By Fatos Bytyci
PRISTINA (Reuters) – Deep-rooted corruption and a peace deal with Serbia which would pave the way for membership of the United Nations are the chief concerns of 1.9 million eligible voters in Kosovo who go to the polls on Sunday.
The snap elections, the fourth since a declaration of independence in 2008, have been called after Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj resigned in July when he was summoned to appear before a war crimes court.
Haradinaj has been questioned over his role in the 1998-99 war as one of the commanders of the former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) who fought for independence from Serbia.
According to opinion polls, public dissatisfaction with Haradinaj’s record at the head of a three-party governing coalition has boosted support for opposition parties.
Two of those parties, the Democratic League for Kosovo (LDK) and the nationalist, left-leaning Vetevendosje, are seen as front runners in Sunday’s vote, along with the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), the largest party in the current coalition.
Arton Demhasaj, from the think tank Cohu (Wake Up) in Pristina, the capital, said the first task of the new government will be to restart negotiations with Serbia.
“The next government will be the government of the dialogue, from the first day to the last day, and only when the dialogue is over then we will have to deal with real issues such as corruption, education and the economy,” Demhasaj told Reuters.
Negotiations were halted a year ago when the outgoing government imposed 100 percent tariffs on goods produced in Serbia. Most, but not all, of the parties contesting the polls have said that they will abolish the tariffs but will introduce other retaliatory measures against Serbia.
The United States and the European Union see lingering, unresolved tensions between Belgrade and Pristina as a major threat to regional stability and are pushing for a normalisation of ties.
On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump appointed Richard Grenell, the straight-talking U.S. ambassador to Germany, as special envoy to try to inject new energy into the talks between Belgrade and Pristina.
Twenty years after NATO bombing expelled Serbian forces, Belgrade refuses to recognise Kosovo as independent and, in concert with its ally Russia, has blocked Pristina’s membership of international organisations including the United Nations.
In 2013, Pristina and Belgrade agreed to an EU-mediated dialogue to normalise ties but little progress has been made.
Last year, Kosovan President Hashim Thaci and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic signalled that they might agree to a land swap but they faced strong opposition to the idea domestically and abroad.
In Kosovo, all three parties LDK, Vetevendosje and PDK said the land swap was not acceptable.
Kosovo has Europe’s youngest population, with an average age of 29, and has seen annual economic growth averaging 4% over the past decade, but it remains poor. Since Pristina won independence from Belgrade in 2008, more than 200,000 Kosovars have emigrated and applied for asylum in the European Union.
“It hurts me when I see young, educated people from Kosovo coming to Germany because they don’t see a better future here,” said Skender Nekaj, 44, who came from Germany to Kosovo to vote together with seven other family members.
The public sector is the biggest employer in the country but an applicant typically needs political connections or to pay a bribe to find a job.
The European Union says corruption is “widespread” and Transparency International ranks Kosovo as a very corrupt country.
“If you have money you can buy justice here, if you have money you can buy health because you go to a private clinic. I don’t have money. My vote is the only thing I have,” said Qendrim Agushi, 32, a construction worker who earns 13 euros a day.
The election will be overseen by more than 34,000 monitors including 100 from the European Union.
Polls open at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and close at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT). Preliminary official results are expected by midnight (2200 GMT).
(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Ivana Sekularac and James Drummond)