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Tear gas in parliament

Artan Mustafa about the political elite crisis in Kosovo.

3. July 2018
Magazine > Voices > Tear gas in parliament

Kosovo’s Parliament has been blocked with tear gas for four months now. This blog entry discusses how the current events reflect a larger crisis among the political elite in the country by describing important events, past or upcoming, governance performance and positions and strategies of the major parties.

The current political crisis

The opposition throwing canisters of teargas and blocking every intended working session of Kosovo Parliament (a rare exception was the guest speech of Austrian President Heinz Fischer on 29 October 2015); organizing angry protests (including covering bus fees for protesters joining from longer distances); asking the government to resign; and a comedy band making fun of former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) leaders who today front the establishment. These are the main pictures of Kosovo’s past four months, which are slowly manifesting a larger crisis of the political elite with no easy way of overcoming it: the elite is either consumed from excessive abuse of and longevity in power or promoting widely irrelevant causes.

The (protest) actions of the opposition parties have targeted two agreements signed over 24 hours, in Brussels and Vienna, in late August. With the first, Prishtina and Belgrade, under European Union mediation, arrange an association to coordinate the activities of Serbian majority municipalities in Kosovo.[1] The second agreement, between Kosovo and Montenegro, finally sets their borderline. The opposition claims that both agreements are not in favour of Kosovo, arguing that the former opens the path to Kosovo’s ethnic division and the border agreement gives away 12,000 hectares of land to Montenegro for free.

Whereas Montenegro recognised Kosovo in 2008 and the countries enjoy otherwise normal relations (revisited border agreements won’t change them), Prishtina and Belgrade continue to establish working channels through a dialogue which started in 2011 and is diplomatically labelled “technical”. All agreements are neutrally formulated to avoid political implications to Kosovo’s status on which the countries disagree. But the proposed association is clearly not a casual non-governmental organisation (NGO) as the government in Kosovo presented it, nor is its negotiation with Serbs in Kosovo and Serbia simply technical.

A domestic Serbian association would complete an institutional outlook reflecting the history of conflict between the Albanian majority and the Serbian minority and their legitimate claims for self-governance. In this sense, Kosovo would institutionally look much more like Belgium or Switzerland rather than more homogenous countries such as Austria or Hungary. The future role of the association for Serbs – divisive or integrative – will always depend on the behaviour of the major political actors and the situation in the region and Europe. That is why dialogue between Serbs and Albanians will not come to an end as many expect in Prishtina: it will and should always exist.

However, it will be difficult for the ruling coalition to move ahead with confirming and implementing the agreements despite the backing of American and European allies and largely the green light of the Constitutional Court for the association. Despite the large share of seats in parliament (68 out of 120), its leadership suffers from a serious lack of public legitimacy, fed by corruption and low quality of governance. That is why a comic crew’s movie, broadcast just before the New Year, mocking former KLA leaders (who are central to today’s establishment) for post-war property usurpations and elimination of critical rivals, was widely clicked and discussed in Kosovo over the past weeks.

In addition, an international court set in the Netherlands is being established to investigate KLA actions against members of minorities and members of Albanian opposition parties during the war and post-war period 1998-2000.[2]

It is a decaying elite which organised the almost two decades-long movement for independence from Serbia: successfully declaring independence in 2008, which is formally recognised by 111 United Nations members, including 23 EU countries, but with poor governance performance and minimal credibility in terms of being capable of improving it. The crisis in the Albanian political elite threatens both ethnic relations and the democratic consolidation of Kosovo.

Governance indicators

Speaking on a local television show in December, the nationalist writer Rexhep Qosja said he supported the KLA for their fight against the government of Serbia in the period 1998-1999 but distanced himself for the first time from their leaders’ governance of the country after the war. He was a key intellectual supporter of KLA leader Hashim Thaçi, arguably the strongest political actor on the field since 1999. Qosja called the KLA war “a revolution”.

In strict political theory terms, it may well be referred to as a revolution because KLA actions contributed to NATO’s military intervention, which resulted in the removal of the Serbian administration and military from Kosovo, something the majority of the Albanian population wanted. After the war, new institutions were created, political participation was high at party rallies and there was a 65.71 % voter turnout in the first elections held in 2001.

However, in terms of advancing the population’s social conditions, data indicate that there is limited progress in important areas – such as employment – compared to the mid-1980s when Kosovo was a province of Yugoslavia.[3]

The biggest difference in terms of employment comprises the 81,600 employees in the new state administration as reported in the last official statistical yearbook, much more than Kosovo had three decades ago. Funds dedicated to social schemes also cover about 350,000 people, who are then not counted as unemployed. However, public employment and the welfare sector are areas of strong political clientelism: parties distribute a majority of public jobs and welfare schemes to their electorate in exchange for loyalty and votes. Serbs barely benefit from social schemes and poverty in Serb dominated areas is significantly higher. Correspondingly, their health and education system is almost fully organised from Serbia.

Despite having received continuous international donations for the domestic budget and nowadays with an annual budget of around 1.6 billion euros, the Kosovo government’s key strategic investments – in infrastructure – have not even doubled the existing paved roads since 1984. The recent housing boom is almost fully driven by private individual investment and remittances from the large diaspora.

The unemployment rate was officially reported to be 35.3% in 2014. This figure is reached when approximately those under 18, the employed, welfare scheme beneficiaries and the university students are omitted from the total number of the population. The majority of the students do not receive any scholarship. However, the figure could still be theoretically right if one takes people into account who are working in the informal market. Applying a similar calculation, unemployment was around 44% in 1984 with better study conditions.

Employment in the economic sector remains weak and virtually equals the households’ incomes from state salaries. This is its major failure. More than 100,000 people, mainly Albanians, fled Kosovo in 2014 and 2015 seeking employment in the European Union. According to government statistics, about 18,000 people migrated to the West in 1989, the year when Kosovo’s autonomy was revoked. General poverty is estimated to affect 30 % of the population.

Quality of life, minority rights, freedom of expression and economic opportunities are important factors of good governance. Of course, the statistics do not portray a full picture and probably the resources have been distributed to other parts of population, but yet one can hardly speak of revolutionary transformations over time, especially in view of the scale of the preceding conflict and the number of victims. Instead much more money is concentrated in the hands of the “new few” affiliated to the independence movement.

Blockade of party reform

Government performance is further damaged by corruption. Not long in office, Prime Minister Isa Mustafa in 2015 was on newspaper front pages for – bizarrely – his office giving a contract to a company owned by his son for servicing a government car.

Mustafa, president of Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), was a former administration official in Kosovo during the early Slobodan Milosevic period which Albanians boycotted en-masse. Afterwards he led the municipality of Prishtina without significant success from 2007 to 2013. Plus, he was accused of Machiavellism when he refused to join a coalition with Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) but eventually changed camps in 2014. Prior to the election[4], Mustafa agreed with all opposition parties – the parties that are currently organizing the protests – to form a government without the PDK, a position which blocked the inauguration of new institutions for six months.

Voices in his party criticizing him, among them young members of the Parliament and promising future leaders, were quickly ousted from key party positions. The agreement with the PDK, which made Isa Mustafa the second Prime Minister of independent Kosovo, is expected to introduce his predecessor Hashim Thaçi as President this spring. Thaçi’s close ally Kadri Veseli, head of former Kosovo Intelligence Service (SHIK), an organisation which illegally served PDK interests between 1999 and 2008, is the current Vice-president of the PDK and chairman of the Parliament. With Thaçi heading for President and so having to vacate his party duties, Veseli, rather than some new figures, is the new de facto leader of the PDK. During the PDK’s governance, Veseli’s SHIK had power over the state administration, business and the media. Furthermore, PDK members were involved in numerous and bizarre crime and corruption cases.

Four of the major PDK leaders, including Thaçi and Veseli, are mentioned in the well-known report presented by Swiss politician Dick Marty to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in December 2010. As Thaçi prepares himself for presidential duties, an international tribunal is being established in The Hague, drawing on Marty’s report, to investigate suspected former KLA crimes against Serbs, other minorities and its political opponents during the period January 1998 – December 2000. Their main opponent back then was the LDK, ironically today’s partner in the government coalition.

Both parties have suppressed internal reform. Some former PDK advisors and officials are moving closer towards the main opposition party, Vetëvendosje. In this sense Rexhep Qosja’s recent position is relevant. Two opposition parties that have joined current protests, Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) and Nisma/Initiative, emerged from the KLA. Nisma also was a faction of the PDK. Their leadership was involved in corruption cases, lack popularity and presidents of both parties faced war crime indictments from the former international war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia. They are also mentioned in Marty’s report.

All the parties mentioned – PDK, LDK, AAK and Nisma – have been instrumental in organizing the successful independence movement. They also share nearly all the costs outlined above, including the failure to meaningfully integrate Serbs in Kosovo after the war in a better way, which makes the Prime Minister of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, an important internal voice in Kosovo.

New nationalists

The main party in Albanian opposition, Vetëvendosje (VV, Self-Determination), is different from the other parties and yet completes the picture of the crisis in the political elite. While it is often intellectually appealing because they are well equipped rhetorically and talk eloquently in public, its political credibility remains low among the electorate for good reasons.

Vetëvendosje has never accepted all the important events in recent Kosovo history; namely, the results of the Paris negotiations in 1999, which led to NATO’s military intervention, the status recommendation of former United Nations mediator Martti Ahtisaari and the resulting independence declaration in 2008. It is against decentralisation, which would strengthen the Serbian majority municipalities, and is even more vociferously against the new association to coordinate them. The movement seeks the unification of all Albanians in one state. That is why it symbolically organised one of the latest Anti-Agreements protests on 28 November, the National Flag Day of Albania.

The move for unification with Albania in the long term may effectively contribute to Kosovo’s ethnic partition rather than ethnic integration and even to the revival of the ethnic tensions. The last time a nationalist movement emerged in Serbia in the late 1980s, it was also initially viewed from many as intellectually refreshing, but ended up with disastrous consequences. At the same time, Vetëvendosje’s dialogue with international stakeholders is weak because the party perceives them shallowly as simply neo-colonial without offering any alternative.

When it comes to political skills, VV tactfully concentrates its criticism on former PM Hashim Thaçi because the party is aware that he is the most popular independence leader alive and was the leader of the Albanian hardliners for many years. VV also knows that the PDK with Kadri Veseli as its leader, with all the suspicion around him, is weaker. Thus the discursive battle is about who – PDK or Vetëvendosje – champions true Albanian patriotism.

Vetëvendosje is specialised in protesting with its key leader Albin Kurti, an experienced protester since 1998. It can mobilize people and has popular gatherings. With this and its officials’ love of referring to classic German and Italian philosophers, it adds to its intellectual appearance. On the other hand, their ability to gather large amounts of votes, beyond everything else, remains questionable because Vetëvendosje’s challenge is to convince the cultural elite and the electorate of the main parties that they can offer something better. An orthodox critique of the system – that it is in a very bad shape without offering resounding solutions to change it – doesn’t help.

Crucially, while it is clearly the only party declaring itself to be on the left side of the political spectrum with a well-defined ideological programme, its discourse unfortunately doesn’t prioritize social topics. That is the main fear of the undecided part of the electorate: is it worth supporting another essentially nationalist movement? Therefore its priority claims have failed to gain wide recognition as a worthy cause among the people. Considering their education, their claims seem often even archaic.

VV’s best card is the mayor of Prishtina, Shpend Ahmeti. He came to power with the votes of the PDK electorate competing against Isa Mustafa in 2013 in the second round. Not only has he undertaken several refreshing initiatives to stimulate small-scale business, Ahmeti has managed for almost two years to remain free from any serious corruption scandal. Practically, he seems to be a more skilled politician than Kurti if a politician is measured by the capacity to gain legitimate power and coordinate with different interlocutors for the benefit of the community. But Ahmeti and several of his colleagues at VV, who are genuinely more liberal, remain quite marginalised within the party.

Vetëvendosje is different and not shadowed by corruption. But it has to move away decisively from nationalism, to be able to cooperate with other relevant voices such as the Serb minority, which is a crucial stakeholder, and to convince the electorate, which would otherwise support an alternative option, since voters are tired of the longevity in power and the performance of the current establishment. A good government should offer room for social dialogue, quality of life and education.

There is a cliché to VV’s liking which says that crises are also opportunities,. The reality is that without reform in traditional political parties (which requires true competition) and significant maturation in Vetëvendosje, the crises will only lead to a new crisis.

[1] Associaton/Community of Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo – general principles/main elements (accessed on 01-19-2016).

[2] Statement of the Chief Prosecutor of the Special Investigative Task Force
29 July 2014
(accessed on 01-19-2016).

[3] Figures are based on the Statistical Yearbook of Republic of Kosovo (Kosovo Office of Statistics 2015 and its other reports), Yugoslavia 1945-1985: Statistical Review (Federal Statistical Office of Yugoslavia, 1986) and Kosovo Labour Force Survey (World Bank, 2013).

[4] Based on Kosovo Central Election Committee and Parliament of Kosovo websites: www.kqz-ks.org and www.kuvendikosoves.org (both accessed on 01-19-2016).

First published on 19 January 2016 on Eastblog (Blog of the research group for Eastern Europe at the Department of Political Science of the University of Vienna)

This text is protected by copyright: © Artan Mustafa. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Just in March 2018, tear gas capsules exploded in the plenary hall. Photo: © Martin Valentin Fuchs.