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Tag Archive for Kosovo

The situation in Kosovo – five key observations

1. Kosovo is in crisis – but its institutions are actually proving to be quite robust

2000px-KosovoFlagMap.svgWhen writing about Kosovo, there is often a tendency for international commentators to focus on the negatives: the high unemployment, the political instability and the ongoing ethnic strife.  What is not said often enough is that the country’s institutions, which will only celebrate their eighth birthday on 17th February, are proving themselves to be relatively robust.

A key facet of being a successful state is that, when politicians throw visceral verbal barbs at one another and extremist elements threaten the violent overthrow of constitutional order, the country’s institutions hold steady – above politics and beyond interference.

Against a backdrop of violent protests on the streets of Pristina at the implementation of the government’s agreement with Serbia over the establishment of the Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM), which included the firebombing of government buildings on Pristina’s Mother Theresa Boulevard and opposition MP’s deployment of teargas canisters on the floor of Parliament in order to stifle debate, the Constitutional Court has acted responsibly and proportionately.

While the issue of the ASM remains a matter for intense debate – and the court continues to raise some concerns about its compatibility with certain facets of Kosovo’s constitution – these have been raised in a mature manner that continues to give confidence to both a perennially sceptical Serbia and international community.  This should be noted and celebrated.

2. Vetëvendosje are not going away

protest, kosovo, tear gasIt is hard to imagine a European state with a more cynical and calculating political party system than Kosovo.  The “establishment” political parties, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), are controlled by competing business, family and regional interests and give the distinct impression of having little or no ideological basis whatsoever.

Kosovo’s proportional representation voting system means that, while not impossible, it is very difficult for a government to be formed without the two parties cutting some kind of a deal.  This is precisely what happened in December 2014 when, after six months of haggling, a deal was reached that saw the “winner” of the election, the PDK’s Hashim Thaçi surrender the Prime Minister’s office to the LDK’s Isa Mustafa in exchange for their support for his 2016 bid – a post that is awarded by Parliament.  After cutting a deal with a small breakaway party from the PDK and the numerous ethnic minority parties that are guaranteed twenty seats in the National Assembly (ten for Serbs, four for Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, three for Bosniaks, two for Turks and one for Gorani), the PDK and LDK shared the spoils of ministerial office.

It’s not the fault of the LDK and PDK that the electoral system is structured in such a way; but perceptions of cronyism and corruption are.

Many international observers have sought to paint the recent rise of the nationalist Vetëvendosje (“self-determination”) as a response to anger at the Kosovo government “capitulating” to Serbia on the issue of the creation of the Association of Serb Municipalities, which has been painted as a back-door power-grab by Belgrade, the “surrender” of Kosovar land to Montenegro during negotiations over the demarcation of the state border and the formation of a special court to prosecute ethnic Albanians guilty of war crimes in the 1999 conflict.  While it is clear that these issues have provided the kindling and the spark for recent protests inside and outside Parliament; they are not the fuel that has turned them into an inferno.

Instead, the responsibility lies with the failure of the government to make real progress in tackling the country’s endemic economic problems.

“The young Europeans,” is a marketing line that is often used by the country – a hint at Kosovo’s status as the newest independent European state and the fact more than 50% of the population is under the age of 18 – but this is very much a double-edged sword.  A young population can only be expected to thrive where they find employment – and there is little to be found.  In the case of Spain and Portugal, many young people moved broad to find work during the recent economic crises to face their countries – yet Kosovars often find themselves hemmed-in by inflexible visa regimes.   Instead, the hopefulness and energy of the 2008 independence movement has partly given way to despondence and distrust of both the Kosovo government and the promises of international organisations.

Riding on a wave of anti-government and anti-corruption rhetoric, Vetëvendosje’s Shpend Ahmeti was elected Mayor of Pristina at the end of 2014, unseating the now-Prime Minister Isa Mustafa.   For the LDK to lose the mayoralty of the country’s largest, best educated and most cosmopolitan city was a tremendous shock.  It has not been a bad experiment, though.  While many – myself included – were suspicious of how Ahmeti may behave in office, he has largely gotten to grips with the city’s corrupt planning system and invested heavily in public spaces.  The city feels cleaner and more prosperous.

The success of Ahmeti’s spell in City Hall has allowed Vetëvendosje, whose previous public image was largely that of its leader Albin Kurti leading street protests and throwing rhetorical flame-throwers at the political class, to take on an air of mild respectability.   This is, of course, not helped by the spectacle of Vetëvendosje MPs deploying tear-gas canisters on the floor of Parliament in order to stifle debate – but, as Kurti and Ahmeti argue, there is space in their party for a Yin and a Yang.

As long as the economy remains stable and the political system remains a den of cronyism, Vetëvendosje’s progress towards the political mainstream will only continue.

3. Hashim Thaçi is still likely become President

photo_verybig_140448There have been some rumblings recently that Hashim Thaçi, the country’s former Prime Minister, and current Foreign Minister, may be at risk of losing on his long-held ambition of becoming President when the vote takes place later this year.  I do not yet share this view.

While he should be concerned by the public declaration by a number of LDK MPs that they intend to renege upon their party’s deal with the PDK to install Mustafa as Prime Minister in exchange for supporting Thaçi for the presidency, the numbers continue to stack up in his favour.

To secure the Presidency, he requires the support of either two thirds of MPs or, after three rounds of voting, a simple majority – 61 votes.   Assuming he can carry his own 34 MPs, two thirds of PDK members (18 MPs) and three quarters of the minority representatives (15 MPs), he will take the post with an absolute majority of 66 votes.

Fundamentally, the LDK have little incentive to stop Thaçi becoming President.  The job itself is very much ceremonial in nature, unlike Isa Mustafa’s current, influential post as Prime Minister.  If the party was to renege upon their deal with Thaçi and the PDK, the most likely outcome would be fresh elections – a high-risk political manoeuvre that could risk leaving the LDK empty-handed afterwards.

Finally, what is rarely said and never acknowledged by either Thaçi himself or the ethnic minority parties is the ease with which they have been able to cooperate with one another.   As Prime Minister, Thaçi worked relatively harmoniously with his Serb and Turkish Cabinet minister; apparently leaving them alone to run their own portfolios without much interference.  The ten Serbian MPs, in particular, may not be particular Thaçi fans but it is hard to see them backing a rival, Vetëvendosje-backed nominee.

4. The gulf between Serbs north and south of the Ibar is growing

800px-Zajednica_srpskih_opstinaOn 21st January, the former “leader” of the Serbian community in North Kosovo – an area physically divided from the rest of the country and home to vast ethnic Serb population – was jailed for nine years for his involvement in war crimes during the 1999 war.

The ruling has been widely greeted with derision in the north of the country, with street protests in the ethnically divided city of North Mitrovica and angry denunciations from leading politicians in Belgrade – some of whom have advocated the suspension of dialogue with Pristina.

What has been notable, however, is the relative silence of the Serbian community living south of the Ibar River.  While the sympathies of the Serbian community outside of the north will undoubtedly still lie with Ivanović, there is more than simply anecdotal evidence to suggest that these communities are beginning to develop some kind of acceptance of and accommodation within the Republic of Kosovo system.

The 2013 local elections saw the election of mayors in a number of newly-drawn, majority Serb-populated local government areas south of the Ibar; namely, Štrpce, Klokot-Vrbovac, Gračanica, Novo Brdo, Ranilug and Parteš.   With the drawing of these municipalities done in such a way as to ensure the election of ethnic Serbs to the mayoralty, this has provided a formal mechanism by which Serbs have had some latitude over local spending decisions within the Kosovo government framework.   When completed, the intention is that the Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM) will reinforce the ability of ethnic Serb areas to pursue their own health, education and cultural policies.

There is a degree of realpolitik here.

Many ethnic Serbs south of the Ibar still remain aggrieved about being separated from Kosovo, yet have a basic choice – participate in elections in areas specially drawn to elect Serbs or see another community win the mayoralty with 200 votes; accept a degree of self-governance within the Kosovo state or risk seeing their concerns swamped in a 95% ethnic Albanian state.

The same concerns simply do not exist north of the Ibar.  In the city of North Mitrovica and surrounding towns of Zubin Potok, Leposavić and Zvečan, Serbs make up more than 90% of the population.  There is simply no inducement to engage with the Republic of Kosovo state, regardless of the efforts made by both the European Union and Pristina in this respect.  In the minds of local Serbs, the ASM will make little practical difference; largely because their present governance arrangements afford more flexibility than the proposed changes.

For all the talk of Serbian unity in some nationalist corners, ethnic Serbs are probably the single most divided community in Kosovo at present.

5. MEPs are guilty of looking at Kosovo with “rose-tinted glasses”

590a174bc965ea956cc162141dcd316de61ea3d2This week, the European Parliament rubber-stamped the latest in a round of reports examining the progress that Kosovo is making towards European Union accession.

It has long been my view that many Members of the European Parliament – well-intentioned though they are – have allowed their innate passion for EU expansion and sympathy towards the significant political, social and economic challenges the country faces to cloud their perceptions of the true situation in the country.  If ever the phrase “rose tinted glasses” was meant to be used; it was for Wednesday’s debate.

While MEPs, led by the Austrian Green Ulrike Lunacek, were right to praise the progress that has been made on reaching theoretical agreements on the establishment Association of Serb Municipalities, telecoms, vehicular insurance, mutual recognition of diplomas and the “normalisation” of the situation in the ethnically-divided city of Mitrovica, little attention was actually paid to the implementation of these accords.   Yes, Serbia has lifted its preposterous objection to Kosovo receiving its own international dialling code and yes, Kosovo has agreed that it will finally end its discriminatory policy of rejecting diplomas from the Serb university in North Mitrovica – but other than that, progress has been relatively meagre.

The report also makes a rather opaque reference to the “progress has been made regarding the judiciary” and problems that exist in relation to the “slow administration of justice and the significant backlog of cases”.  To describe the administration of justice in Kosovo as “slow” is as euphemistic as describing Waiting for Godot as a play about an irksome traffic delay.  The EU needs to recognise that Kosovo’s judicial and courts system are in crisis.  The last figures I have suggest that, in the first half of 2014, 693,975 cases were in process in courts (in a country with a population of less than 2 million!), with 455,699 having been inherited from the previous year.

It would be unfair to blame the Republic of Kosovo for this.  After all, the legal system Kosovo was handed when it declared independence in 2008 forces judges to simultaneously adjudicate verdicts on the basis of the legal systems of present-day Kosovo and, in the case of historic offences, the now-defunct legal codes of Serbia and Montenegro (2003-2006), the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1992-2003) and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (before 1992).   Increased financial and technical support is clearly required to help unlock this logjam.

Finally, the near-comical status Kosovo’s National Assembly has taken on in recent times was largely glossed over.   While, as I have already mentioned, Vetëvendosje MPs bear the sole responsibility for the violent and unacceptable scenes that have been witnessed on the floor of the Parliament, it is not enough for a European Parliament report examining the state of Kosovo’s institutions to “call on all political actors to resume political dialogue in order to break the deadlock and find a viable solution that restores the normal functioning” of the body.   The EU is often relatively effective at adopting a “carrot and stick” approach to states aspiring to membership.  In this case, the stick – such as an explicit rejection of the proposed visa-free regime unless the political climate improves – seems strangely absent.

Kosovo has made considerable progress in recent years but the rose-tinted approach adopted by so many MEPs is neither honest nor helpful in achieving real reforms on the ground.   This needs to change.

Kosovo and UNESCO: good for Kosovo and Serbians

gracLast week, I had the pleasure of watching a Serbian wedding in full flow. The bells, the flags, the smells, the songs, the smiles, the Chanel – it was a scene as Serbian a scene as one can imagine. Standing in the courtyard of the 14th century Gračanica monastery ten kilometres east of Pristina, it was rather difficult to imagine I was in a state where ethnic Albanians constitute more than 90% and where Islam – albeit a permissive a form as is possible – dominates.

It was a rare, joyful moment for the small Serbian community struggling for survival in a country whose leaders are seem as increasingly intransigent or indeed antagonistic towards their community and its culture.

I have long been of the view that the impact of Slobodan Milošević and his murderous campaign against ethnic Albanians has resulted in an overlooking or, in some cases, excusing of the crimes committed against both Serbs as people and their religious sites.

The expulsion in 1999 of 165,000 ethnic minority residents of Kosovo (most of them Serb) from their homes and destruction of more than 150 religious sites, some of which saw their 700-year history “semtexed” to little more than piles of rubble, is one of the great, overlooked crimes of post-Second World War European history. Furthermore, it ought to be a stain on the consciousness of the international troops stationed in Kosovo that they stood by in March 2004 as thirty-four churches were burned to the ground and 935 private homes damaged.

churchThe latest flashpoint – albeit only a diplomatic one – between Belgrade and Pristina is the prospect of Kosovo’s membership of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) whose preamble commits to the “protection of the world’s inheritance of books, works of art and monuments of history and science” and “co-operation among the nations in all branches of intellectual activity”. Predictably, this has led to a clash about the status and protection of Serbian cultural and religious history in the region.

The government of Serbia is, in my opinion, guilty of overdramatising the significance of the issue while the largely ethnic Albanian administration in Pristina has failed to communicate how and why membership could be of benefit to the defence of Kosovo’s Serbian heritage.

For Belgrade, the granting of UNESCO membership would represent yet another inextricable step towards full international recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. I would argue, though, that the reality of United States, British, German and French recognition of the country makes it a reality rather than merely a prospect – regardless of how painful that realisation may be.

Concerns also appear to exist in respect of the Kosovo Government’s commitment to “taking care” of Orthodox sites and historical interpretations as to the “true” religious identity of those who built the religious sites. I would argue that both of these fears are misplaced.

Ferizaj, Mosque and ChurchThe welfare of the four sites already identified by UNESCO as being “at risk” – the Monastery of Dečani, Patriarchate of Peć, Gračanica and Bogorodica Ljeviška Church – would arguably receive far greater attention and scrutiny by the international community when placed under the UNESCO banner than they do presently. Interpretations of history are, of course, often hotly contested in ethnic flashpoints such as Kosovo. While denial of Kosovo’s Christian heritage may exist in some quarters, there is a disconnect between feelings of febrile Vetevendosje (an extremist, pan-Albanian movement that has gained some ground in recent Kosovo elections) activists and the country’s political and academic leaders who accept the country’s Orthodox heritage.

Friends of mine should not have had to exhume relatives from graveyards in non-Serbian areas in order to be content their bodies are safe. The St Uroš Orthodox Cathedral in Uroševac/Ferizaj that stands in the same courtyards as the Mulla Veseli Mosque ought to serve as an example of Albanian and Serbian coexistence rather than being shuttered. The half-built Serbian church built in the shadow of the library of the University of Pristina and the Catholic Cathedral of Blessed Mother Teresa should be completed, rather than crumbling.

I would, with the greatest of respect, suggest to Serbia and Serbians that past examples of cruel and senseless desecration and destruction of Orthodox Serbian sites ought not to be a reason to reject a mechanism that would help protect what remains and reconstruct what’s a risk.

It is impossible for either Serbs or Albanians to turn back the clock and bring back either loved-ones lost in war or cultural heritage desecrated and destroyed over the past two decades.

UNESCO membership would, however, be a solid step towards boosting the accountability of Kosovo’s leaders. Sites judged to be “at risk” would be subject to inspection, with demands for improvements in the protection of Christian heritage elevated to the international stage. UNESCO membership takes nothing away from Serbs or Serbian culture – but instead grants protections that were not previously there.

For those reasons, Serbia and Serbians should support Kosovo’s UNESCO bid.

Kosovo elections: reflections on Prime Minister Haradinaj, a strong opposition and a sense of “normality”

ramushOn Sunday, the people of Kosovo went to the polls to vote in the country’s second general election since declaring independence from Serbia in 2008.

While the election results confirmed Hashim Thaci’s position as Kosovo’s most powerful politician and the PDK’s status as the country’s leading political party, it did not hand either the type of hegemonic power needed to rule without compromise or coalition.

In a short blog post I wrote on the morning of election, I wrote that “it would not be beyond the realms of possibility to see the political factions of former Pristina Mayor and centre-right LDK leader Isa Mustafa, former President Behgjet Pacolli and former guerrilla Ramush Haradinaj attempt to forge a governing coalition with ethnic minority parties to force Thaçi from office”.

In that comment, I overlooked two things: the potential of former PDK stalwart, Parliament Speaker and acting President Jakup Krasniqi and KLA guerrilla Fatmir Limaj’s new Nisma party (Initiative for Kosovo) to cross the 5% electoral threshold or the ability of Pacolli’s New Kosovo Alliance (AKR) to fall under it.

Nevertheless, a deal appears to have been done that will force Thaci and the PDK from power.

According to a statement issued by the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) late yesterday, a deal has been done between themselves, Haradinaj’s Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) and Krasniqi and Limaj’s Nisma to share power.  As part of the deal, Haradinaj will hold the position of Prime Minister, the LDK will nominate the President, Parliament Speaker and bulk of the ministers and Nisma will hold the Deputy Prime Minister’s office.

Electorally, speaking the coalition just about works.

results2The LDK will have 30 seats in Parliament, the AAK 13 and Nisma seven.  Of the “Albanian parties” alone, this takes the coalition up to 50 seats.  This still puts it eleven seats shy of a working majority of 61 seats.

However, the coalition will undoubtedly be able to do a deal with the ethnic Serbian Srpska List (which includes the outgoing Deputy PM in the last coalition government, Slobodan Petrovic) who are guaranteed under the constitution to hold ten seats in the National Assembly.  Add in several representatives of the Turk, Gorani, Bosniak, Roma and Ashkali community, whose support for a governing coalition can often be secured on the basis of transactional promises revolving around investments in minority schools, housing in isolated rural areas and community facilities, then the coalition could conceivably hold up to 70 of the 120 seats in the National Assembly.

While it would be a departure from the status quo in which Thaci, as the leader of the largest party, has been Prime Minister, it would appear to possess a relatively sound basis for government.  Indeed, the last administration Haradinaj led between 2004 and 2005 was also constituted with the support of the LDK and with his party holding only a small number of seats – the deal ultimately resulting in his government holding 72 of the 120 seats in the chamber.

So, what would a Haradinaj administration look like?

Well, firstly, it’s worth reflecting on what a tremendous personal and political triumph it would represent for Haradinaj if he were to return to the office of Prime Minister after having seen his last term abruptly halted by him being carted off to International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to face war crimes charges.  Having spent the bulk of the past decade in The Hague beating off charges of crimes against ethnic Serbs and political opponents during the late 90s, Haradinaj will understandably feel a sense of vindication.

In the days ahead, it is likely that we will see many commentators question whether the Haradinaj administration will remain committed to rapprochement with ethnic Serbs across Kosovo.  I have already read several comments from observers of the region questioning whether his election marks a shift towards an aggressive form of nationalism.

I’d urge them to hold off on the rhetoric – for now.

During his previous administration, Haradinaj was marked out by members of both the Serbian community and international administration for his determination to try and engage with minority communities.  Indeed, a former British Ambassador to Pristina once described how Haradinaj had to be “calmed down” in this respect, for fear of destabilising his administration by offending Albanian ultra-nationalists with his overtures to minorities.

Haradinaj is no saint – no former KLA man could ever be – but there is no evidence that a government led by him which will be constitutionally forced to include Serb ministers will pursue a policy contrary to the interests of minorities.

The second point that lends credence to the view that a Haradinaj government is unlikely to deviate too far from the current path of “normalising” relations with ethnic minorities and the Serbian Government is the failure to include the ultra-nationalist Vetevendosje movement in the proposed coalition.

Had Haradinaj, the LDK and Nisma struck a deal with Vetevendosje, the coalition would have been able to hold as many as 85 to 90 of the 120 seats in the National Assembly.

For that support, Vetevendosje would likely have demanded a package of constitutional reforms that watered down minority representation, a halting of economic liberalisation measures and remaining privatisations and an end to the Pristina-Belgrade shuttle diplomacy which has seen both Kosovo and Serbia inch closer towards EU membership.

Vetevendosje will, instead, continue in opposition – and the international community will breathe a sigh of relief.  The failure to include them in the coalition speaks to a degree of maturity on the part of Haradinaj, Mustafa, Krasniqi and Limaj.

Reviewing the election results and integrity of the balloting process on Sunday night, many commentators remarked how “normal” the elections had seemed.

The appointment of the new, Haradinaj-led coalition allows for this new-found sense of democratic “normality” to continue.  Why?

Since independence in 2008, Kosovo has operated on a “cartel politics” basis.  Elections have been fought but the result has usually been the same – a “grand coalition” between the two major parties and a few piecemeal, yet not particularly important smaller parties bought off my minor ministerial posts.   There has effectively been no real choice for voters.

With the PDK and Vetevendosje, two substantial, distinctive and vocal political movements seemingly shut out of the incoming administration, Kosovo could finally have the chance to experience what it is like to have both a stable government and a strong opposition.

Kosovo’s general election – things to watch our for

imageIt’s Election Day in Kosovo.

Unlike the last set of elections which took place in the darkness of a bitterly cold November day, the temperature today is set to soar as high as the mid 30s. On the street, the gritty smell of coal that tends to hand over Kosovo through then winter months has given way to the enticing smell of fresh bread and barbecued meats from qepabtores. The doors of every business – from cafes to garages – have been flung open, allowing music to fill Pristina’s broad boulevards.

While it’s a loaded term to use; Kosovo feels really rather “normal” today. Kosovo is a young country but it’s one that has grown very used to elections – and contentious ones at that.

A total of 1,235 candidates from 30 different political movements are running in today’s elections with 100 seats being allocated proportionally, 10 reserved for ethnic Serbs and a further 10 allocated to Turks, Roma, Ashkali, Gorani, Montenegrins, Bosniaks and Egyptians.

Polling will run until 17:00 this evening with results due to start filtering out some time around 20:00 this evening. In Pristina, a clear first indication of the likely winners will be the sound of car horns honking and political party flags being manically waved through the sunroofs of party supporters zipping up and down the Bill Clinton Boulevard. Those faring badly in the polls are likely to be conspicuous in their absence from the electoral circus.

Here are some things to look out for today…

A referendum on Thaçi

Nobody has dominated politics in post-independence Kosovo more than Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi. A product of the Kosovo Liberation Army who has courted international controversy for his alleged links to corruption and organised crime, he has successfully managed to hold together a coalition government since 2008. His record is a mixed one; with a number of perceived successes in “normalising” relations with Serbia and strengthening relations with the European Union, yet a lack of progress in eliminating corruption and cutting the country’s crippling unemployment rates.

Given his longevity in the Prime Minister’s office, it is not surprising that many Kosovans are viewing this election as a referendum on Thaçi himself – and he knows it. Like every good centre-left politician worth their salt, he has sought to engage in a bout of pre-election spending; jacking up public sector salaries, welfare benefits and state pensions by 25% in March and promising to do the same again every year for the next four years if returned to office.

While Thaçi’s fiscal profligacy may be foolhardy from an economic perspective, it is likely to fire up his base in the towns and villages of impoverished Central Kosovo while appealing to state employees in the capital city – an area that hasn’t traditionally been too favourable towards him or his PDK party.

As loyal as Thaçi’s base may be to him, however, there is also a sense of fatigue in the country after being ruled for so long by one person. Even if the PDK were to emerge from the election as the largest party, it would not be beyond the realms of possibility to see the political factions of former Pristina Mayor and centre-right LDK leader Isa Mustafa, former President Behgjet Pacolli and former guerrilla Ramush Haradinaj attempt to forge a governing coalition with ethnic minority parties to force Thaçi from office.

Vetevendosje’s vote share

One of the big surprises of the last Kosovan general election was the strength of the nationalist Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) movement which made waves with their fiery denunciations of domestic corruption and critiques (some of them fair) about the ineffectiveness of the myriad international organisations operating in Kosovo. Significant fears existed that the growth of Vetevendosje could fuel a rise in ultra-nationalism that could threaten regional security – yet this does not appear to have happened. Instead, Vetevendosje has become a much broader platform for “anti-politics” sentiment.

The election of party member Shpend Ahmeti as Mayor of Pristina, where he has taken an uncompromising approach to eliminating crime and corruption, has lent the party a degree of respectability. As such, I expect to see Vetevendosje’s vote share shoot up this evening to as much as 18-20%. While the established political parties may still attempt to operate a cordon sanitaire when it comes to Vetevendosje, it would seem to me impossible to fully shut them out of coalition-building talks.

LDK’s performance in Pristina

The LDK – the Democratic League of Kosovo – has long dominated politics in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital city and wealthiest settlement. The first chink in their armour showed last year when the party’s leader Isa Mustafa lost the Pristina Mayoral election to Shpend Ahmeti, who is widely acknowledged to have already done a far better job than his predecessor. With Mustafa again leading the LDK’s election campaign (and the party’s presumptive nominee for Prime Minister), it will be interesting to see how the party performs in the capital. From a British perspective, it would be odd to envisage votes for the Conservative Party (the LDK’s closest comparator in temperament) transferring in great numbers an insurgent student-fuelled protest party in the space of just one election cycle, yet it is possible that the combination of Mustafa’s dullness and Vetevendosje’s hard line on corruption could well appeal to Pristina’s frustrated middle classes.

Electoral fraud in Drenica

Drenica is Thaçi country – the birthplace of the Kosovo Liberation Army and home to the country’s hardiest souls. At the last election, widespread voter fraud occurred in support of the PDK and many polling stations were forced to conduct re-votes – which still resulted in Thaçi picking up 90% of the vote. While balloting procedures have been improved, it will be interesting to see if Drenica can pull off an election that is not mired in fraud.

Collapse of the Serbian Liberal Party

The majority of Serbs living in Kosovo have, since the end of the war in 1999, refused to participate in elections to the country’s interim Parliament and (since 2008) National Assembly.

A small faction that did, however, was the ethnic Serb Independent Liberal Party (SLS) who took advantage of the constitutional requirement that 10 of the 120 seats in the Kosovo Parliament go to Serbs to secure a political foothold in Pristina. While SLS MPs were elected with only around 1200 votes nationally on a truly dire turnout, they have played a fairly influential role in Government with Slobodan Petrović having served as Kosovo’s Deputy Prime Minister since 2008 and the party controlling the Local Self-Government, Communities and Return and Labour and Social Welfare Ministries.

There are signs, however, that ethnic Serbs are likely to participate in today’s elections in greater numbers than previously. Many more Serbs than before want a piece of Pristina’s pie. This is likely to see the end of SLS’s near-monopoly on Serb political power in Kosovo – and the end of a little-known but nevertheless significant force in post-independence politics.

Another North Kosovo electoral brownout

No discussion about elections in Kosovo would be complete without a quick mention of the situation in North Kosovo, a self-contained territorial unit divided from the rest of Kosovo by the River Ibar and home to roughly half of the country’s Serbs.

Unlike ethnic Serbs south of the river who live cheek by jowl with Albanians and recognise the benefits of engaging in elections to secure political power, the 95%-Serb north feels comfortable in ignoring Pristina’s institutions and elections. Indeed, even a series of Mayoral elections in November that were guaranteed to be won by ethnic Serbs had turnout rates of less than 25%. If turnout tops 10% in North Kosovo today, I will be stunned. With the exception of some ethnic Albanian and Bosniak areas of the city of North Mitrovica, posters and other electoral bumf is non-existant.

Happy Kosovo

Happy” is not the word most people would use to describe the divided city of Mitrovica in Kosovo.

Despite an EU brokered agreement, the city remains ethnically split between Serbs living on the northern bank of the River Ibar and Albanians on the south.

The worst of the clashes between the two communities have gradually dissipated over the last few years but tensions – many of them exacerbated by cack-handed policies handed down by foreign governments and international organisations with little practical knowledge of the reality of the situation on the ground – remain very much in evidence.

Against that backdrop, it’s surprising to see an amusing video coming out of North Mitrovica put together by young people who live in the town:

As my friend Milos said on Twitter last night, “finally, something positive from North Mitrovica“…

I’m sure it won’t take long for someone to allege that the video has “secret nationalist overtones” or that its creators have a “hidden agenda” – but I think they’re looking for something that simply isn’t there.

Kosovo’s local elections: an anti-incumbent wave (and other quick observations)

eulex_kosovo-ethnic-1Voters in Kosovo went to the polls today to vote in the second round of the country’s local elections.  While it will be a number of days until the full political fallout from the elections is clear, it’s already possible to make some key observations about the elections.

Overall, the counting was speedy and transparent.  The results from each of the municipalities where run-offs were necessarily were counted extremely quickly, with reports on the progress of the counts updated online in “real time”.  It is testament to the level of interest that these elections have sparked both inside and outside of Kosovo that, at times, the download speed of the Central Electoral Commission’s website was reduced to a snail’s pace as people logged on to check the results in their own municipalities.

Across the country, turnout was a fairly solid 40.3%, which puts Kosovo roughly in-line with many European Union countries when it comes to participation in local elections.

The elections were a stunning rebuke for the Kosovan political classes – regardless of their political party.  Powerful incumbents have been unseated in the capital city of Pristina and key cities of Peja/Pec and Ferizaj/Urosevac.  Initial calculations from Kosovo’s Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi indicate that roughly two thirds of municipalities have opted to back opposition candidates over incumbents.

imagesOverall, the most surprising result was in the capital city of Pristina where incubent Mayor Isa Mustafa was unseated by a 51%/49% margin by Shpend Ahmeti from the nationalist Vetenvendosje movement.

The result in Pristina will be analysed more than any other given the political party Ahmeti represents.  I would caution against over-analysing the result and seeing it as a popular endorsement of Vetevendosje’s rather controversial manifesto but rather as a personal victory for Shpend Ahmeti, whose profile as a Harvard University Kennedy School of Government-educated economics professor saw him make big inroads amongst middle-class voters in the city.  Indeed, the professional backgrounds of both Ahmeti and the man he beat Isa Mustafa are almost identical, other than Ahmeti is not devoid of charisma.

Rather than Ahmeti’s victory serving as a boon for the party, it could perversely spell trouble for the broader Vetevendosje movement.  While the party is officially led by the tup-thumping MP Albin Kurti, Ahmeti’s victory seals his position as the most powerful figure inside the party.  Kurti is unlikely to be willing to hand over control of the movement to Ahmeti and his supporters, regardless of this new reality.  As such, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ahmeti take advantage of Kosovo’s famously fluid party system and instead launch a new, broad-based party that fits his persona better than the rather shrill Vetevendosje movement.

images2Isa Mustafa’s loss will likely mark the end of his political career.  Aside from being Mayor of Pristina, he also seved as the leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) and would have been expected to be the party’s Prime Ministerial nominee next year.  After being defeated in the LDK’s former Pristina heartland, this will now impossible and his resignation as party leader ought to be forthcoming in the coming hours.

In another significant results, Ali Berisha from Ramush Haradinaj’s Alliance for the Future of Kosovo was unseated by a 56% to 44% margin in their heartland area of Peja.  These elections were the first to take place since Haradinaj’s acquittal from war crimes charges and, as such, it was important for him and his party to make a big splash nationally in order to “relaunch” his career.  He and his party failed in that respect.

kusariIt is also interesting to note that, despite his personal unpopularity amongst the Kosovan public, former President Behgjet Pacolli’s New Kosovo Alliance has performed strongly with victory for the articulate former Deputy Prime Minister Mimoza Kusari-Lila in Gjakove and Agim Bahtiri in South Mitrovica – two key population centres.

Throughout the campaign, I have been surprised by the lack of attention that has been paid to the race in the municipality of Novo Brdo / Novoberde.  At the time of the last OSCE census, it was found that the municipality was home to 3,524 Albanians, 3,122 Serbs and only a small handful of other ethnicities – making it one of the very few truly multi-ethnic communities in Kosovo.

Unsurprisingly given the mixed population, the first and second placed candidates who progressed to the run-off were Serbian and Albanian whereas in all other areas with large Serb populations, the run-off was between two Serb nominees.  As such, the contest was a unique study of the effectiveness of the “get out the vote” operations of the Serb and Albanian communities. The turnout battle was well and truly won by the Serb community, whose nominee Svetislav Ivanvoic was elected with 54% of the vote over Albanian Bajrush Ymeri.

7155991417_a76eb6f1c8_zAt the time of the last election, the only Serbian-dominated communities that turned out in large numbers were the enclaves of Gracancica and Strpce – largely in order to ensure that the elections were not won by candidates from the tiny local Albanian community in the area on, say, a 100 vote turnout.  It seems that this message got through in Novo Brdo/Novoberde this time, with Serbs demonstrating a remarkably high level of civic engagement in order to ensure a member of their community was able to win control of the Town Hall.  Going forward, this could well become a regular example of the way the Serb community organises itself inside the Kosovan state.

Despite the psephological significance of the result in Novo Brdo/Novoberde, the real race of significance for the Serbian community was in the municipality of North Mitrovica.  In a relatively close race, the election was won by the incumbent Mayor Krstimir Pantic who defeated the former head of the Serbian ‘Coalition for Return’ Oliver Ivanovic by a 55% to 44% margin.

In my experience – which in no way relates to the comparative abilities of either man to exercise the core mayoral functions of keeping the streets clean and schools running efficiently – Ivanovic has always been the savvier operator in dealing with and charming the international community while Pantic has been a more “under the radar” operator.

Church_in_Northern_Kosovska_Mitrovica,_KosovoAs a fairly regular visitor to North Kosovo (and North Mitrovica in particular), it will be fascinating to watch how Pantic uses the increased funding and political access that will be provided to the city by Pristina, Belgrade and international organisations now that the local elections have been successfully concluded.  From an economic development point of view, the number one priority must be working with Pristina to devise a workable plan to re-open the Trepca mining complex – a facility that could bring vast economic benefits to the entire region.

There are many holes that can be picked in the way in which the elections were conducted in both ethnic Serbian and Albanian areas.  Voter rolls were too often out of date, political parties focussed too much on personalities rather than policies and turnout remained a big problem in the Serb community.  It’s difficult, however, to argue that they weren’t generally a success. Ethnic minorities in Kosovo are genuinely now better represented than in the past, while losses for incumbents suggest a strengthening of Kosovan willingness to challenge their leaders and hold them to account.  That’s progress.

Kosovo elections: the mayoralty of North Mitrovica is a poisoned chalice

imageYesterday, the people of North Mitrovica went to the polls to vote in a re-run of the local elections postponed from November 3rd due to a nationalist attack on polling stations in the city.

So far, the reaction to the election from the international community has been positive. Notably, the head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSC) Mission in Kosovo, Jean-Claude Schlumberger issued a statement stating he was “very pleased that there were no incidents… and that the balloting went smoothly. All security providers, Kosovo Police, EULEX and KFOR, as well as political entities running in Mitrovica contributed to the peaceful environment“.

It seems that Schlumberger was right. Friends on the ground tell me that the security situation was considerably better than last time, with a noticeable military presence lining the streets to prevent voter intimidation. While I wasn’t on the ground yesterday, I was shocked by the lightweight OSCE team in North Mitrovica two weeks ago – many of whose staff appeared to have limited knowledge of the political, cultural and security realities in the ground in North Kosovo. This time, it seems they requested the security back-up they needed to supervise the elections.

The results of the election are broadly as expected.

The incumbent Mayor of North Mitrovica Krstimir Pantic placed first in North Mitrovica with 37.06% of the valid votes, followed by former Serbian State Secretary of the Ministry for Kosovo and Metohija Oliver Ivanovic with 28.53%. Placing third was Agim Deva of the Albanian PDK with 20.29% followed by independent Bosniak candidate Adrijana Hodzic with 11.9% and Dimitrije Janicijevic of the Serb Liberal Party with 2.15%.
Pantic and Ivanovic – who are both ubiquitous presences in North Mitrovica – will now go to a run-off. My personal view is that, despite the Pantic getting the most votes in the first round, Ivanovic may well score a second round victory due to his willingness to engage with Albanian and Bosniak parts of the community. It may also be that the perception Pantic has the backing of the Belgrade administration undermines his appeal in the staunchly individualistic and nationalistic city where nobody is happy taking orders from “outsiders” – whether in Belgrade or Pristina.

A number of mistakes were made in respect of this election.

Firstly, the decision to transport the ballot boxes from the city of Mitrovica to Pristina for counting was a spectacular own goal on the part of EULEX and the OSCE. While they argued that it was necessary to count the votes in Pristina in order to ensure a safe count, the tallying of (predominantly) Serb votes from a controversial election in an overwhelmingly Albanian city only lent credence to conspiracy theorists who argue the vote was rigged.

preporuka1Secondly, I was concerned to hear about the climate of intimidation many Serbian state employees were subjected to in the run-up to the vote. A few hours before the polls closed yesterday, a friend living in North Mitrovica sent me a scanned copy of the communique that had been circulated to all civil servants informing them what time they would be expected to go and vote and which official from their department would lead them there to do so. Amongst local Serbs, these written “recommendations” – or “diktats” as they became known – entirely undermined the legitimacy of the elections. In future, Belgrade and Pristina ought to remember that in a democracy people have a right not to vote as well as to vote.  (That said, even with the “encouragement” to vote, turnout was only 22% – which further casts doubt on the solidity of the process).

preporuka2Thirdly, the administrative preparations for the elections were shambolic – and again undermined faith in the voting process. For one, voter lists were hugely out of date. The majority of Serb women appeared on the voter rolls twice, with entries for both their married and maiden names. I have also heard of several examples of where people who died many years ago were still listed as current voters. Confusingly – given the large number of duplicate and out of date names on voter rolls – a number of those who did wish to participate in the elections were not listed as registered to vote which led to roughly one in six votes being cast provisionally. Efforts to improve the quality of the electoral register must now be a priority.

A few weeks from now, the people of North Mitrovica will go to the polls for the third time in in two months for the run-off election to pick their next Mayor.

The successful candidate will no doubt be feted by the majority of international observers as evidence of Serb participation in the democratic institutions of Kosovo.

I’m less optimistic.

From the tear gas attack two weeks ago to the poor electoral rolls to the threats to vote this Sunday, the successful candidate is already severely handicapped in their ability to govern. Public trust simply is not there and even the seating of an ethnic Serb Mayor will do little to convince locals in North Mitrovica to engage with Pristina.

In short, the North Kosovo mayoralty is what we, in England, call a “poisoned chalice”.

The North Kosovo election boycott worked

imageYesterday, Kosovo went to the polls for the first truly national election since independence in 2008. Following an agreement struck between the Serbian and Kosovan governments, the overwhelmingly ethnic Serb areas north of the Ibar river participated in Kosovo state elections for the first time.

Participation in the elections, which were intended to boost ethnic Serb representation within Kosovo government structures, was officially encouraged by the government in Belgrade (keen to move forward with their European Union ascension bid) and influential Serb community leaders in Kosovo (keen to get their hands on increased budgets).

South of the Ibar, the elections were a success with Serbian candidates winning the mayoral races in each majority Serbian municipality. Indeed, the five municipalities with the largest Serb populations recorded the highest turnouts in the country. It seems that these isolated communities recognised that participation in the elections was crucial to ensuring the survival and vibrancy of their communities inside the Kosovan state.

Physically divided from the rest of Kosovo by the Ibar, and immediately adjoined to the Central Serbia region, the residents of North Kosovo did not share this viewpoint. Given that they have never been subject to the institutions of the Kosovo government and had instead remained a de facto part of Serbia since the end of the 1999 war, they saw no reason to alter the status quo.

As such, an active and well-organised campaign was deployed across the region calling for a “100 percent boycott” of the elections

For most part, the boycott campaign worked. Predicted turnout figures across the northern municipalities range from five to 25 percent.

During the course of the afternoon yesterday, I toured several polling stations in the Leposavi? and Zvecan regions. They were as quiet as the grave, yet there was no indication of the low participation rates being caused by anything other than unwillingness to engage with an election associated with the Kosovan – rather than Serbian – state.

Only in the ethnic flashpoint of Mitrovica, though did I detect hostility towards those Serbs opting to participate in the polls; manifested in the form of groups of leather jacket-clad, shaved-headed twenty-somethings hanging around outside polling stations “observing” goings on.

Just after 5pm, an ultra-nationalist group laid siege to a polling station in the city of North Mitrovica, firing tear gas canisters and destroying ballot boxes. Following the attack, the final two hours of polling were cancelled and observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe retreated from North Kosovo on the basis of security concerns.

With that one action, hard-liners undermined not only their own community’s peaceful boycott campaign but also cast into peril the entire, painstakingly-negotiated agreement on the status of North Kosovo agreed between Pristina and Belgrade – not that, on the latter point, local Serbs care.

A large amount of the frustration and unwillingness of local Serbs to participate in the elections comes as result of the “top down” nature of the decision-making processes that brought the elections about. It is clear that the Serbs of North Kosovo trust neither Belgrade or Pristina to negotiate about their future. They feel their own concerns are subjugated by Belgrade’s EU aspirations and Pristina’s thirst to bring all of Kosovo under central government control.

Solving the North Kosovo problem is going to require not only patience but genuine dialogue with all parties concerned with the region’s future. The people of North Kosovo must be treated as equals in the process, not political pawns.

Election Day in North Mitrovica in photos









North Kosovo needs a Governor – not a series of political pygmies

imagePolls are now open across Kosovo in the first genuinely national elections to take place across the country since it declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

I’m currently in the overwhelmingly ethnic Serb region of Northern Kosovo where, for the first time, local residents will have the opportunity to participate in elections organised by the administration in Pristina as opposed to institutions loyal to Belgrade.

The concept of electing local Mayors to administer public services is a solid one. In North Kosovo, though, it’s not an exciting or groundbreaking one. After all, the Serbian local government institutions that have hitherto operated in North Kosovo have discharged this role relatively effectively to date.

Instead, we all know that these elections have far more to do with political symbolism and the transfer of the power of the Serbian state to the Kosovo Government – a process almost uniformly opposed by Serbs in North Kosovo.

In the city of Mitrovica, which is divided by the River Ibar between a predominantly Serbian north and overwhelmingly Albanian south, a contest is taking place in the north between current Mayor Kristimir Pantić and prominent local activist Oliver Ivanović. Due to the city’s status as a flashpoint for ethnic violence and a regional hub for international NGOs, a significant degree of pressure has been exerted on the city’s residents (particularly those employed in Serbian state institutions) to lend the elections legitimacy by participating in them.

As we approach lunchtime, pre-election predictions that turnout would reach 15-20% are appearing highly optimistic. Throughout the morning, a small trickle of voters have cast votes in the towns of Zvecan, Leopsavic and Zubin Potok. By 10:00, only 1.7% of registered voters had cast their votes in North Mitrovica – many of them likely to have been from the small Bosniak and Albanian communities.

In terms of making these elections appear relevant to local residents, I have concluded that the region would have been better served by the election of a single Governor for the whole of the North Kosovo region rather than a series of relatively powerless local political pygmies.

The election of a high-profile and powerful Governor answerable to North Kosovo residents would lend some much-needed visibility and purpose to the role rather than the obscurity and anonymity today’s elections will engrain in local politics. Such a figure would be visible and accountable in a way that, say, the new Mayor of Zubin Potok (population: 14,000) will struggle to be.

A Governor would have the legitimacy required to persuade Belgrade to transfer control of not only traditional local government services such as transport and waste collection to the region but the remainder of services provided by the Serbian state locally such as oversight of the local university and government pensions offices.

From Pristina’s perspective that would be a gain as it would put some clear blue water between North Kosovo and the government in Belgrade.

With a population of little more than 60,000, a Governor for the region would still only be presiding over a population roughly akin to the size of Canterbury. By no estimations would such a local government unit be too large to effectively manage.

Opponents of the idea of a single Governor for the region will argue that it is unacceptable to treat North Kosovo any differently as a unit than anywhere else in the country. They need to wake up and smell the coffee.

Local government elections south of the Ibar only work effectively because, broadly speaking, citizens identify with a central government they feel connected to. The situation in North Kosovo is a sui generis and, as such, needs its own creative solutions to bring about civic leadership and participation in the Kosovan state.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on how you’d strengthen local accountability and political participation north of the Ibar.