Besides the COVID-19 pandemic that the country is dealing with, Kosovo is currently experiencing unprecedented political turmoil. While the state institutions and public health bodies have been actively faced with the COVID-19 situation since mid-March when the first protective measures were introduced in Kosovo, on the other hand the former junior government’s coalition partner - Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), ranked in second place in Kosovo’s snap elections held on October 6, 2019 - started to angrily act in opposition to the government. It began at the Kosovo Assembly with a no-confidence motion against the government led by Prime Minister Albin Kurti, leader of the Vetëvendosje (Self-determination) movement which won the 2019 elections in the country. Accordingly, since March 25, when the assembly was convened in an extraordinary session, the MPs of LDK backed by opposition parties voted in favour of toppling the government. The country will be subsequently governed by a caretaker government. There are several reasons behind the political crisis in Kosovo, thus marking severe controversies amid COVID-19.
First, events related to dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia have been among the key factors that have influenced the fall of the Kurti government. This was due to direct pressure exerted by the United States Special Presidential Envoy for Kosovo and Serbia Peace Negotiations, Richard Grenell, repeatedly asking Kurti to completely eliminate the tariffs on goods entering Kosovo from Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina as well as to not employ reciprocity measures against Serbia in order to resume the dialogue. However, unlike demanding that Kosovo undertake these political steps, it is worth mentioning that Grenell and other United States senior officials in charge of Western Balkan affairs have not been applying the same policy towards Serbia for halting its de-recognition campaign against Kosovo’s statehood, independence and international recognition.
By the same token, Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci and former government coalition partner LDK have been poised to remove Kosovo’s tariffs to quickly restore the dialogue with Serbia under United States’ mediation following the government’s formation in February 2020. On the other hand, Kurti showed reluctance to move in favour of Grenell’s demand due to his stance on the United States and with particular emphasis on the facr that President Donald Trump’s envoy is asking for a quick final Kosovo-Serbia deal on the verge of US presidential elections; therefore he has interpreted that “this can be presented as a success in this electoral year”. Kosovo’s acting prime minister hotly accused Richard Grenell of interfering in internal politics to dismiss the government and push the LDK to initiate a no-confidence motion. In addition, he has also stated that Grenell is more interested in reaching and signing the final deal for Kosovo and Serbia in the White House no matter what the deal’s content or substance, thus raising concerns that the deal might imply land swaps meaning a partition for Kosovo, particularly in the north. However, Trump’s envoy has reiterated that “there has been absolutely no talk of land swaps from me – and it’s never been discussed by anyone else in my presence” and this was also stated beforehand by the US Department of State that no secret plan exists for land swaps between Kosovo and Serbia and that “Special Presidential Envoy Richard Grenell has never seen nor discussed such a plan.” Nevertheless, one can notice that the controversial idea of land swaps was not explicitly excluded by Grenell as a potential discussion topic between Kosovo and Serbia in the future when the dialogue resumes. Prior to the no-confidence motion, the Kosovo government lifted the tariffs against Serbia and put some reciprocity measures towards Serbia in place (a step applauded by the European Union, but it did not get the consent of the United States), even though Serbia has not yet halted its campaign against international recognition of Kosovo.
The second reason leading to the collapse of the government is also attributed to internal developments in Kosovo related to the COVID-19 situation – that to date registers 763 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 22 deaths. A manoeuvre of President Thaci to declare the state of emergency which would give him greater power created a tense situation in the country as it was not deemed necessary by the country’s public health and governmental bodies to undertake extreme steps in dealing with COVID-19. Thaci’s endeavour was directly opposed by Prime Minister Kurti, who qualified as unreasonable and illogical Thaci’s demand to declare a state of emergency, given that the situation did not require undertaking the most extreme measures.
Despite Kurti,’s stance, his partner coalition in the government – LDK – was positioned to support Thaci as Agim Veliu, then-Minister of Internal Affairs and Public Administration, in public surprisingly pointed out that the number of Kosovo citizens affected with COVID-19 is increasing hourly, therefore he supported declaring a state of emergency as demanded by the president. Needless to say, the minister was sacked by Kurti for being against the government and the prime minister’s stance on the matter as well as for publicly exaggerating or panicking about the number of citizens infected. Contrary to this, LDK did not agree with the Kurti’s move to discharge Veliu (who is also one of the most influential deputy leaders in LDK) and consequently undertook the initiative to bring a no-confidence motion before the Assembly which led to dismissal of the government. Independent observers, civil society activists and non-political affiliated media have stated that the LDK acted in full accordance with President Thaci to dismiss the government led by Kurti. Among other aforementioned issues, the commitment made by the leading figures of government to fight endemic corruption and organized crime, restoring the rule of law and promising to employ systemic reforms for economic development and the impartiality of justice system have been cited as additional factors to help topple the government by LDK and opposition parties, supported albeit not openly by Thaçi.
As upcoming political developments might bring a new government headed by the LDK, this could possibly mark an unconstitutional step as has been warned by legal and constitutional experts in Kosovo. This is due to the fact that the Vetëvendosje Movement has not refused to give its nominee the mandate to create a new government, while Thaçi on the other hand mandated the LDK to establish a new government (based on the constitutional rules in Kosovo, the president may not give a mandate to another political party unless it has been clearly refused by the former). On this note, the Constitutional Court of Kosovo is expected to receive a new request to examine if Thaci’s new move is in accordance with the constitution.
Given these intense events, Kosovo is entering into a deep political crisis and reaching its peak of polarized political scene internally and externally for the first time since the 1999 post-war period, when transatlantic unity is lacking. Moreover, certain high-profile political figures are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to undertake the hazardous step of toppling the government (regardless of the fact of who is in the government) and to install a new one that lacks the democratic legitimacy to cope with the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, is incapable of delivering internal structural reforms and of advancing with the EU and NATO integration path, and undermines people’s expectations of good governance. Kosovo will be marked among the rare countries in Europe (and beyond Europe probably) for toppling a government in the time of COVID-19 mostly for political interests.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies (KCSS)