Kosovo’s tough year ahead – five key observations

Kosovo’s tough year ahead – five key observations

As Kosovo faces a tough year ahead, it is time to reflect upon the robustness of its institutions, the persistence of Vetëvendosje, Hashim Thaçi’s rise to the presidency, the growing gulf between Serbs north and south of the Ibar, and the “rose-tinted glasses” worn by many MEPs.

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By Daniel Hamilton

Kosovo is in crisis – but its institutions are actually proving to be quite robust

When writing about Kosovo, there is often a tendency for international commentators to focus on the negatives: the high unemployment, the political instability and the ongoing ethnic strife.  What is not said often enough is that the country’s institutions, which will only celebrate their eighth birthday on 17th February, are proving themselves to be relatively robust.

A key facet of being a successful state is that, when politicians throw visceral verbal barbs at one another and extremist elements threaten the violent overthrow of constitutional order, the country’s institutions hold steady – above politics and beyond interference.

Against a backdrop of violent protests on the streets of Pristina at the implementation of the government’s agreement with Serbia over the establishment of the Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM), which included the firebombing of government buildings on Pristina’s Mother Theresa Boulevard and opposition MP’s deployment of teargas canisters on the floor of Parliament in order to stifle debate, the Constitutional Court has acted responsibly and proportionately.

While the issue of the ASM remains a matter for intense debate – and the court continues to raise some concerns about its compatibility with certain facets of Kosovo’s constitution – these have been raised in a mature manner that continues to give confidence to both a perennially sceptical Serbia and international community.  This should be noted and celebrated.

Vetëvendosje are not going away

It is hard to imagine a European state with a more cynical and calculating political party system than Kosovo.  The “establishment” political parties, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), are controlled by competing business, family and regional interests and give the distinct impression of having little or no ideological basis whatsoever.

Kosovo’s proportional representation voting system means that, while not impossible, it is very difficult for a government to be formed without the two parties cutting some kind of a deal.  This is precisely what happened in December 2014 when, after six months of haggling, a deal was reached that saw the “winner” of the election, the PDK’s Hashim Thaçi surrender the Prime Minister’s office to the LDK’s Isa Mustafa in exchange for their support for his 2016 bid – a post that is awarded by Parliament.  After cutting a deal with a small breakaway party from the PDK and the numerous ethnic minority parties that are guaranteed twenty seats in the National Assembly (ten for Serbs, four for Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, three for Bosniaks, two for Turks and one for Gorani), the PDK and LDK shared the spoils of ministerial office.

It’s not the fault of the LDK and PDK that the electoral system is structured in such a way; but perceptions of cronyism and corruption are.

Many international observers have sought to paint the recent rise of the nationalist Vetëvendosje (“self-determination”) as a response to anger at the Kosovo government “capitulating” to Serbia on the issue of the creation of the Association of Serb Municipalities, which has been painted as a back-door power-grab by Belgrade, the “surrender” of Kosovar land to Montenegro during negotiations over the demarcation of the state border and the formation of a special court to prosecute ethnic Albanians guilty of war crimes in the 1999 conflict.  While it is clear that these issues have provided the kindling and the spark for recent protests inside and outside Parliament; they are not the fuel that has turned them into an inferno.

Instead, the responsibility lies with the failure of the government to make real progress in tackling the country’s endemic economic problems.

“The young Europeans,” is a marketing line that is often used by the country – a hint at Kosovo’s status as the newest independent European state and the fact more than 50% of the population is under the age of 18 – but this is very much a double-edged sword.  A young population can only be expected to thrive where they find employment – and there is little to be found.  In the case of Spain and Portugal, many young people moved broad to find work during the recent economic crises to face their countries – yet Kosovars often find themselves hemmed-in by inflexible visa regimes.   Instead, the hopefulness and energy of the 2008 independence movement has partly given way to despondence and distrust of both the Kosovo government and the promises of international organisations.

Riding on a wave of anti-government and anti-corruption rhetoric, Vetëvendosje’s Shpend Ahmeti was elected Mayor of Pristina at the end of 2014, unseating the now-Prime Minister Isa Mustafa.   For the LDK to lose the mayoralty of the country’s largest, best educated and most cosmopolitan city was a tremendous shock.  It has not been a bad experiment, though.  While many – myself included – were suspicious of how Ahmeti may behave in office, he has largely gotten to grips with the city’s corrupt planning system and invested heavily in public spaces.  The city feels cleaner and more prosperous.

The success of Ahmeti’s spell in City Hall has allowed Vetëvendosje, whose previous public image was largely that of its leader Albin Kurti leading street protests and throwing rhetorical flame-throwers at the political class, to take on an air of mild respectability.   This is, of course, not helped by the spectacle of Vetëvendosje MPs deploying tear-gas canisters on the floor of Parliament in order to stifle debate – but, as Kurti and Ahmeti argue, there is space in their party for a Yin and a Yang.

As long as the economy remains stable and the political system remains a den of cronyism, Vetëvendosje’s progress towards the political mainstream will only continue.

Hashim Thaçi is still likely become President

There have been some rumblings recently that Hashim Thaçi, the country’s former Prime Minister, and current Foreign Minister, may be at risk of losing on his long-held ambition of becoming President when the vote takes place later this year.  I do not yet share this view.

While he should be concerned by the public declaration by a number of LDK MPs that they intend to renege upon their party’s deal with the PDK to install Mustafa as Prime Minister in exchange for supporting Thaçi for the presidency, the numbers continue to stack up in his favour.

To secure the Presidency, he requires the support of either two thirds of MPs or, after three rounds of voting, a simple majority – 61 votes.   Assuming he can carry his own 34 MPs, two thirds of PDK members (18 MPs) and three quarters of the minority representatives (15 MPs), he will take the post with an absolute majority of 66 votes.

Fundamentally, the LDK have little incentive to stop Thaçi becoming President.  The job itself is very much ceremonial in nature, unlike Isa Mustafa’s current, influential post as Prime Minister.  If the party was to renege upon their deal with Thaçi and the PDK, the most likely outcome would be fresh elections – a high-risk political manoeuvre that could risk leaving the LDK empty-handed afterwards.

Finally, what is rarely said and never acknowledged by either Thaçi himself or the ethnic minority parties is the ease with which they have been able to cooperate with one another.   As Prime Minister, Thaçi worked relatively harmoniously with his Serb and Turkish Cabinet minister; apparently leaving them alone to run their own portfolios without much interference.  The ten Serbian MPs, in particular, may not be particular Thaçi fans but it is hard to see them backing a rival, Vetëvendosje-backed nominee.

The gulf between Serbs north and south of the Ibar is growing

On 21st January, the former “leader” of the Serbian community in North Kosovo – an area physically divided from the rest of the country and home to vast ethnic Serb population – was jailed for nine years for his involvement in war crimes during the 1999 war.

The ruling has been widely greeted with derision in the north of the country, with street protests in the ethnically divided city of North Mitrovica and angry denunciations from leading politicians in Belgrade – some of whom have advocated the suspension of dialogue with Pristina.

What has been notable, however, is the relative silence of the Serbian community living south of the Ibar River.  While the sympathies of the Serbian community outside of the north will undoubtedly still lie with Ivanović, there is more than simply anecdotal evidence to suggest that these communities are beginning to develop some kind of acceptance of and accommodation within the Republic of Kosovo system.

The 2013 local elections saw the election of mayors in a number of newly-drawn, majority Serb-populated local government areas south of the Ibar; namely, Štrpce, Klokot-Vrbovac, Gračanica, Novo Brdo, Ranilug and Parteš.   With the drawing of these municipalities done in such a way as to ensure the election of ethnic Serbs to the mayoralty, this has provided a formal mechanism by which Serbs have had some latitude over local spending decisions within the Kosovo government framework.   When completed, the intention is that the Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM) will reinforce the ability of ethnic Serb areas to pursue their own health, education and cultural policies.

There is a degree of realpolitik here.

Many ethnic Serbs south of the Ibar still remain aggrieved about being separated from Kosovo, yet have a basic choice – participate in elections in areas specially drawn to elect Serbs or see another community win the mayoralty with 200 votes; accept a degree of self-governance within the Kosovo state or risk seeing their concerns swamped in a 95% ethnic Albanian state.

The same concerns simply do not exist north of the Ibar.  In the city of North Mitrovica and surrounding towns of Zubin Potok, Leposavić and Zvečan, Serbs make up more than 90% of the population.  There is simply no inducement to engage with the Republic of Kosovo state, regardless of the efforts made by both the European Union and Pristina in this respect.  In the minds of local Serbs, the ASM will make little practical difference; largely because their present governance arrangements afford more flexibility than the proposed changes.

For all the talk of Serbian unity in some nationalist corners, ethnic Serbs are probably the single most divided community in Kosovo at present.

MEPs are guilty of looking at Kosovo with “rose-tinted glasses”

This week, the European Parliament rubber-stamped the latest in a round of reports examining the progress that Kosovo is making towards European Union accession.

It has long been my view that many Members of the European Parliament – well-intentioned though they are – have allowed their innate passion for EU expansion and sympathy towards the significant political, social and economic challenges the country faces to cloud their perceptions of the true situation in the country.  If ever the phrase “rose tinted glasses” was meant to be used; it was for Wednesday’s debate.

While MEPs, led by the Austrian Green Ulrike Lunacek, were right to praise the progress that has been made on reaching theoretical agreements on the establishment Association of Serb Municipalities, telecoms, vehicular insurance, mutual recognition of diplomas and the “normalisation” of the situation in the ethnically-divided city of Mitrovica, little attention was actually paid to the implementation of these accords.   Yes, Serbia has lifted its preposterous objection to Kosovo receiving its own international dialling code and yes, Kosovo has agreed that it will finally end its discriminatory policy of rejecting diplomas from the Serb university in North Mitrovica – but other than that, progress has been relatively meagre.

The report also makes a rather opaque reference to the “progress has been made regarding the judiciary” and problems that exist in relation to the “slow administration of justice and the significant backlog of cases”.  To describe the administration of justice in Kosovo as “slow” is as euphemistic as describing Waiting for Godot as a play about an irksome traffic delay.  The EU needs to recognise that Kosovo’s judicial and courts system are in crisis.  The last figures I have suggest that, in the first half of 2014, 693,975 cases were in process in courts (in a country with a population of less than 2 million!), with 455,699 having been inherited from the previous year.

It would be unfair to blame the Republic of Kosovo for this.  After all, the legal system Kosovo was handed when it declared independence in 2008 forces judges to simultaneously adjudicate verdicts on the basis of the legal systems of present-day Kosovo and, in the case of historic offences, the now-defunct legal codes of Serbia and Montenegro (2003-2006), the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1992-2003) and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (before 1992).   Increased financial and technical support is clearly required to help unlock this logjam.

Finally, the near-comical status Kosovo’s National Assembly has taken on in recent times was largely glossed over.   While, as I have already mentioned, Vetëvendosje MPs bear the sole responsibility for the violent and unacceptable scenes that have been witnessed on the floor of the Parliament, it is not enough for a European Parliament report examining the state of Kosovo’s institutions to “call on all political actors to resume political dialogue in order to break the deadlock and find a viable solution that restores the normal functioning” of the body.   The EU is often relatively effective at adopting a “carrot and stick” approach to states aspiring to membership.  In this case, the stick – such as an explicit rejection of the proposed visa-free regime unless the political climate improves – seems strangely absent.

Kosovo has made considerable progress in recent years but the rose-tinted approach adopted by so many MEPs is neither honest nor helpful in achieving real reforms on the ground.   This needs to change.

Daniel Hamilton is a Senior Director at FTI Consulting, a global business advisory firm and a former Conservative Party parliamentary candidate in the UK.  He writes in a personal capacity.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.

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