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Kosovo’s government just fell – but it’s down to US meddling rather than coronavirus

The government of Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti lost a non-confidence vote on March 25. Valdrin Xhemaj/EPA

When the government of Kosovo fell on March 25 after losing a no-confidence vote, some reports suggested it was prompted by the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. This is simply not true. Instead, it was driven by domestic forces desperate to block change, and the US administration’s determination to remove a government unwilling to comply with its demands.

After the October 2019 general election, left-wing Vetevendosje emerged as the largest party in Kosovo’s parliament. Vetevendosje’s popularity is built on its agenda for change, including commitments to reduce unemployment and social deprivation, and, most particularly, tackle the corruption which has plagued Kosovo for decades.

Since the end of the conflict with Serbia in June 1999, Kosovo’s two traditionally largest parties – the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) and the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) – have engaged in widespread corruption and nepotism. As a result, Kosovo suffers from chronic unemployment and dysfunctional education and healthcare systems.

Kosovo’s powerful Western allies tolerated the corruption so long as the criminal elite, both inside and outside government, obeyed their commands and maintained a semblance of order. This “order” has been narrowly understood as preserving a cold peace with Serbia – thereby enabling the West to present its intervention in Kosovo as a success. Vetevendosje’s victory threatened this symbiotic relationship.

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Barriers to change

Although it became the largest party in October, Vetevendosje didn’t enter into coalition government with the LDK until February 2020. This delay was caused by the reluctance of an older faction within the LDK – widely linked to corruption within Kosovo – to accept Vetevendosje’s radical agenda. While LDK’s more progressive wing eventually prevailed, powerful figures in the party – including its leader – were never fully supportive of the coalition.

An additional barrier to the realisation of Vetevendosje’s agenda was Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci. Thaci, who is from the PDK, was aghast at the prospect of a government committed to tackling corruption with Vetevendosje’s Albin Kurti as prime minister. In 2010, Thaci was accused of being a powerful figure within Kosovo’s criminal network, something the government at the time denied.

The Vetevendosje-led government was further undermined by the external context. The EU’s credibility within Kosovo has decreased in recent years, owing to the lack of progress on both membership talks and visa liberalisation. As a result, many – most prominently Thaci – called for the US to assume a greater role in brokering a deal with Serbia, seen as key to resolving Kosovo’s disputed international status.

The appointment of Richard Grenell as a US special envoy to the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue in February 2020, was therefore welcomed by Thaci and his supporters as evidence of a new US commitment. Grenell wasted little time in issuing a series of blunt demands, including that to ensure continued US support, Kurti’s government must immediately remove the 100% tariffs imposed by the previous government on Serbian goods exported to Kosovo.

Kurti agreed to remove the tariffs but in a phased manner and only if Serbia discontinued its campaign to persuade countries to withdraw their recognition of Kosovo. Kurti also stated that negotiations with Serbia should be led by the government of Kosovo rather than the president, as stipulated by Kosovo’s constitution, and that any future deal should exclude the exchange of territories between Kosovo and Serbia, a proposal both Thaci and Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, have intimated their willingness to support.

In response, various political figures in the US – including Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump Junior – threatened to discontinue US support for Kosovo and pull US troops out of the NATO-led peacekeeping mission stationed there. These threats frightened Vetevendosje’s coalition partners the LDK, and Thaci, who appealed for compliance with the American demands, warning that Kurti was a “devilish … dangerous … liar”.

Coronavirus response

The coronavirus pandemic provided those determined to oust Vetevendosje with the opportunity to do so. Despite the government’s implementation of a series of swift measures to deal with the crisis, including school and restaurant closures and curfews, Thaci unilaterally declared that Kosovo should be placed in a state of emergency. In such a situation, the government’s powers shift to Kosovo’s security council, which is chaired by Thaci.

Police outside Kosovo’s parliament in Pristina as MPs debate a non-confidence motion. Valdrin Xhemaj/EPA

The government rejected this and issued its own set of emergency measures which increased restrictions on people’s movement without transferring power to the president. Thaci then called on the public to ignore the government’s decree.

When Kurti fired an LDK minister who backed the president, the LDK’s old guard demanded that Kurti reinstate the sacked minister and immediately accede to all the American demands or face a vote of no-confidence. The US ambassador to Kosovo tweeted his support for the motion of no-confidence and Vetevendosje lost the vote when the majority of LDK MPs voted with the opposition.

Now that the government has fallen, Kosovo enters a period of great uncertainty, although it’s likely that Kurti will continue in a caretaker role until new elections can be held.

A photo opportunity

For those in Kosovo whose wealth and power depends upon the maintenance of the status quo – such as the old guard in the LDK, opposition parties, and Thaci – the need to remove Vetevendosje was obvious. For the US, the impetus was different, though equally mendacious.

At the root of the current American interest in Kosovo is the looming US presidential election. Although neither Trump nor his administration have previously shown any interest in Kosovo, a deal between Serbia and Kosovo brokered by his administration is attractive because of the PR value a photo opportunity with Trump, Thaci and Vučić would represent. Hence the US determination to force Kosovo to accept Serbia’s conditions on talks.

The removal of Vetevendosje may make reaching a deal between Kosovo and Serbia more achievable, but the proposed deal will likely have dire consequences for Kosovo, and the wider region. The vast majority of experts have consistently warned that an exchange of territory on the basis of ethnicity will have profoundly negative repercussions for peace and stability throughout the Balkans. This warning, however, has evidently been ignored by those both inside and outside of Kosovo, who are desperate to pursue their own narrow self-interests.

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