Sunday

11th Dec 2016

Opinion

Kosovo on the brink over Montenegro deal

  • Thaci tried to shrug off popular concern on demarcation, but to no avail (Photo: Marco Fieber)

The news from Kosovo is gloomy. For two years now, continuous confrontation between ruling coalition and opposition parties have put the country into a deadlock.

The latest dividing issue is the demarcation agreement with Montenegro, with the country seeming to be on the brink of the chaos. The political parties are almost “at war” with each other. Harsh words are being exchanged daily.

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  • Thaci - years of misrule have created a perfect storm (Photo: eeas.europa.eu)

The opposition accuses the government of high treason for giving away territory, while ruling officials claim that opponents of the demarcation agreement are anti-American and anti-European.

The public is not only confused, but extremely irritated with these political games, which instead of clarifying the situation, have complicated matters further.

It all started in Vienna. On 26 August 2015, Kosovo and Montenegro signed a document by which the bordering line between two states is formally drawn. The government says that it merely confirms a border that already existed since the times of socialist Yugoslavia.

But the population of the affected region started protesting even before the agreement was signed. They claim the deal reduces Kosovo’s territory by at least 8,000 hectares. The opposition has also protested.

The agreement was signed by the then minister of foreign affairs of Kosovo, now president, Hashim Thaci, who casually ignored all criticism. He insisted that Kosovo “lost no territory” in the deal, but his words had little weight in Kosovo due to the many empty promises he had made for seven years while prime minister.

The problem grew worse as Thaci’s casual approach spread among the ranks of the government and state institutions, who waited for months for somebody else to convince the public that the demarcation with Montenegro is harmless.

In the meantime, Kosovo endured tear gas in parliament, peaceful and violent demonstrations, an opposition boycott, and an institutional blockade. The debate raged: hundreds of articles, new books and old maps were published against the demarcation pact, but the government kept waiting silently for the situation to calm down, and then for its parliamentary majority to ratify the deal.

The demarcation, a condition for a visa-free regime with the EU, was to have been ratified in June. But, months of silence and of ignoring the public proved to have been fatal for the government-border pact.

A majority of Kosovo citizens are convinced that with this agreement the country is losing territory. Even some MP’s from the ruling coalition are against the demarcation, while Serb MPs are refusing to take part in the vote, conditioning their support on unrelated concessions in their favour.

No majority

In such circumstances, the 2/3 parliamentary majority needed to ratify the agreement was unreachable.

That’s why the ratification vote was already postponed twice. The government seems to be unable or unwilling to find a way out, even though some civil society activists have already suggested that Kosovo should simply ask Montenegro to reopen negotiations.

Meanwhile, the international community, including the US and the EU, supports the agreement. This Western “wind in the sails” of the Kosovo government eventually prompted (or pushed) the authorities to start a campaign in favour of demarcation.

Thaci and his PM Isa Mustafa now continuously talk of how “Kosovo does not lose one inch of land”, and of how refusing the agreement “will be fatal for Kosovo”, making unsubstantiated claims that failure to ratify will result in Kosovo’s international isolation. They say that the territory that opposition experts claim is being given away was “never part of Kosovo”.

These recent polemics and debates are not changing anybody’s mind - the opposition is still against the pact and is using the situation to try bring down the government, while the government is growing more nervous with every day that passes.

There’s a story going around that one Western official told Thaci and Mustafa that demarcation has to be passed. “If you won’t do it, there are others who can”, the official reportedly said, which, when translated, means: either demarcation or new elections.

It is a difficult choice, at a time when the credibility of the government is at a low point due to other scandals. To highlight but one, eavesdropped conversations between governing officials (including Thaci and parliament speaker Kadri Veseli), published recently by media, which expose deep corruption, nepotism and misuse of power with the aim of seizing control of the whole state apparatus.

In these circumstances, the situation has, quite literally, become explosive.

Explosive

Mysterious bombs and grenades have been thrown in recent weeks at the parliament building, and at public radio and TV stations. Police suspects the opposition, but some suspect that the authorities themselves are doing it as a political stunt. Everybody feels insecure, and nobody really understands how we came to this boiling point.

As things stand, the vote on demarcation has essentially become a vote for or against the Thaci-Mustafa government. If demarcation fails, they cannot hold on to office.

A similar fate seems to await them even in other scenarios. The ratification needs to take place within weeks, rather than months. If it does not, the government will be under pressure to either resign, or push for ratification no matter what.

But, even if the government succeeds and the agreement is ratified, it will be done against popular feeling and is likely to deepen the political confrontation.

Imagine: all this trouble, over a demarcation deal with a friendly neighbour that was supposed to be a piece of cake!

But then again, it is obvious that this is more about the enormous problems that are facing Kosovo and its discredited elite rather than about a few hectares of land.

Demarcation was the straw that broke the camel's back, amid the many other unresolved issues, including chronic unemployment, economic stagnation, high-level corruption, government impunity, social unrest, and lack of rule of law.

It is a perfect storm of sorts, which was brewing for years, and seems about to hit hard.

Agron Bajrami is editor-in-chief of Koha Ditore, an Albanian language newspaper that is the largest circulation daily in Kosovo

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