Discussing the Results of the Kosovo Parliamentary Elections
with Serbeze Haxhiaj (journalist for RTK / BIRN)
16 February 2021, 18.00-19.00, Zoom
Event Report by Frauke Seebass
At a crossroads: How will politics change in Kosovo after the landslide victory of Vetëvendosje?
On 15 February, one day after the 2021 snap elections in Kosovo, journalist Serbeze Haxhiaj joined us live from Prishtina to discuss the results with guests from all across Europe.
Exit polls showed a landslide victory for the progressive party Lëvizja Vetëvendosje! (Movement for Self-Determination) led by former student protest leader Albin Kurti who had already served as prime minister in 2020 for less than four month before having been removed by a non-confidentiality vote in parliament. While his party might well receive an absolute majority after all mail-in ballots will be counted – the highest percentage of votes any party has received since the country’s independence – and form a government with no need for a coalition partner, it remains unclear whether or not he can actually serve as prime minister again as a new rule introduced by the Central Election Commission declared that no one could hold this position who was convicted of a crime within the last three years. Kurti however, who infamously released tear gas in a parliamentary session to prevent a vote he deemed harmful to Kosovo, has only received a conditional sentence which makes him eligible according to criminal courts. The party turned to the Supreme Court and is now waiting for their decision.
Kosovo has been shaken by yet another wave of political crises ever since the last elections in the fall of 2019. The coalition government of Vetëvendosje! and the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) had a rough start, and when they had finally formed a government faced a global pandemic as the icing of a cake made of delayed reforms, dysfunctional institutions, and widespread corruption. The motion of non-confidentiality initiated by then-President Hashim Thaçi was supported by a number of MPs from the coalition partner. In consequence, a new government was formed by LDK, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), the Social Democratic Initiative NISMA and Lista Srpska, and LDK deputy leader Vjosa Osmani was removed from her position for publicly opposing the move. In her place, Deputy Prime Minister and LDK party leader Avdullah Hoti took over from Kurti.
On 21 December the Constitutional Court ruled that the vote of Etem Arifi of the minority Ashkali Party for Integration in favour of Hoti was invalid (as Arifi had been convicted of fraud) and consequently the government had not received the support of the majority of the Assembly. As a result, fresh elections were called, with the Hoti government continuing as a caretaker government. The elections are taking place on 14 February. In the meantime, tables have turned on Thaçi, former Chairman of the Assembly Kadri Veseli and others of the old guard, who were summoned by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague for potential war crimes as commanders of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) during the war in 1999. In 2019, then-prime minister Ramush Haradinaj had also been indicted, leading to the snap elections preceding Kurti’s first term.
Vetëvendosje! entered the election without a manifesto but with far-reaching promises to fight organised crime and corruption and to implement a vetting process for a functioning, independent judiciary system. As Serbeze pointed out, this process will take years to complete, given that it includes an evaluation of the entire judiciary body that has been thriving on corruption and since independence has been subject to international superposition. Another question is that of accountability of former officials, including representatives of international organisations acting in Kosovo. And yet in her view, the biggest challenge will be the dialogue with Serbia aimed at mutual recognition and normalisation of the relation between the two countries. Kurti is known for having a very firm stance in this matter compared to his predecessors.
The first fights of the new government will however take place within the parliament, where a number of challenges await the election victors. On the one hand, the constitution demands at least 20 representatives of minority groups in parliament, including the cabinet, ten of which Serbs, including one minister and two deputy ministers. But the largest Serbian party Srpska Lista who claims victory over all 10 seats reserved for ethnic Serbs promise to be a disrupting factor in the formation of the government, and relations with Vetëvendosje! can be described as mutual aversions. It will be hard for Kurti and his party to find a compromise with the MPs he openly described as puppets to Belgrade and refused to recognise as legitimate.
On the other hand, with Thaçi indicted for war crimes, a new president will be elected in parliament once it has formed. If one candidate receives a two-third majority among at least 80 MPs, he or she will be confirmed without a public election. Acting President Vjosa Osmani has teamed up with Kurti after the fall out with her own party during the non-confidentiality motion in 2020, and he supports her candidacy. However, his party alone cannot secure the majority necessary for her to be elected, and if the other parties vote against her or boycott the process, another round of snap elections will be necessary to decide on Kosovo’s next president. Given Osmani’s popularity among the citizens, she is likely to succeed, but it would delay the ambitious reforms the team has set out to implement.
It was the hope that they can actually change the status quo after more than 10 years of de-facto state capture by an old guard made up of former war heroes creating a network of endemic corruption, deeply rooted paternalism and control over all critical sectors that brought especially young voters to the polls. Unemployment is high, and Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe. Many of them are fed up with the old parties and their empty promises. An important role is played by the (equally young) vast diaspora who show strong support to Vetëvendosje!. Many of them flew to Prishtina for the elections when legislation complicated postal voting. This has mostly been felt by LDK who have lost about half their votes compared to the last elections – clearly, their voters did not like the power play toppling the coalition in 2020. As a consequence, chairman Isa Mustafa resigned on Monday. Outgoing prime minister Avdullah Hoti took responsibility for the loss and vowed to contribute constructively to the opposition, accepting the outcome democratically.
When it comes to foreign policy, the new US administration under President Biden is very likely to support Kurti’s course, who openly supported Biden during his campaign. The same is true, albeit to a lesser extent, for the European Union. Traditionally hesitant towards the former rebel who repeatedly demanded for international organisations to be expelled from Kosovo, EU leaders have learned to accept his less than diplomatic approaches – and he has learned to keep quiet on the subject of unification with Albania. What is more, given Biden’s own experience in the Balkans, he is very likely to be much more engaged than his predecessor and seek collaboration with the EU on these matters.
An important topic for bilateral relations will be the Washington Agreement of September 2020, aimed officially at easing relations with Serbia in the field of economics but mainly promising a quick win for the Trump administration’s foreign policy portfolio. Vetëvendosje! contests the agreement and wants to renegotiate the conditions. The second most important partner for the future government continues to be Germany, according to Serbeze: “In Kosovo, we have strong sentiments for the USA, but Germany comes second!” When it comes to the stabilisation and dialogue in the region, Kurti is more likely to turn to the EU and especially Germany for support. When asked what the people of Kosovo expect from the EU, Serbeze pointed out that the leaders should show unity and commitment to the accession process with the Western Balkans, including Kosovo.
She concluded that the combined efforts of Albin Kurti and Vjosa Osmani give a lot of hope to many people in Kosovo, promising integrity and real changes. But overcoming the obstacles piled up in the years of corruption and state capture will require vast efforts and a lot of time.
Serbeze Haxhiaj is a journalist who works for Radio Television of Kosovo, RTK, and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network BIRN. She has been reporting on crime, corruption, and poverty in Kosovo for many years and taken part in cross-border investigations and publications.
Serbeze has received multiple awards and fellowships, including the EU Awards for Investigative Journalism for Kosovo for her investigation “Kosovo’s Invisible Children: The Secret Legacy of Wartime Rape.” This story for the first time revealed facts of concrete cases of children born from rape during the independence war in Kosovo.