of excessive police force.

Further protests and blockages are planned, though a popular wave of discontent has not yet emerged. Serbs in Kosovo, meanwhile, fear a spill-over of violence similar to that experienced in March 2004 when eight Serbs were killed and thousands expelled from their homes.

Indirect elections for Kosovo’s president will be held in 2016, with Foreign Minister Thaci keen to assume the post. Political wrangling is already underway, and the possibility of early parliamentary elections cannot be excluded. In the meantime, dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina has stagnated, with the last meeting between the Serbian and Kosovo prime ministers in Brussels described as frosty.

2016 will also see the establishment of the Specialist Chamber that will try crimes allegedly perpetrated by the KLA. The Chamber derives from the EU’s Special Investigative Task Force, whose findings were consistent with the 2011 Council of Europe Report by Dick Marty that found evidence of kidnapping, torture and organ-harvesting. Though the list of indictees is not yet known, it is certain to contain senior political figures. 

Such actions by the opposition only distract from the key issues at hand, allowing Kosovo's political leaders to avoid tough questions on corruption and the rule of law. Furthermore, the latest spat will only further fuel political apathy and discontent. Though Kosovo recently signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU, its European course remains long, arduous and uncertain (five EU member states still do not recognize its independence). Its citizens still do not enjoy the visa free travel they crave, whilst normalization with Belgrade appears ever more distant. As infighting political intensifies, so Kosovo’s drift towards authoritarianism will likely accelerate, further undermining efforts to combat corruption. Some 40,000 Kosovars fled for the EU earlier this year, and Europe should brace itself for another wave of asylum seekers if the situation deteriorates further.