Kosovo’s Political Bifurcation : Between the Dialogue with Serbia and the Pandemic Response

Even if the eyes of the world’s public opinion are all pointed towards the response to COVID-19, on the background some international situation still need to solve.  Indeed, the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia is one of the open questions on the southern flank of the European Union. The difficulties in finding an agreement in the short term, could represent an overall damage especially for a weak economy like Kosovo, that has to deal with the consequences of the pandemic.

In most cases the dialogue is described taking in consideration the point of view of the international community, the idea of this article is to show also the Kosovar point of view that has changed in the last year and has created new potential scenarios on how and if the agreement will be reached.

The dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade in the last months has seen an increase in the diplomatic efforts, due to the Kosovo decision of imposing 100% tariff over the Serbian and Bosnian products, and especially after the appointment of the  US enjoy Richard Grenell.[1]

On the other hand, the European Union was left behind by the American’s action and only in March 2020 was appointed the special envoy Miroslav Lajčák to take over again the initiative. The nominee was accepted in Pristina with some concern over his Slovak nationality, one of the few EU members still not recognising Kosovo as an independent country.[2] But, Lajčák, has a strong experience as Slovakia Foreign Minister, and in the European diplomacy: he was also the EUs Special Envoy overseeing Montenegros independence referendum, and the EU High Representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina, so he has a deep knowledge of the difficulties in the Balkans.

The local and political landscape in Kosovo has changed in the last months and the new EU envoy could face more resistance from the local political situation than another representative on how to prosecute the dialogue with Belgrade.

There are two levels to understand the Kosovo situation, one is considering the international point of view with its differences between the EU countries and the United States diplomacy, on the other hand, the internal political situation. The international and local sphere are strictly interconnected and dependent to one to another, so they need to be both understood to have a clear picture of the situation.

The Balkans in general still represent an area in which different interests meet each other, with the Russian and Chinese growing influence in Serbia, the new Turkish and Gulf States intervention n support of the Muslim population balanced by the Western countries desire to fix the structure set twenty years ago.

Actually, the presence of the international community is strong but its action in supporting the dialogue between Pristine and Belgrade are showing some signs of decline due to the difficulties in finding a stable solution. A change that could reshape the situation is coming from the Kosovo political situation where for the first time in its small democratic history at the last parliamentary election in October 2019 a new party won the majority.

If in the past the local sphere was regarded as less important for the diplomacy, the events happened after the election prove the need for taking more in consideration what happen at the local government and its citizens, due to a growing demand of a more transparent participation at the political process.

The election won by the Vetevendosje movement led by Albin Kurti, set a turning point for the country, with the victory of a party that since the independence hasn’t ruled the country. The election has proven the maturity of Kosovo’s democracy but is a challenge for the diplomacy on understanding the new government and to set a new base for the negotiation.

Mr Kurti, a historic opposition member and a strong advocate for a political change, represents a fresh start for Kosovo politics.. The Vetevendosje Movement was able to form a government after months of negotiation with LDK party with a very reformist agenda mainly based on justice and economical development, embracing a strong desire for a chance in the country. During his government, he has maintained his political idea and has criticised the President over its actions in representing the country at the dialogue table and its past decisions as unconstitutional.

In the last years, President Hashim Thaci has lead the dialogue with Serbia, representing the country in the table of negotiation, and setting the main negotiation lines, already putting himself in a conflicting trajectory with the previous government over the question about imposing the tariffs on Serbian and Bosnian products. 

The main idea on the table of negotiation right now is a territorial exchange of territories between Kosovo and Serbia, a solution mainly supported by the Americans. Accordingly, to the press and the opposition, a secret agreement was already being signed by the Kosovar President Thaci and its counterpart the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. Despite the American support, this idea not only is rejected by the European countries which are seeing it as a precedent that could ignite unsolved conflicts over some disputed territories in the region. The idea is strongly opposed also by the majority of the population of the country with the only exception of the Serbian minority which could see it as a way to reunite with Serbia[3]. The idea of an exchange of territories is not new in the dialogue history even if always denied by the diplomatic officials but periodically returns from the back door as a possible solution.

Mr Kurti and his movement were always strongly opponents of any territorial change with Serbia, advocating for a normalisation of the relationship and for a more transparent dialogue not driven only by the president, seen as an autocratic ruler. The Vetevendosje movement is a particular opposer of the idea of a secret dialogue led by the President, in their view is the Prime Minister which has the rights to sit at the table of the negotiation representing the country.

From a legal perspective, the formal Kosovo Constitution is a very new one meaning that its material constitution hasn’t still properly developed with a set of customs and procedures on how to interpreting the articles, explaining the lack of common interpretation over their meaning. Having said so the main issue over the dialogue was on the interpretation over the constitutional articles about the foreign policy. The question is on how to interpreted articles 83[4] and 84[5] and the powers of the President together with the articles about the Prime Minister, the government and the Assembly. In particular, articles 84 point 10 established the President “leads the foreign policy of the country” and in the interpretation supported by the President, Thaci is to allow the president to independently conduct the foreign policy of the country. The description of the Presidential powers foreseen them as in accordance with the Prime Minister or the government, in the case of the foreign policy the articles lack a proper explanation.

On the other hand, the interpretation supported by the Vetevendosje movement is for a more representative role of the President, who has to agree on the foreign policy lines and follow the lines established with its government. The clarification is complicated by the interpretation of other articles of the constitution which doesn’t help in providing a better understanding. Article 4, point 3[6] seems, in fact, to describe the President as the legitimate representative of the internal and foreign policy but on the other hand the article 94[7] which foreseen the powers of the Prime Minister as a shared function between the President and the Prime Minister. Article 93 states the government “proposes and implements the internal and foreign policies of the country” clearly give to it a leading role on the thematic, demonstrating the interpretation of a shared function. Further, the Assembly of Kosovo has the power foreseen by the Constitution in overseen the foreign policy of the country.[8] The article not only supports the opinion for a more transparent decision-making process in foreign politics but also in having its support since the Assembly has the power in ratify all international treaties.

A reading of the Constitution, in this case, is not capable to clear the picture on how to proceed but it gives more space for a different political interpretation of its articles. Not only, every agreement it will signed with Serbia needs specifically an overall approval from the civil society and political parties, otherwise, it will stay only on the paper lacking any implementation.

The problem is not only a legal one but hiding a more deep political differences between the two factions, with the Vetevendosje Movement more interested in a more transparent approach free from any influence from the international community, and the President more interested in following and leading the dialogue himself, with the support of the American diplomacy.

The crisis between the two main political figure was also deepened by a suggestion made by the Prime Minister Kurti on a secret agreement signed by Hashim Thaci in 2013[9] with NATO which was imposing restriction on the use of Kosovar forces in the north of the country. Apparently the agreement was signed when Thaci was a Prime Minister without informing the Assembly on its subject. Despite, the NATO reassurance based on the UN resolution 1244, the revelation set again the Prime Minister Kurti in contrast on the way in which the foreign relationship was held by the country in the last decade. To mend the international relationship with its ally the new government, with the approval of the EU countries and the USA, has partially lifted the tariffs over the Serbian and Bosnian products. The new principle followed by the government is based on the “reciprocity” of the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo on political, economical and trade thematics.[10] 

In the last months, the US diplomacy was very active in negotiating an agreement who could set the situation once for all, an approach that until now has brought the signing of two new agreements between the two countries.[11]

On the European side, after the failed Berlin Summit on the Western Balkan[12] to try to take the lead and restart the negotiation, there were some difficulties in following the American activism, due also to the concurrent  European vote and the procedure in Bruxelles to establishing the new European Commission in office.

In the meantime, the situation has gotten worsen with the appearance on the scene of the COVID-19 which caused a direct hit on the political situation in the country. The deadly virus might represent big challenges for Kosovo and on how to deal with these big challenges the internal situation clashes again. The government and the President disputed over the procedure in dealing with the virus and on the opportunity or not of declaring the national emergency which the potentiality of putting more power in the hands of the president. Mr Kurti in this crisis moment has shown resolution in dealing with the pandemic building trusts among his citizens but he hasn’t foreseen the potential resistance by other political parties. The decision to dismiss the Internal Minister from his coalition party who hasn’t supported the political line of the government, was the casus belli of another political and constitutional crisis. The decision, made without consultation with the junior partners, trigged a vote of non-confidence in the Assembly. Kosovo became then the first world country in dealing with the pandemic with an acting government who hasn’t the majority in the Parliament, a situation that might diminish any future efforts in the fight the health and economic consequences.

The government which has sworn only 50 days earlier with a progressive and ambitious agenda to reform the country and reform justice and economy, was put an end. During these 50 days, the approval rate of the Vetevendosje movement grows among the population showing an overall high approval for the reformist agenda and for what is it a belief of hope for a change in the country.

The politic agenda of the country, due to the important investment and presence of the international community, need the support from them and the fall of the government was greeted with some relief especially by the Americans, even despite rejecting any allegation about their involvement.[13]

Mr Kurti is seen as a potential threat to the American interests in reaching an agreement for this decision of not change his agenda even under the international pressure, to relief the development funds on which Kosovo still relies on.  The international community is facing a choice between supporting the new government or pushing for a more stable and safe solution backstopping the President Thaci and the other parties which have ruled the countries in the last decade.

In order to understand the framework in which the new EU Envoy will operate is necessary to describe the three different players on the Kosovo political situation. Each one of the players has a clear connection with the international situation and their future choices might have an impact not only the local response to Corona Virus but also in any further development in the dialogue with Serbia.

One of the main figure in Kosovo politics since the war is Hashim Thaci, the former political leader of KLA and former leader of Partia Demokratike e Kosovës (PDK), who has dominated the politics in Kosovo in the last decade. Despite allegation of his possible involvement in organised crimes and corruption he is still seen by the international community as a guarantee of a peaceful continuity in the country. Although, PDK has lost part of his power after the last election and there is also the fear of a possible call from the Kosovo Special Chambers at the end of his mandate for him and his fellow party members former KLA figures. In order to maintain his position, President Thaci has seen the pandemic emergency as an opportunity to undermining the opposition of the new government. The government has strongly opposed to any idea of declaring emergency powers and it has issued movement restriction by decree. The decision was challenged by the President who has asked an opinion to the Constitutional Court considering the limitation as anti-constitutional if not taken after the approval of the emergency powers. So, in his view securing a more favourable government and an agreement signed with Serbia could allow him to maintain the power being seen by the international community as the guarantee of the peace in the area so he might avoid any call from the Special Chamber. 

Another player is the Lidhja Demokratike e Kosovës (LDK) party, as one of the historic party in Kosovo is facing a duality between its loyalty to the coalition partner or answered the call from the President and forming a new government. The motion of non-confidence for the government was proposed by LDK which was in contrast over both the decision on the emergency in power and in the dismissal of the former interior minister, a decision taken by Kurti without a proper consultation with the party. Still, even if the members of the party are still sitting in the acting government, its leader Isa Mustafa in the last days declared the willingness of the party to form another government together with other opposition partners. The new government will need the majority of 61 seats in the Assembly, starting from the 28 seats of LDK, it will need also the vote of Thaci’s PDK (24 MPs) and other small parties like AAK (13) and NISMA (4).[14] A coalition that giving the fear of new election and the strong opposition to Vetevendosje movement might not be complicated to form and allow them to avoid a further election in where they might lose more seats in the Assembly.

The third actor in the situation is the Vetevendosje Movement, strong not only of its position as a winner of the past election (29 MPs in the Assembly), but also in leading the polls. The Movement has denounced any attempt of the President in finding a different government more aligned with its interests after the confidence vote. VV is pushing for new elections, a decision which will meet the opposition of Thaci and other parties knowing they could lose even more seats in the Assembly and the chance in 2021 of electing the new President. The position of Vetevendosje is supported by the interpretation of the Constitution which is not giving any timetable in dealing with a crisis but in placing in the hands of the main party the choice in the further decision, with a President as third and neutral in the overall process. So, Kurti is strongly supporting the idea of new elections after the pandemic crisis is over to cement its government and follow his reformist agenda with an opportunity of electing a new President.

On the international side Richard Grenell the US envoy, freshly nominated by President Trump new director of the intelligence services[15] as all the interest in forcing the hand to find an agreement to set the situation in Kosovo bringing a major diplomatic victory for the Trump administration which can be used in the upcoming Presidential campaign.

This represents the political landscape in which the new EU envoy needs to move into to try to move on the dialogue which right now is blocked since later 2018. Miroslav Lajčák has entered into office with a declaration of hope for reaching an agreement for the next year spring and denying any suggestions about a secret agreement for a land exchange between Serbia and Kosovo. The EU is still in a strong position since both Kosovo and Serbia desire to be considered as a candidate to be part of the European Union, but it has also to consider the position of the member states which clearly reject any agreement based on the exchange of territories seen as a dangerous per cent for the overall security of the Balkans.

The new envoy needs to have a clear picture of the internal political situation taking in mind the growing support for the Vetevendosje movement and the opposition among the Kosovar for any territorial change. In fact, any further step in the dialogue it might need more involvement from the civil society and should be dealing in a more transparent way. A new transparent dialogue could clearly beneficial of more support for a civil society for a possible implementation but also could bring new fresh ideas on the table of negotiation.

Written by Francesco Chiavon

About the Author: Francesco Chiavon graduated from the University of Trento (Italy), Master Degree in European and Transnational Law with a Master Thesis in International Humanitarian Law on the protection on medical personnel in armed conflicts. Francesco has previously worked as Junior Project Officer at the UNDP office in Kosovo in a project whose aim was strengthening the local institutions in the fight against corruption. He has also a legal experience working in both criminal and civil law. Francesco also collaborates with Professor Jelen Igor of the University of  Trieste (Italy). He wrote and soon be published articles on the political and constitutional situation of Central Asia Countries with an insight on the human rights perspective and presented papers on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea.

 


[1] One of the success is the agreement signed to reopen of the airline between Pristina and Belgrade after 20 years. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/20/world/europe/serbia-kosovo-flights-resume.html?searchResultPosition=2, accessed 14.04.2020

[2] Slovakia despite not formally recognised Kosovo as an independent country has still established international relationship between the two nations. For further reading: Ioannis Armakolas, James Ker-Lindsay, The Politics of Recognition and Engagement EU Member State Relations with Kosovo, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

[3] http://kdi-kosova.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/74-Sondazhi-Report-ENG.pdf, accessed 19.04.2020

[4] Article 83 [Status of the President]: “The President is the head of state and represents the unity of the people of the Republic of Kosovo.

[5] Article 84 [Competencies of the President]: “The President of the Republic of Kosovo: (1) represents the Republic of Kosovo, internally and externally; (2) guarantees the constitutional functioning of the institutions set forth by this Constitution; (3) announces elections for the Assembly of Kosovo and convenes its first meeting; (4) issues decrees in accordance with this Constitution; (5) promulgates laws approved by the Assembly of Kosovo; (6) has the right to return adopted laws for re-consideration when he/she considers them to be harmful to the legitimate interests of the Republic of Kosovo or one or more Communities. This right can be exercised only once per law; (7) signs international agreements in accordance with this Constitution ; (8) proposes amendments to this Constitution; (9) may refer constitutional questions to the Constitutional Court. (10) leads the foreign policy of the country; […]”

[6] Article 4. 3: “The President of the Republic of Kosovo represents the unity of the people. The President of the Republic of Kosovo is the legitimate representative of the country, internally and – 2 – externally, and is the guarantor of the democratic functioning of the institutions of the Republic of Kosovo, as provided in this Constitution.

[7] Article 94.9 “ The President of the Republic of Kosovo represents the unity of the people. The President of the Republic of Kosovo is the legitimate representative of the country, internally and – 2 – externally, and is the guarantor of the democratic functioning of the institutions of the Republic of Kosovo, as provided in this Constitution.

[8] Article 65. 12: “oversees foreign and security policies; […]“

[9] https://balkaninsight.com/2020/02/27/kosovo-leaders-trade-angry-words-over-secret-nato-deal/, accessed at 16.04.2020.

[10] https://balkaninsight.com/2020/02/27/kosovo-pm-offers-to-partially-lift-serbian-import-tariff/, accessed at 16.04.2020.

[11]In the last months were signed two agreement to restore the aerial and the rail link between the two capital Pristina and Belgrade.https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/20/world/europe/serbia-kosovo-flights-resume.html, accessed on 19.04.2020 and https://balkaninsight.com/2020/02/14/serbia-kosovo-leaders-welcome-deal-to-restore-rail-link/, accessed at 19.04.2020.

[12] https://balkaninsight.com/2019/04/30/berlin-summit-fails-to-restart-stalled-kosovo-serbia-talks/ accessed 16.04.2020.

[13]  https://balkaninsight.com/2020/04/07/applauding-kurtis-fall-the-us-is-testing-kosovos-loyalty/, accessed at 18.04.2020.

[14] https://exit.al/en/2020/03/19/governing-party-allies-with-opposition-to-force-out-kosovo-government-maybe-attempt-new-ruling-majority/, accessed 18.04.2020

[15] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/19/us/politics/dni-national-intelligence-director-grenell.html, accessed at 19.04.2020

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