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Reflections on Kosovo’s first general election since independence

Kflag2 On Sunday, Kosovo held its first parliamentary elections since its declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008.   If exit polls are to be believed, the centre-left Prime Minister and former Kosovo Liberation Army commander Hashim Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo (DPK) is on course to be the largest party in the country’s 120-seat National Assembly.

While full results have yet to be confirmed, several early observations about the elections can be made:

The conduct of the elections failed to reach acceptable democratic standards

On Monday, the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton and Commissioner for Enlargement Štefan Füle issued a statementcongratulating the people of Kosovo on their election and the calm and orderly manner in which the majority of the voting took place” and praised the “Central Electoral Commission in particular” for their role in the process.

While they are correct that the conduct of the elections was peaceful in the areas in which participation took place (the Serb minority in the north of the country boycotted the poll), to suggest the Central Election Commission should be congratulated for their role in the process is misguided to say the last.
Complaints have already been filed regarding the conduct of the elections in the Central Kosovo region of Drenica, a stronghold of Hashim Thaci’s DPK.  At one polling station at a school in Skënderaj, ballot boxes were rumoured to contain more ballot papers than the number of voters registered to cast their votes there.  Another reported a turnout of 149% while many others in the region reported turnouts of 94% despite turnout having yet to reach 50% at 3:30pm.

Isa Mustafa, the leader of the centre-right Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) which came in second to Thaci’s party has described the returns from Drenica as “statistically impossible and politically unacceptable".  I’m strongly inclined to agree with him.

Hashim Thaci took a gamble – and it appears he won

Back in September, Kosovo’s Constitutional Court ruled that President Fatmir Sejdiu was not able to hold the position of leader of the LDK and head of state.  As such, he was faced with two options: resign as President to lead his party or resign as leader of his party to remain as President.  In choosing the former, Sejdiu calculated that he may soon be able to translate his popularity as the ceremonial President into a victory at the next general election which would see him become Prime Minster. 

Following the resolution of this constitutional crisis, the PDK ministers loyal to Prime Minister Thaci passed a vote of no confidence in themselves in order to force a general election.  Thaci calculated that public dismay at Sejdiu’s seemingly self-serving decision and the instability his party’s withdrawal from the governing coalition had brought about only weeks earlier would be enough to see him and his party returned to power at the subsequent election.

Thaci was correct.  Indeed, Sejdiu didn’t even make it as far as the general election ballot paper, being ousted from the leadership of the LDK in favour of Pristina Mayor Isa Mustafa only days after his resignation as President.

Kosovo’s ethnic minorities have a real chance to influence the future of the province

At least twenty of the seats in the Republic of Kosovo’s Parliament are reserved for the province’s ethnic minority populations: a minimum of ten for Serbs and ten to be shared between Romani, Ashkali, Egyptian, Bosniak, Turk and Gorani representatives.  

The early results suggest that, with a low turnout of around 48%, the Serbian parties in particular appear to have greatly exceeded expectations and captured twenty seats in Parliament. It is though that candidates standing for the Independent Liberal Party (14 MPs elected) and United Serb Ticket (6 MPs elected) have drawn significant support from Serb enclaves in strongly ethnic Albanian areas in the south of the country.  This pragmatic approach on the part of Serbs mirrors the local election result in Gracanica last year where local Serbs agreed to participate in the elections in order to ensure that it was not only ethnic Albanians that were elected.

Whoever wins the election, it is certain that a coalition agreement will be needed in order to secure a governing majority.  With Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo at loggerheads with its former coalition partners the LDK and the hard-line Vetëvendosje! party (of whom more later) unsuitable for government, the ethnic minority representatives could play a key role in the running of the province.

The Republic of Kosovo's final borders require further consideration

While the brave decision of many Serbs in Albanian-dominated areas to participate in the elections should be welcomed, Serbian participation in the elections stopped at the southern banks of the River Ibar.

Despite a concerted effort on the part of the international community to establish Kosovan control over the northern part of the province have comprehensively failed.  In the north of the divided city of Mitrovica and its surrounding regions of Leposavic, Zubin Potok, and Zvecan which have an ethnic Serb population of exceeding 90%, only two of the 60,000 registered voters went to the polls.  Given that this region is home to 66,000 – or roughly 54% – of the province’s 113,000-strong Serbian community, this is a painful rebuke for those in Kosovo who claim they are building the foundations of a successful multi-ethnic state. 

There can be absolutely no expectation that the Serbs in northern Kosovo will ever accept being ruled from Pristina.  The government of the Republic of Serbia continues to govern the area from Belgrade with the near-unanimous support of the local population.  Indeed, the opening of several Kosovan government offices in the region in recent months has been nothing short of a red rag to a bull, sparking bloody riots and violent recriminations.  

The only sensible solution to this situation, however unattractive it may be from the perspective of serving as a precedent for other ethnic conflicts in the Balkans, is to return the north of Kosovo to Serbian sovereign control, as opposed to simply the de facto at present.  My friend Charles Tannock has argued for a similar solution to the stalemate, although he advocates a ‘land swap’ with Pristina gaining the Preševo Valley in Southern Serbia in exchange for the northern areas of Kosovo.  I would respectfully argue against Dr Tannock’s suggested compromise on the basis that the Pčinja district of which Preševo serves part is 60% Serb to 27% Albanian as compared to Northern Kosovo which is 96% Serb.   Furthermore, while the Serbs in Northern Kosovo are physically and politically divided from the rest of the province, a directly-elected representative of the Albanian Coalition of Presevo sits as an MP in the Serbian National Assembly.  Such a deal would be rightly be unacceptable to Belgrade. 

The decision as to the future of Northern Kosovo is not so much one for the Kosovan Government (who have no meaningful control of the area) but for NATO and the United States.  Their say-so would automatically return the northern provinces to Serbia but would, as Dr Tannock suggests, require Belgrade to abandon its claims to Kosovo's southern portion.

The rise of ultra-nationalism has the potential to plunge Kosovo back into violence

Despite billions of Euros from the European Union and United States flowing into Kosovo each year, the province’s residents have seen little improvement in their economic situation since they declared independence.  Indeed, unemployment continues to hover at around 50% and is a particular problem for younger people leaving higher education who are often forced to go overseas in search of work.

One cannot walk along a street in Kosovo without seeing the obvious signs of the international community’s involvement in the province.  Indeed, a five minute walk around central Pristina will see you come into contact with a dizzy array of acronyms; from the NATO to UNMIK, OECD to the OSCE and UNIFEM to EULEX.  Each of these institutions has a considerable influence over government policies – from budget-setting to Kosovo’s constitutional status.

With the poor economic climate in the province coupled with a largely ineffective yet highly restrictive international presence continuing to have a strong role to play in the province, it should come as no surprise that the hard-line Vetëvendosje! (‘Self-Determination’) party has done as well as it has.  The nationalist movement led by the highly controversial former student activist Albin Kurti will have fourteen seats in Parliament. 

The party, which favours the withdrawal of all foreign troops and international organisations from the province, will use is position to seek to overturn the constitutional ban on Kosovo forming a union with any other state.  Vetëvendosje! also opposes the continuation of the decentralised form of government operating in the province, believing that it weakens the Albanian-dominated central government in Pristina in favour of ethnic minorities.

Such a strong performance on the part of the ultra-nationalists can only serve as a reminder of just how foolhardy the decision to decrease the foreign peace-keeping mission in Kosovo to just 5,000 troops before the end of the year is.  Indeed, a rise in support for Vetëvendosje! ought to serve as a warning to the international community that the drive among many Kosovan Albanians for the creation of a Greater Albania including not only Kosovo but large parts of Macedonia, Montenegro and Northern Greece is far from over. 

The grim shadow of the KLA will continue to hang over Kosovo

It is clear from the election results that, despite the war in Kosovo having concluded more than a decade ago, the vice-like grip of dubious former KLA guerrillas over the province's politics shows no sign of abating.

The PDK's Hashim Thaci, as the Guardian reported yesterday, has been accused by a two-year Council of Europe investigation of running a "mafia-like" network "responsible for smuggling weapons, drugs and human organs through eastern Europe". Furthermore, the leader of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo Ramush Haradinaj is awaiting trial at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague for war crimes while Vetëvendosje! leader Albin Kurti has never made a secret of his high-level involvement in the KLA.

Kosovo's independence may be something new, but if there was ever a place that could benefit from a new political class, Kosovo would be that place.

Quite apart from the corrupt practices the KLA's new political class have brought to the table, the presence of so many divisive figures at the top of Kosovan politics renders earning the trust of the province's minorities in its government structures an impossible task.


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