Tuesday, July 16, 2024
 
 

Kosovo elections chart a path for reform and regional stability

Difficult task of coalition building ahead

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Kosovo’s February 14 election, the sixth for the country in 14 years, landed the opposition Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) party in first place with 48 percent of the vote, again giving it the opportunity, and challenge, to put together a governing coalition with at least 61 deputies in the country’s 120 seat Parliament. Turnout was around 47 percent. The party’s star has been rising; this is the second election with Vetevendosje claiming the highest percentage of votes and the party led a short-lived coalition government in Kosovo following the October 2019 election.  
As the dust settles 
In these elections, the reform-oriented, left-of-center and strongly nationalist Vetevendosje party surged well ahead of center-right Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), which received 17 percent.  Not quite headless, the PDK is currently led by former foreign minister Enver Hoxhaj, after its two top officials, ex-president Hashim Thaci and his close aide Kadri Veseli resigned to face war crimes charges in The Hague. 
Kosovo’s conservative governing party up to these elections, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), captured a mere 13 percent of the vote — the worst-ever showing for the historic party originally founded by Kosovo’s father figure Ibrahim Rugova in 1989 — and its Chairman Isa Mustafa quickly announced his resignation.
Vetevendosje’s dynamic leader and former Prime Minister Albin Kurti, widely seen as a controversial challenger to the political establishment, said in a victory speech “This great victory is an opportunity to start the changes we want.”  He appeared to signal that he had no intention of forming a coalition cabinet with his losing opponents. He added “We will wait for the counting of all the votes and certainly we are going to have a new government without including those who should reform themselves in opposition.” 
A judicial whirlwind triggered these snap elections
Kosovo’s snap elections were triggered back in December 2020, when the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that the shaky coalition government led by the LDK (then-PM Avdullah Hoti) was illegitimate, specifically because it had been voted into office with the help of a vote cast by a deputy with a criminal conviction in the last three years and was therefore constitutionally invalid. The vote of deputy Etem Arifi was one of the 61 MPs needed to install Hoti’s LDK-led government, which was elected by the absolute minimum number in the 120-seat parliament.
The complaint before the court was brought by then-opposition party Vetevendosje which accurately charged that Arifi’s vote was unconstitutional because he had been sentenced to prison for one year and three months on a fraud charge.  Ironically Kurti himself has been banned from running as an MP because of the same Constitutional Court verdict that has just toppled Hoti’s government. Kurti and his former justice minister from Vetevendosje, Albulena Haxhiu, were given suspended prison sentences in January 2018 for setting off tear gas in parliament. 
Work begins
Coalition negotiations for the formation of a Vetevendosje-led government are expected to last some time, and Kurti has specifically ruled out a new government with any of the major parties; after Sunday Kurti may well have the number of MPs his party needs to formulate a viable government.  Primary contenders for a new coalition would be Kosovo’s Serb minority, which has 10 seats in parliament, while 10 other seats belong to other small minorities.  A combination of these groups would be problematic for some but workable.    
Dialogue with Serbia to continue, perhaps unenthusiastically
Kurti has been quoted in various media interviews as saying that forming a negotiating team for dialogue with Serbia would not be a priority for his government, but foreign pressure to move ahead is already mounting.
Laying out a few of his new ideas, he told the AFP “The dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo must change our countries for the better.” He added “We need to discuss with Serbia honestly, openly, seriously, and with people as the end beneficiaries.”  Kurti further explained the talks should not be centered on how to “compensate” Serbia for losing its former province. “You take as much as you can while promising an end which doesn’t happen,” he said, accusing Belgrade of “salami tactics.”
Washington reacts
State Department spokesman Ned Price said in the regular February 16 press briefing “The United States strongly supports the EU-facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia aimed at a comprehensive normalization agreement, which should be centered on mutual recognition.” While congratulating the new government on the peaceful election, Price said “We will encourage the new government once formed to prioritize those negotiations.”  
On a related note, US President Joe Biden said that Kosovo holds a “special place’ for his family because of the time his late son Beau spent in the war-torn country on a project to strengthen the rule of law there. Biden’s comment was made in a letter he had sent to Kosovo’s acting President Vjosa Osmani on the occasion of Kosovo’s independence day.  Osmani made the contents of the Biden letter public on February 16.

Kosovo Albanians wait to cast their vote at a voting center in the capital Pristina on February 14, 2021. Around 1.8 million voters were eligible to cast ballots during snap elections for a new 120-seat parliament. EPA-EFE//VALDRIN XHEMAJ

The Biden Administration’s direct, honest approach is starkly different to that seen under former President Donald Trump, who had unleashed one of his most relentless political operatives as a “special envoy” for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.  Ambassador Richard Grenell, also serving as US Ambassador to Germany for most of his tenure as special envoy, hammered together two largely unrealized deals liberalizing transport between the two countries as well as a White House signing ceremony for a hastily contrived bilateral agreement to continue working on economic normalization with US financial support.   
This September 2020 ceremony also included a provision whereby Kosovo and Israel recognized each other and set into motion vaguely-defined plans for both Serbia and Kosovo to move or open embassies in Jerusalem. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was reportedly angered by Kosovo’s announcement regarding diplomatic recognition of Israel and has been quietly issuing unspecified threats even before Sunday’s elections.  

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CEO/Editor-in-Chief.  Former US diplomat with previous assignments in Eastern Europe, the UN, SE Asia, Greece, across the Balkans, as well as Washington DC.

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