Monday

18th Dec 2017

EU-critical radicals double support in Kosovo

  • Kosovo's capital, Pristina, is a stronghold of the EU-critical Vetevendosje party. (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

Blockage over EU-backed reforms sent Kosovars to the polls on Sunday (11 June), but the election outcome will likely lead to more political turmoil.

Kosovo's electoral committee is still counting the votes, but the centre-right PDK has claimed victory in Sunday's poll.

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  • Election poster for Ramush Haradinaj in central Pristina. (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

The PDK had formed a pre-election coalition with AAK and Nisma, which all claim the legacy of the Kosovo Liberation Army, a guerrilla force that sought separation from Serbia in the 1990s.

This coalition had nominated AAK's Ramush Haradinaj as its candidate for prime minister.

Haradinaj was a KLA guerrilla leader during the war. Serbia has accused him of war crimes, but he has been cleared of charges twice by an international tribunal in The Hague.

The coalition could take one third of the poll.

PDK, however, lost its position as Kosovo's largest party on Sunday.

That title can now be claimed by Vetevendosje, which has been labelled as a radical, anti-EU party.

It has a programme combining social-democracy with nationalist ideas of unification with Albania.

The party is set to double its support, from 14 to just under 30 percent, albeit on the lowest voter turn-out that Kosovo has known since gaining independence in 2008.

The centre-right LDK party, which headed the previous government, could score less than 25 percent of the poll.

Twenty of the parliament's 120 seats are also reserved for Kosovo's ethnic minorities.

The snap ballot was called after months of deadlock in the country's parliament, which refused to pass controversial reforms that would grant Kosovars visa-free travel to the EU.

The reforms included an EU-brokered deal to give more powers to ethnic Serbs in Kosovo, as well as a border demarcation deal with Montenegro that would formally recognise the boundaries between the two countries.

Awkward coalitions

Krenar Gashi, a political scientist from Ghent university, said the elections had been less marked by political vision than by pragmatic attempts on behalf of the ruling parties to stay in power.

PDK had backed the motion of no confidence which brought down a government in which it had a majority because their coalition partner, LDK, was unable to pass the border deal with Montenegro.

But PDK then entered an awkward coalition with two of the parties that helped sabotage reform efforts, including by use of violence.

MPs from the AAK and Nisma, as well as Vetevendosje, claimed the border deal would mean Kosovo lost some 8,000 hectares of its land, and stopped votes on the matter by throwing teargas in the parliament.

PDK's behaviour could be explained by its voter base, Gashi said. They back the party for the KLA's role in the war, and for PDK's investments in roads and other infrastructure. They do not mind too much that PDK and its senior officials have been involved in corruption scandals and affairs.

"PDK will do anything to stay in power, from buying off MPs, to blackmailing them, and they may reach a functional majority, because it would lose its clientelistic electorate if it went into opposition," Gashi said.

He explained the rise of Vetevendosje as the result of an ever-growing dissatisfaction with the last decade's way of governing by the PDK.

"They are the only political entity that insists on ideas. The decision to run alone in the election, whilst other parties reached coalitions, showed once again the lack of political pragmatism from their leadership, which they capitalised in votes by using the perception of being uncorrupted and, as they promote, incorruptible", he said.

He suggested that Vetevendosje and LDK could try to reach a coalition around common interests, if the PDK-led coalition failed to secure support for its government.

Pristina mood

Vetevendosje was the party of choice for many voters that EUobserver spoke to during a recent visit to Pristina.

Kosovo's capital is the party's stronghold.

The young and progressive city elected Vetevedosje vice-chairman Shpend Ahmeti as a mayor in 2014, and his scandal-free performance has since prompted further support for the party.

One young woman told EUobserver she had a close relative who ranked high in LDK, but she would still vote for Vetevedosje.

"People are now hired to work for the city on the basis of their merits!" she said with enthusiasm.

Vetevendosje was also the party of a taxi driver, who had worked as a chemist, but said he was fired when PDK put pressure on his boss to make room for PDK voters.

Labinot Pllana, an IT expert in the international banking sector, said he also considered voting for Vetevendosje.

"I agree with their programme to 80 percent," he said. But he added the party's violent methods would make him think twice about his vote.

"In any case, I will vote for a woman since they are less supported by men and are less likely to be corrupted," Pllana told EUobserver.

EU relations

Brussels has traditionally backed the PDK and LDK, which it sees as guarantees of stability.

Vetevendosje's Aida Derguti, a vice-president of Kosovo's parliamentary assembly during the previous mandate, said it was wrong to call her his party anti-EU: "On the contrary, we want to join the EU."

But she said the relationship with Brussels should be more of a relationship of equals.

She said the party suffered from bad press, especially over its stance on reunification with Albania.

Vetevendosje wants a referendum on a clause in Kosovo's constitution, which bars the country from merging with another country.

The constitution was written by international experts and was never put to a popular vote by Kosovars.

"In every interview we have to explain our stance on reunification with Albania. Our other messages aren't heard," Derguti said, adding that a greater Albania would benefit the power balance in the Balkans, by providing a counterweight to Serbia.

She also suggested that the EU currently played a role in Kosovo's political instability.

"PDK and LDK got elected by promising work places, anti-corruption measures and better healthcare. But after the elections, another agenda got priority," she said.

The MP said the EU had pressured PDK and LDK after the last elections to form a broad coalition that would pass controversial reforms.

But EU support to the old elites only stymied reform, she said, by keeping "corrupt guys in office".

She also opposed that the demarcation deal should be part of Kosovo's visa liberalisation.

Kosovo has been called the most pro-US and pro-EU country on earth, but it's also one of the most isolated.

The country is still not recognised by five EU member states: Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain.

It's also a visa enclave in the Balkan region, where all its neighbours have been able to travel freely to the Schengen area for years.

Even war-torn Ukraine got this right before Kosovo, irking people further.

Another sore subject are the EU-brokered agreement negotiations with Belgrade.

Research by Birn, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, has shown that Kosovars are constituently disappointed over the dialogue.

Derguti said the EU was trying to bring Serbia closer for fear the country would turn to Russia instead, but this meant the bloc couldn't push Belgrade very hard.

"We shouldn't pay the price of Serbia's accession," she said.

Vetevendosje's Aida Derguti meeting a young fan at an election rally. (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

Not a partnership of equals

Fredrik Wesslau, director of the Wider Europe programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that Vetevendosje's increased political influence in Kosovo following the elections risked making Kosovo's relationship with the EU more complicated. Vetevendosje's influence could hamper political decision-making in Kosovo and make Kosovo less inclined to follow EU conditionality.

"The EU's relationship with countries wishing to become members of the EU is not a partnership of equals," he said.

"The EU sets conditions that others have to meet. Kosovo is trying to become part of the EU, not the other way around," he added.

"The accession process incentivises countries wishing to join the EU to take very difficult decisions that they would otherwise not take. It has helped these countries modernise and adopt the EU aquis," he said, referring to the EU's body of laws and standards. "Kosovo has made plenty of progress thanks to this."

He also described Vetevendosje as a "largely unconstructive force" in Kosovo politics, pointing to its use of tear gas in the parliament and violent demonstrations.

"They started out as revolutionary, anti-establishment pranksters. This has had a certain appeal to young people, but Vetevendosje's politics are highly nationalistic and in some cases extreme. They oppose any form of dialogue with Serbia and support the notion of Greater Albania," he said.

Wesslau also warned against painting an overly-bleak picture of the situation in the country.

"Kosovo has a poor reputation, but this is unfair," he said. "There are peaceful transitions of power and not the uncontrolled consolidation of power seen in other countries in the Western Balkans. Rule of law remains a challenge, however, as elsewhere in the region."

He said that PDK and LDK enjoyed support thanks largely to their leaders who many considered charismatic.

It is likely that the PDK-AAK coalition will manage to form a government, possibly together with the minority parties, according to Wesslau.

Analysis

Serbia's Vucic stronger than ever

After winning the presidency by a landslide, Alexander Vucic will be seen as even more crucial for the stability of the Western Balkans, despite concerns over the handling of his powers and closeness with Russia.

EU ushers Macedonia to come closer

The European commission has said it would restore full-throated support for Macedonia to start accession talks if it kept up reform.

Bulgaria calls for West Balkan EU integration after Brexit

The UK leaving the EU gives an opportunity to bring the Western Balkans closer, Bulgaria's PM said in Brussels. Bulgaria will hold the upcoming rotating presidency, while Juncker said Serbia and Montenegro will be EU members by 2025.

Turkey poised for first EU budget cut

"Turkey is going in a direction that is the very opposite of EU standards," Siegfried Muresan, the MEP spearheading the cuts, has said.

Interview

EU outshines Russia in Western Balkans

Russia cannot compete with the EU for attractiveness in the Western Balkans, but can play an 'obstructive' role, Albania's foreign minister said.

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