On Oct. 6, 2019, parliamentary elections took place in Kosovo. This was the fourth election since the 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia and came after Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj’s resignation on July 19, when he was summoned by the Kosovo Special Court in The Hague for suspicions about his involvement in war crimes committed during the 1996-1999 war.
Throughout the national campaign, the electoral debate centred around the issues of Kosovo’s deep-rooted corruption and high unemployment levels. However, another question constantly troubled the outgoing government and its international allies: the prospect for peace negotiations with Serbia.
Results were in favour of the leftist party Vetëvendosje, which gained 26% of votes. Vetëvendosje in Albanian means “Self-determination”, a slogan that was used in 1968 during protests that aimed at advancing the rights of the Albanian group in Kosovo and their political status in Yugoslavia.
The Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) was the second most popular party (25% of votes). This is the oldest opposition group, and has dominated the political debate since the late-1990s conflict. Today, although the government is yet to be formed, the LDK is expected to form an alliance with Vetëvendosje as this would enable both parties to reach the absolute majority of seats inside the Parliament, with no need of finding support from minority groups.
The party of the outgoing Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj (100% Kosovo) achieved only 12 percent of votes, a significant defeat for the group that has led Kosovo in recent decades. Ex-UÇK militants (the Kosovo Liberation Army, that took up arms in 1996) joined this group after the end of the conflict.
In terms of political orientation, although Vetëvendosje’s anti-establishment but progressive claims may resemble other European parties that have been classified as “left-wing populisms”, Kosovo’s unusual politics is hardly comparable.
Vetëvendosje has resolutely criticised the dominant elite. Accusations have been directed not only at the main political groups and leaders, but also at the foreign functionaries that are part of UN agencies and EULEX, the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo. These people arrived in Kosovo after the UN intervention in the Serbia-Kosovo conflict to support the reconstruction and re-establishment of peace. People, however, still claim that these foreign interferences are obstructing the independence development of Kosovo.
Vetëvendosje has consistently accused them and 100% Kosovo to have endorsed and implemented neoliberal policies, such as the privatisation of major local industries, and for being responsible for increasing levels of unemployment and decreasing living conditions.
And indeed, in the decade following independence, it seems that the governing élite has been unable to respond to the growing expectations of people, who have seen little changes in their living standards. In today’s Kosovo, socio-economic development remains inadequate and the state is still the third-poorest in Europe. GDP per capita has increased, but it has just been around US$ 4,312 in 2018. Even more alarming is the unemployment rate: 32.9% for the general population and up to 57.7% for those people aged 15 to 24.
For these reasons, people are fleeing to Germany and other European states, hoping to achieve that socio-economic independence that the declaration itself has not brought into their lives.
But for those who cannot leave, and are forced to stay within some of the world’s most hostile borders, migration is just a dream.
In addition to anti-establishment claims, another key characteristic of Vetëvendosje is its nationalist stance. However, this is not to be understood as Kosovar nationalism that fights for Kosovo first. Here, the main nationalist stances are for the Kosovar-Albanians first.
Ethnic Albanian people represent the majority of the population (in the last 2011 census, Albanians accounted for 92.9% of the total population). However, Kosovo is a collection of ethnic, cultural and historical communities. In addition to the Serbs (1,5%), other minorities are: Turks (1,1%), Gorani (0,6%), Roma (0,5%), Ashkali (0,9%), Egyptians (0,7%) and Bosniaks (1,6%). These communities are represented in the national flag, that has a star for each group (Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians are grouped together).
Yet, Albanian nationalists prefer to use the Albanian double-headed eagle flag to manifest their disappointment in assigning one star to the Serbian minority living in Kosovo. After the election, some newspapers reported that the Vetëvendosje’s leader, Albin Kurti, has hung the Albanian flag in his office, but not that of Kosovo.
So who is the man leading Vetëvendosje? Albin Kurti has been part of Vetëvendosje since its creation and was a leading face in this election. Prior to his political career, he joined and became the leader of a student movement that fought for the independence of Kosovo against Milošević’s regime. He was accused of terrorism and imprisoned for having attempted to undermine the Jugoslavia integrity. Once the Serbia-Kosovo conflict ended in 1999, he kept fighting against international interference into Kosovo’s self-determination process.
Kurti’s success in these elections proved people’s dissatisfaction with the dominant political elite and increasing socio-economic concerns. Yet in the eyes of several foreign countries and leaders, the results represent a major political breakthrough in the Kosovo-Serbia peace negotiations.
Yet in the eyes of several foreign countries and leaders, the results represent a major political breakthrough in the Kosovo-Serbia peace negotiations.
For the European Union, a Kosovo-Serbia peace deal is seen as one of the most effective instruments to stabilise the Balkan region. For the United States, a more stable region would limit Russian interference, and strengthen the US’s own position. Although Kosovo might not seem to be a priority issue for President Trump, he has still not forgotten it. Just a few days before the elections, he appointed the US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, as special envoy for Kosovo-Serbia peace negotiations.
For both Serbia and Kosovo, a sustained peace is connected to their entry into the European Union. Serbia, in particular, is a candidate country in the EU enlargement plan and has consistently expressed its desire to enter the Union. For this reason, in the most recent period, both countries had started negotiations for a possible land swap as part of a process for peace.
However, Albin Kurti and his Vetëvendosje supporters are not eager to continue negotiations.
Throughout his campaign, Kurti prioritised the defence of Kosovo’s interests, rather than the reopening of negotiations with Serbia. He wants Kosovo to be regarded as an independent state, opposes land swap proposals and seems even to support the creation of a territorial union between Kosovo and Albania. He has also shown little respect to the Serbian minority living in Kosovo (that is represented in the Parliament).
Such a firm position complicates the prospect for both internal and external peace. Kurti’s nationalism can, indeed, destabilise the long-existing fragilities of Kosovo, undermining national coexistence and reinforcing divisions. In addition, peace negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia are going to decelerate, if not stop. Kurti said that this is going to foster Kosovo’s autonomous process of development. However, doubts can be raised for the fact that, if no agreement is reached, several countries will continue to neglect Kosovo’s independent status and borders will remain closed.
At this point, ambiguities surround Kurti’s plan for the following months. Undoubtedly, Vetëvendosje’s claims for a more autonomous politics and concerns for socio-economic development are positive for Kosovo and its population. However, it is questionable if Albanian nationalism can be effective in grouping together all people and addressing the most urgent questions for the entire Kosovo.