by Thomas Romano*
Albin Kurti’s fall ends the Atlantic consensus in Kosovo, and the consequences may be serious
The fall of the government in Kosovo, on 25 March 2020, marked one of the lowest moments of EU’s foreign policy in the Western Balkans in recent times. 82 out of 120 MPs voted a no-confidence motion in the government formed only a month and a half before, on the 4th of February. Despite being in the midst of a pandemic, and defying calls for political unity from both the EU and powerful member states such as Germany and France, the parties that overthrew Albin Kurti sided with the US in the growing competition with the EU in Kosovo.
Kurti’s toppling is a result of different but overlapping political dynamics. First, it was a rejection of Kurti and his party, ‘Vetevendosje’ (Albanian for ‘Self-Determination’), a left-wing Albanian nationalist party which run in the October 2019 election on a political change and anti-corruption platform. Kurti, a long-time political activist who was imprisoned during the war, had targeted the ‘old’ political class that had been in government since after the conflict, mobilising the Kosovars’ widespread dissatisfaction with corruption and mismanagement in their country’s politics. The more conservative faction of Kurti’s coalition partner, the LDK (Kosovo Democratic League), part of that same political class, had entered the coalition with some scepticism. An occasion to backtrack on their commitment was offered by the most pressing topic that Kurti was called to deal with, that is, the dialogue on ‘normalisation of relations’ between Kosovo and Serbia. Kurti found his main opponent in Kosovo’s President, Hashim Thaci, a powerful figure in the country’s politics and the historical leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), the political branch of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which fought Serbs during the war.
The dialogue, the implicit goal of which is to ensure Serbia’s recognition of its former southern province, had been mediated by the EU from 2011 to 2018, but halted when at-the-time Prime Minister Haradinaj imposed a 100% tariff on imports from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina as a countermeasure against Serbia’s derecognition campaign – lobbying countries to reverse their recognition of Kosovo’s independence and to vote against Kosovo’s admission to international organisations such as UNESCO and Interpol. Serbia withdrew from negotiations, and both the EU and the US called on Kosovo to reverse this decision. While the official dialogue was halted, Presidents from both sides – Thaci and Serbian Aleksandar Vucic – introduced the prospect of a deal based on a mutual exchange of territories, drawn on ethnic lines. This alarmed most commentators, worried about the potentially disruptive effect of such a precedent on the whole region and for irredentist claims in other parts of the Balkans, and received mixed reactions from the international community: while some European countries – notably Germany – came out against it, the US did not oppose it, and the EU itself maintained a somewhat ambiguous approach.
Kurti planned to run the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue differently, following some key principles. First, he pledged to give back to the government the leading role in the negotiations: as Kosovo is a parliamentary system, the power to negotiate international agreements lies with the government, while the President’s role is intended to be mostly ceremonial. Second, Kurti intended to lift the tariff gradually, making its full removal conditional on Serbia stopping its derecognition campaign. Third, Kurti ruled out any idea of border corrections on ethnic lines, overwhelmingly opposed by Kosovo citizens. This plan clashed with the Trump administration’s growing activism in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue. Last October, Trump marked the intention of a closer involvement in the dialogue by appointing a Special Envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue: Richard Grenell, who is also US ambassador to Germany.
As noted by political scientist Aidan Hehir, Trump was especially motivated by the ‘PR value’ of brokering a deal to enhance his foreign policy credentials, especially with an election approaching. Grenell privileged informal talks between the two Presidents rather than involving Kurti, and worked with them to reach an agreement to restore air and rail connections between Pristina and Belgrade, halted since the end of the war, the practical effects of which are unclear. While Trump, Thaci and Vucic all publicly praised the agreement, Kurti criticised the ‘lack of transparency’ surrounding the plan, which his government had not authorised. Grenell also delegitimised Kurti’s plan to gradually lift the tariffs, explicitly stating that the US opposed anything short of a full and unconditional removal, while the EU had welcomed Kurti’s decision as a positive first step. He also hinted to the possibility to reduce US financial assistance and military involvement in Kosovo, on which the newly independent country strongly relies, something that was also echoed by Donald Trump jr, who came out in support of withdrawing the US military personnel still stationing in the country. The LDK leader Isa Mustafa followed suit, coming out in support of what was being requested by Kosovo’s ‘strategic partner’.
Ultimately, the casus belli for the LDK’s nearly unanimous vote against Kurti was disagreement in the coalition over the declaration of a state of emergency to tackle the coronavirus crisis. This would have implied a transfer of executive powers from the government to a National Security Committee chaired by the President. Kurti deemed such a measure unnecessary, and Thaci went as far as to call on Kosovo citizens to defy the government’s restrictions on movement in specific hours of the day. However, the real reasons behind his removal lie in his plan to eradicate corruption and to tackle its political roots, as well as in his interference with Thaci’s project of leading the Kosovo – Serbia dialogue from his post of President. The accretion of the President’s executive functions should be particularly worrying, since the President has only limited accountability to Parliament, nor a democratic mandate for his strategy: Kosovo citizens showed in the election, as well as in creative protests after Kurti’s removal, widespread dissatisfaction with Thaci’s conduct and with his party’s record in government. Furthermore, the shifting of powers towards Thaci in such a sensitive topic is an example of the increasingly common tendency to resort to semi-authoritarian styles of government in former Yugoslavia, something on which the international community, particularly the EU, has often turned a blind eye for the sake of stability. In this case, however, there is nothing stable about re-drawing borders on ethnic lines, something that could potentially increase tensions in other parts of the Balkans, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina. Kurti expressly referred to this case in his speech in the Assembly in the debate on the no-confidence motion, reminding that Serbia’s formal recognition of Bosnia does not stop its support for the irredentist claims of Bosnian Serbs in the Republika Sprska entity.
The EU took little initiative, apart from a carefully worded statement, to dissuade the LDK from voting Kurti out. Its leverage on neighbouring countries, especially those which have an ‘enlargement perspective’ such as Kosovo, depends on the key principle of conditionality, as academic research has shown for a long time: countries will comply with the EU’s requirements if the latter promises rewards and allocates them consistently and credibly. In Kosovo, the EU has spectacularly violated these principles in refusing visa liberalisation to Kosovo citizens, despite Kosovo having fulfilled all the requested conditions. Governing parties in Kosovo, in turn, felt increasingly legitimised not to comply with EU requirements in other areas, reinforcing mutual distrust and weakening the EU’s leverage over the small Balkan country.
The EU’s weakness in Kosovo is especially relevant in a historical moment where the other key player in Kosovo, the US, is increasingly willing to exploit the EU’s difficulties in order to score its own political points. In addition, this US administration no longer prioritises defending liberal democratic principles and diffusely engages in ethno-nationalistic rhetoric: the issue of border correction on ethnic lines is a clear example. The EU can only regain a key role in Kosovo, and in the Balkans more generally, if it distances itself from the Vucic-Thaci-Trump approach and clearly and unequivocally defends liberal democratic principles. This might require difficult decisions, including a more interventionist role in Kosovo’s political life, supporting those who are willing to defend these values. A first step, for example, could be to clearly affirm that the EU will not accept any negotiating process between Kosovo and Serbia in which national parliaments are excluded, that the government and not the President should lead the negotiations, and maybe even conditioning visa liberalisation to this. This would be a significant shift from the EU’s tendency not to intervene directly in the politics of its neighbouring countries, but one that is needed at a time of democratic backsliding: Kosovo shows that there should not be neutrality on whether or not to uphold liberal democratic principles.
*Thomas Romano holds a master’s degree in European Studies from the University of Florence. He was also a student of the Sant’Anna School for Advanced Studies in Pisa. He is interested in the EU enlargement policy, Europeanisation and the politicisation of European integration within and outside its borders. He has travelled extensively throughout the Balkans and hopes than one day he will know the region as well as Igli Tare does.