A Never-Ending Saga: Kosovo’s Elections

A Never-Ending Saga: Kosovo’s Elections

On February 14th, 2021 Kosovo held its sixth parliamentary election in fourteen years. The result was a resounding victory for Albin Kurti and his left-leaning Vetevendosje party, gaining just over 48% of votes. This will likely transform the tone of Kosovo’s domestic politics, but Kurti’s ability to deliver on his wide-ranging promises may be limited by the state’s difficult realities. More definitively, his pro-Albanian stance makes it highly unlikely that Kosova-Serb relations will see any meaningful improvement. 

An unstable political past

Vetevendosje’s victory marks the latest twist in the complicated recent history of Kosovan politics. Kurti himself was Prime Minister as recently as March 2020, when his coalition government was brought down after just 51 days.

Although accusations of US political meddling emerged in the aftermath – the Trump administration is claimed to have pressured Kurti’s removal due to his non-compliance with its regional peace initiatives – the more  prevalent trigger was a general mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Replacing him was another coalition led by Avdullah Hoti, leader of the centrist Democratic League of Kosovo. Ruling with a one-seat majority, Hoti failed to bring about any improvements, with Kosovo suffering from a deepening economic crisis and no organised vaccination programme to speak of.

On 21st December, Hoti’s coalition collapsed with the revelation that one of the elected MPs had a fraud conviction, thereby constitutionally invalidating the whole electoral process. A new election was rapidly scheduled for the 14th February, bringing us to where we are today.

Adding to this complex situation was the fact that Kurti himself was actually banned from running due to a 2018 conviction for setting off tear gas in the Kosovan parliament. Nonetheless, he will still act as Prime Minister, and will likely bring about important shifts in the state’s domestic and foreign policy.

Domestic implications of victory

Domestically speaking, Kurti now holds a greatly enhanced mandate and capability to carry out his anti-establishment programme. This represented a significant part of his campaigning, with repeated insistence that he would usher in a new generation of politicians – both in terms of age and mindset.

In practice the major aspect of this is anti-corruption, with Vetevendosje’s manifesto pledging to increase government transparency amongst other things. In Kosovo this is important: political elites are often accused of corrupt and nepotistic practices by a population which sees them as out of touch with their reality as inhabitants of one of Europe’s poorest states. Beyond this, the programme is relatively progressive with views for an expanded welfare state and greater state economic intervention.

Of course, such promises bring high expectations with them. Kosovans have a genuine sense that Kurti with his enhanced political position will be able to change things to a greater extent than was possible during his brief stint in power last year. Failure in this regard will only compound the deep pessimism many in the fledgling state feel over their chaotic political system.

Looking further afield

Kurti’s election equally has important consequences beyond Kosovo’s borders. The relationship with Serbia is undoubtedly the most important of these.

Serbia has viewed Kosovo as a breakaway province since the war of 1998-1999. It maintained this stance through a period of UN administration, and has continued to do so since Kosovo’s independence in 2008.

Last year, President Trump attempted to broker a deal as part of his broader global peace initiatives. The resulting agreement did establish slightly closer ties between Belgrade and Pristina, but despite the fanfare, little of long-term relevance was actually achieved.

This stalemate looks set to continue or even worsen under Kurti. He is known for a hard-line stance against cooperating with Serbia under conditions where the northern neighbour refuses to recognise Kosovo’s independence. This same logic will be applied to other states which withhold recognition, potentially leading to frostier relations with neighbours such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as larger global geopolitical players including Russia.

Notwithstanding these bilateral complications, the continued friction with Serbia means that both states’ bids for EU membership will see little progress. Instead, Kurti’s Albanian nationalist instincts will likely mean continued tightening of relations between Kosovo and Albania. Although remaining highly unlikely, in the past Kurti has even alluded to the prospect of unification.

Will anything actually change?

Kosovans are all too aware that the promises made by politicians often do not translate into reality. However, Kurti’s emphasis on shaking up the political system should be taken seriously. His history of activism and his alliance with the equally charismatic Acting President Vjosa Osmani – one of Kosovo’s most prominent female politicians – make it highly likely that steps will be taken to fight the blight of corruption.

However, whether his broader programme will improve conditions within Kosovo remains questionable. COVID-19 is an enormous challenge for any state, let alone one with difficult economic circumstances, and with such a delicate and controversial geopolitical position. In this context, making a positive impact will likely be challenging.

Of greater certainty however is the Serbian issue. With Kurti in charge, any improvement in relations is highly unlikely given his nationalistic viewpoints and uncompromising negotiating style. Predictions of future EU accession therefore must remain distant and speculative, unless major change instead occurs in Serbia – an equally unlikely prospect in itself.

Author: Oliver Moffat

Categories: Europe, Politics

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