Kosovo: Government toppled over Coronavirus

Kosovo: Government toppled over Coronavirus

On 25 March the smaller party in Kosovo’s ruling coalition, the LDK, won a vote of no-confidence in the government of which it was a part.  The vote was initiated over the government’s handling of the coronavirus, but this was not the only reason that the government fell.

The Coronavirus Reaction

Banging pots and pans from balconies has been used in many countries, along with applause, to show appreciation for medical staff working during the coronavirus pandemic.  In Kosovo, however, it was used to express dissatisfaction at the government’s response, and the way in the pandemic became politicized. 

The row began when the President called for a national emergency to deal with the virus.  Prime Minister Albin Kurti preferred a less extreme approach, citing the relatively small number of recorded cases in Kosovo.  With much of Europe shutting down, opposition parties accused Kurti of being careless.  Kurti’s coalition partner, the LDK, sided with the President’s interpretation of the situation and initiated a vote of no confidence in the government over its handling of the crisis.  Despite losing the vote, the government will remain in place for now, until further steps can be agreed in light of the pandemic.  The row between the President and the LDK on one side and the Prime Minister on the other was, however, about far more than just the coronavirus outbreak. 

The Shortest Government in Kosovo’s History

The government, headed by the controversial figure of Albin Kurti, holds the record for the shortest in Kosovo’s history.  Kurti’s party Vetëvendosje (Self-Determination) rode a wave of public discontent with endemic corruption, poor economic performance and continual failure to secure visa liberalization with the EU to win the October 2019 general election.  By becoming the largest single party in the Kosovo Assembly, Vetëvendosje broke the stranglehold on power of the PDK and the LDK, traditionally the two largest parties.  But the party faced major issues from the beginning.  Brokering a coalition with the other major parties to form a working majority proved difficult.  It took 4 months of negotiations for a government to finally be formed in February 2020, when the LDK agreed to go into government with Vetëvendosje.  However, the fragile coalition lasted only 51 days before the LDK’s vote of no confidence in the government.  

Vetëvendosje, and particularly its leader Albin Kurti, have long held political opinions seen as incompatible with the other mainstream parties in Kosovo.  Most notably, it has been a consistent critic of the role of the international community in Kosovo.  PDK and LDK, on the other hand, have consistently followed Washington’s lead when holding power.  This difference alone made a Vetëvendosje-led government a radical new departure for Kosovo. 

Tariffs on Serbia

Vetëvendosje’s willingness to stand up to the USA was illustrated most by Kurti’s firm refusal to completely lift tariffs on Serbian products.  Kosovo introduced high tariffs on Serbian products in November 2018 following Serbia’s efforts to block Kosovo’s Interpol membership bid.  While this took place under the previous government led by Ramush Haradinaj, Kurti was a supporter.  The U.S. and the EU have put Kosovo under huge pressure to lift the tariffs, arguing that they undermine the ongoing dialogue process with Serbia.  The process aims to resolve Serbia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo, a former province, as independent. 

Kurti recently proposed lifting some of the tariffs, with a full cancellation conditional on Serbia halting its diplomatic campaign asking countries to reverse their recognition of Kosovo’s independence.  Richard Grenell, the US Special Envoy for Serbia-Kosovo negotiations, described this offer as a ‘half-measure’ and a ‘serious mistake’. 

Disputes between the President and the Prime Minister

President Hashim Thaçi, who leads the dialogue with Serbia, advocates following American wishes and abandoning the tariffs.  Kurti, meanwhile, has strongly criticized Thaçi’s leadership of the dialogue process, arguing that it should be led by the government and the Kosovo Assembly instead.  Furthermore, Kurti has claimed that Thaçi has in fact already agreed on a deal with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić to swap territory between Kosovo and Serbia as part of a final deal.  Kurti objects to any exchange of land as a compromise of Kosovo’s territorial integrity.  It is true that Thaçi has raised this idea previously, but the US has firmly denied that an arrangement has already been agreed. 

Kosovo’s government is the first government to fall over the coronavirus pandemic. However, it is unlikely to be followed by other governments.  In the case of Kosovo, the pandemic was a catalyst that reacted with pre-existing tensions within the government, rather than the primary cause of the government’s fall.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Luke Bacigalupo

Luke Bacigalupo is a political analyst currently based in Belgrade, Serbia. He holds degrees in South Eastern European Studies and Modern History from the University of Belgrade and the University of Oxford, respectively. He has previously worked as a political reporter at the Office of the EU Special Representative in Kosovo and at UNDP in Serbia.