Kosovo chooses its future course

The outcome of Kosovo’s first general elections since declaring independence will be key to determining Pristina’s willingness to engage constructively in forthcoming talks with Serbia.

By Ian Bancroft

After a vote of no confidence in early-November brought down the minority government of prime minister, Hashim Thaci, general elections will take place in Kosovo this weekend for the first time since it declared independence from Serbia in February 2008. Many Kosovo Serbs, however, particularly those north of the river Ibar, are expected to boycott the ballot, with the Serbian government insisting that the conditions do not yet exist for their participation. Though Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) are expected to come out on top, a strong showing by Vetevendosje could have a profound impact on politics in Kosovo. The outcome of the elections, which have been portrayed as a test of Kosovo’s democratic credentials, will therefore be key to determining Pristina’s willingness to engage constructively in forthcoming talks with Serbia.

As with the Democratic Party of Boris Tadic, Serbia’s president, Kosovo’s current prime minister, Hashim Thaci, presents the PDK as “a party of integration” that will lead Kosovo towards membership of the EU. With the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo’s (AAK) leader, Ramush Haradinaj, currently in The Hague awaiting a partial re-trial on war crimes charges, polls suggest that Thaci’s PDK will garner around 34% of the vote, ahead of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), led by Isa Mustafa, the current mayor of Pristina. The post-election coalition scramble is likely to see Thaci court the Alliance for New Kosovo (AKP), headed by Behgjet Pacolli, as a possible partner.

The most significant performance of the election, however, is likely to come from Vetevendosje (Self-determination), one of the new political parties, who have been amongst the most vociferous opponents of the international community’s presence in Kosovo and the prospect of talks with Serbia. Vetevendosje supports the creation of a Greater Albania and, on November 28th, Albanian independence day, party representatives took down flags of the Republic of Kosovo in Gjakova, Ferizaj and Lipjan because of its multi-ethnic character. A strong showing by Vetevendosje – who could come out of the elections as the third largest party – may have a profound impact on Kosovo’s approach to the negotiations with Serbia; with its firm and uncompromising stance making key concessions even more difficult to secure.

With its own elections ahead in early-2012, Serbia continues to press for negotiations with Pristina to proceed before the end of the year; despite the fact that a new Kosovo government is unlikely to be formed until January at the earliest. Significant disagreement remain, however, over the content of the talks. Whilst the Serbian government – which has appointed Borko Stefanovic, political director of the foreign ministry, to head its negotiating team – insists that all issues remain open for discussion, Thaci has re-iterated that Kosovo’s status and the Serb-populated north will not be brought into question. Whilst it is hoped that a focus on more technical and politically-neutral issues – such as missing persons and the fight against organized crime – will provide a less contentious basis for initial talks, the unresolved question of status will continue to lurk in the background.

The status issue continues to motivate a planned boycott of the elections by many of Kosovo’s Serbs, particularly those in the north, who do not recognize Kosovo’s independence and regard its institutions as illegitimate. The dispersed nature of Kosovo Serbs south of the river Ibar, however, means that they face a different reality; one that requires a considerable measure of pragmatism in order to ensure their day-to-day existence. Accordingly, eight Serb parties will compete for the ten seats guaranteed to Serbs by Kosovo’s constitution. Though the Serbian government insists that the conditions do not exist for Serbs to participate in the elections, these political options aim to secure stronger representation for Serb interests by working through – rather than in opposition to – Kosovo’s institutions, whilst simultaneously rejecting Kosovo’s independence. Maintaining this delicate balance, however, requires that the Kosovo government deliver benefits to Serbs in the south. With unemployment estimated at 48% and corruption rife, this is no easy task.

As the latest US Embassy cables reveal, Kosovo continues to witness a “hardening partition between the north and the rest of Kosovo”, which is further compounded by European “vacillation and weakness”. Arresting such developments requires a political leadership ready to engage in finding constructive solutions to all outstanding issues, including that of Kosovo’s status, thereby allowing continued progress towards membership of the EU. A strong showing by Vetevendosje and an ever more uncompromising tone of politics in Pristina will do little to contribute to creating an environment conducive to such an outcome. With talks between Serbia and Kosovo set to begin in due course, this weekend’s elections will have important ramifications for the prospects of securing a sustainable settlement to the Kosovo status question.

Ian Bancroft is the co-founder of TransConflict and a regular columnist for The Guardian on Western Balkan affairs.

This article was first published by UN Global Experts on Friday December 10th 2010 and is available by clicking here.

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