Von Pieter Troch
Far from leading to a political standstill, the corona crisis has sharpened a number of structural limitations to Kosovar statehood.
In the COVID-19 crisis, the extreme division and instability of the Kosovo Albanian political landscape has led to the crystallisation of two competing centres of decision-making. This internal divergence concurs with increasing transatlantic dissonances regarding the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo. And finally, the crisis has acutely revealed Prishtina’s limited authority over the Serb population in Kosovo, in particular in the northern municipalities.
On 25 March, a no-confidence vote in the Kosovar parliament brought the government of Albin Kurti (Self-Determination Movement, LVV) to fall after less than two months in office. This meant the premature end to what appeared a radical break in Kosovar politics. The elections of May 2019 had brought the Self-Determination Movement for the first time in government, in a coalition with the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). This seemingly ended the isolation of the LVV in Kosovar politics and the dominance of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), which for many symbolises the corrupt and clientelist political culture of Kosovo.
The fall of Kurti’s government has led to a complete stalemate. Aware that the LVV has become isolated again, Kurti insists that his caretaker government should address the corona crisis and that after the situation stabilises, new elections should be held. President Hashim Thaçi of the PDK, on the other hand, aims to form a new government as soon as possible. The outbreak of the corona virus has been a catalyser in this process of political polarisation and has become interlocked with the eternal themes of Kosovo’s politics: sovereignty, Serbia, and the international community.
Competing centres of crisis management
In addressing the corona crisis, Thaçi and Kurti represent parallel and competing centres of corona crisis management. On 18 March, Thaçi sent a proposal for approval to parliament on the introduction of the state of emergency. While most opposition parties supported the proposal, it revealed deep divisions within the governing coalition. Kurti maintained that the situation was under control and that the measure in fact came down to a putsch, which would allow Thaçi to establish authoritarian control. Agim Veliu, Minister of Internal Affairs of the LDK, however, criticised the government’s inadequate reactions to the corona virus, for which he was promptly dismissed. This was one of the reasons leading to the no-confidence vote against Kurti.
The political blaming regarding the corona virus has ever since continued unabatedly. After the government imposed restrictions on movement, President Thaçi called this unconstitutional, because it had not been accompanied by the proclamation of the state of emergency. He also blamed Kurti for taking measures that created panic, fear, and confusion. Kurti, on the other hand, claims that Thaçi is politicising the corona crisis in order to reestablish his political domination.
The transatlantic divide
The internal polarisation in Kosovo is increasingly concurring with a transatlantic divide. In the course of March, Kurti had announced the withdrawal of the 100% tariffs on incoming goods from Serbia, but conditioned the withdrawal on reciprocal measures taken by Serbia. Such a move was heavily criticised by Richard Grenell, the US Special Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo peace negotiations, who called for the immediate and unconditional lifting of the tariffs. Grenell was joined in his criticism by Thaçi, who expressed concerns about the deterioration of Kosovo’s relations with its traditional ally.
The EU, on the other hand, welcomed the decision as a first step in the good direction and an important step in the joint regional battle against corona. The growing transatlantic divergence became even more clear on the eve of the fall of Kurti’s government. While the US Ambassador to Kosovo openly supported the no-confidence vote, the German and French Ambassadors to Kosovo in a joint declaration urged the LDK to keep the government in place to address the corona crisis.
These demarches have fuelled speculations that the USA is behind the fall of Kurti’s government, in an attempt to bring Thaçi back to power, believing that he would be a more reliable partner to reach a conclusive deal with Serbia. Indeed, in the first months of 2020, Grenell had been successful in reaching “historic” deals between Thaçi and Serbian President Vučić on the restoration of direct air, rail, and highway traffic. In early March, Grenell mediated a meeting between Thaçi and Vučić in the White House, about which Kurti says he was not informed. The parties are repeatedly referring to a conclusive peace deal between Serbia and Kosovo, although the contents of this deal have remained obscure. Statements by Thaçi and Vučić in support of a land swap between Kosovo and Serbia – although with clearly different geographies in mind – seem to confirm that this option remains on the table, regardless of Grenell and Thaçi labelling persistent rumours Fake News.1
Kurti is now looking to Miroslav Lajčák, the newly appointed EU Envoy for the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Prishtina, who has the task to revitalise the dialogue in the Fall of this year. Thaçi, however, claims that Kurti’s caretaker government does not have any authority to lead the dialogue. More importantly, he has been critical of the EU, saying that it lost all credibility to mediate the dialogue.
The Serbian parallel system
Finally, the corona crisis has made acute the question of Prishtina’s limited control over the Kosovo Serb population and particularly the four Serb-majority municipalities in the north of Kosovo. On 3 April, after a rapid increase in the number of registered infections and the first deadly victim in North Kosovo, it was decided that the municipalities of North Mitrovica and Zvečan would be put under quarantine, meaning that all in- and outcoming traffic was banned. Although the government of Kurti claims that the decision was taken in full coordination with Prishtina, Thaçi and his PDK quickly expressed concerns that the central government has given up all authority in the North of Kosovo and was letting Serbia use the corona crisis to strengthen its parallel structures in Kosovo and take full control over the territories in the north.
Such claims are not without ground, as the measures to address the corona virus are ethnopolitically divided, just like Kosovo itself. Serbia sends medical assistance and expertise to the Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo, where it runs health facilities anyway. The Serbian Office for Kosovo and Metohija coordinates the registration of infections in Serb-majority municipalities and reports on a daily basis on statistical data for the Kosovo Serb community. Those with serious symptoms are taken for treatment to Niš, Kragujevac or Belgrade, but this again is common practice among Kosovo Serbs, who have an extreme aversion to Kosovo Albanian health care. The corona crisis has thus made acutely apparent the limited authority of Prishtina in Kosovo Serb parts of Kosovo, regardless of all measures taken to integrate Serbian parallel systems into Kosovar structures under the Brussels Dialogue.
Dr. Pieter Troch is a social historian of the Yugoslav twentieth century. He is a Research Fellow of the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies.
Featured Image: Agron Beqiri via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
- For an excellent analysis, see European Stability Initiative (2019). The Hypnotist. Available online at https://www.esiweb.org/pdf/ESI%20-%20The%20Hypnotist%20-%2025%20April%202019.pdf