Why Kosovo’s controversial insurgent party worries the West so much

Vetëvendosje founder Albin Kurti takes the stage. EPA

The results of Kosovo’s recent general election were a huge surprise: Vetëvendosje (“Self-determination”), up to now a small opposition party, won 32 seats, making it the largest party in parliament. This put a sudden end to the political duopoly exercised by Kosovo’s two dominant parties, the PDK and the LDK, under whose rule the country fell prey to persistent corruption and economic stagnation.

During those dismal years, apathy set in among the electorate – but Vetëvendosje has put an end to that. As Albin Kurti, the party’s nominee for prime minister, told me: “We cannot just give people hope, but we can give them courage.”

Evidently this strategy has paid off. But while the new public enthusiasm that carried Vetëvendosje to victory might seem welcome, not everyone in Kosovo is happy about it.

Under the terms of a widely criticised 2014 ruling by Kosovo’s constitutional court, if a coalition formed before the election collectively wins the largest number of seats, it has the automatic right to first try to form a parliamentary majority. A coalition comprising the country’s so-called “war wing” parties collectively won 39 seats, and is now frantically trying to pull together a parliamentary coalition. To do so, it will need the support of various smaller parties who represent Kosovo’s minority communities.

But even if this effort comes off, any government comprising such a motley crew of parties is unlikely to last very long. That means there’s a strong possibility that Vetëvendosje will be in government in the near future – a prospect that many Western ambassadors in Kosovo have historically hoped to avoid.

For many years, key Western representatives in Kosovo declined to engage with Vetëvendosje because of the tactics they employed, particularly the use of tear gas to obstruct parliament. But since the latest election, the party’s leaders have been invited to discuss their governance plans at a number of foreign embassies in the capital, Pristina. This represents a dramatic change of tack on the part of the international community, and one they have essentially been reluctantly forced to make.

Nonetheless, even after the election, Vetëvendosje has still been portrayed by some international commentators as a party of “anti-Serb nationalists”, “violent leftists” and/or “populists”. The reality, however, is quite different.

Rising up

Vetëvendosje was set up in 2004, and it soon made some very powerful enemies. The group engaged in direct action, including street protests and the obstruction of parliamentary procedures, and openly criticised the alliance between Kosovo’s corrupt political elite and its international partners. These efforts to hold the international community accountable for colluding in criminality immediately earned the party negative press.

The charge that Vetëvendosje is “violent” is a misrepresentation. It’s true that the party has set off tear gas in parliament, but it was not the only party to do so. It’s also true that some Vetëvendosje protests have descended into clashes with the police, but many past and present movements in the West – from the suffragettes to Black Lives Matter – have found themselves on the receiving end of heavy-handed policing after engaging in direct action protests.

Tear gas thrown in Kosovo’s parliament, February 2016. EPA/Valdrin Xhemaj

Then there’s the “anti-Serb nationalists” charge. Critics who make this claim usually cite Vetëvendosje’s opposition to a 2015 deal giving more autonomy to Kosovo’s Serbian municipalities. Vetëvendosje argues, however, that it opposes the deal not out of hostility to Serbs in Kosovo, but because of what it considers the Serbian government’s growing influence in Kosovo. As Kurti explained to me:

What’s happening in Kosovo is the same process that happened in Bosnia in the early 1990s, which led eventually to the formal recognition of Republic Srpska as a separate entity. We oppose this erosion of Kosovo’s sovereignty by Serbia.

Additionally, since 2013, Vetëvendosje has run the Pristina municipality, which includes the village of Bërnica. As newly elected Vetëvendosje MP Fitore Pascolli told me: “In Lower Bërnica, Serbs are in the majority and they have no problem with us. We have worked with them on improving their infrastructure and public services. They recognise that we are not against them.”

Image management

Behind the hyperbole, the real bone of contention is that Vetëvendosje has consistently criticised the states and international bodies still present in Kosovo – the so-called “internationals” – for their unaccountable powers, excessive interference in domestic politics, and particularly their failure to tackle high level criminality perpetrated by Kosovo’s political elite.

The internationals have variously tolerated and colluded in Kosovo’s corruption largely out of concern for their own reputations. It is certainly true that having intervened in 1999, and then engaged in a state-building operation unprecedented in scale, many Western states have significant political capital invested in declaring Kosovo a “success”. Renewed violence would be a PR disaster.

A polling station watched over by the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo. EPA/Djordje Savic

The internationals, says Kurti, have therefore “implemented a pre-conflict rather than a post-conflict administration. Their primary aim has been to maintain ‘order’, even if it comes at the expense of integrity and good government. They have worked with an elite who agreed to stop violence so long as they are free to engage in their corrupt activities.”

Kurti is not alone in this view. A Council of Europe report stated that the international presence “undoubtedly” knew about and tolerated the activities of Kosovo’s “mafia-like structures of organised crime”.

Vetëvendosje’s success should be welcomed by those who support people power and progress in Kosovo. That so many representatives of Western democracies have sought to isolate and demonise the party is a shameful indictment of their priorities, and evidence of their complicity in the persistent misrule that Kosovo has endured. But this latest election has made clear that the era of apathy is over – and that marginalising Vetëvendosje is no longer an option.