Let down by Europe, young Kosovars are flocking to a movement - and a leader - who says that Kosovo needs to forge its own path.
The man who is the frontrunner to be Kosovo’s next prime minister is a 45-year-old politician and former independence activist whose 2018 conviction for setting off a tear gas canister in parliament has seen him barred from running in elections on February 14.
Due to the quirks of Kosovo’s electoral law, it is expected that Albin Kurti will still be able to serve as prime minister if - as expected - his Vetëvendosje, meaning “Self-Determination”, movement sweeps the polls this week. It is currently polling at between 40 and 50% of the vote.
It will not be the first time that Kurti has held the post. In 2019, Vetëvendosje formed a governing coalition with the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) which lasted just 50 days before LDK leader Avdullah Hoti brought a vote of no confidence in Kurti over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
By June, Hoti had taken over as prime minister after pulling together a razor-thin governing coalition of 61 members of parliament out of a total of 120. On 21 December, it emerged that one of those 61 votes was invalid as the member of parliament that cast it had a conviction for fraud.
That brought down Hoti’s government and paved the way for new elections on February 14. It was expected that Kurti would run until last week, when the Vetëvendosje leader was prevented by Kosovo’s Constitutional Court over the tear gas incident, which took place in 2015 when Vetëvendosje objected to a deal to grant more autonomy to Kosovo’s Serb minority.
Back then, Vetëvendosje was a grassroots protest movement pushing for full recognition of Kosovan independence - which Serbia and a number of other countries refuse to accept. It also objected to a border demarcation deal with neighbouring Montenegro, which it claimed was too generous.
Vetëvendosje has won massive support with young people, which make up a huge portion of Kosovo’s 1.8 million population. More than 40% of Kosovans are under 25 and the median age is 30, compared to 41 in Serbia, 43 in Bosnia and 46 in Germany. Voter turnout between those aged 18 to 24 is higher than any other age group, according to a 2016 report by US Aid.
“It is generational change. We have 25,000 young Kosovars turn 18 every year in a country of 1.8 million people. Kosovo is still the only country in [...] Europe to grow by population,” said Naim Rashiti, executive director at the Balkans Policy Research Group. “The polls suggest the young generation, between 18 and [...] 35, massively voting for Albin Kurti.”
That is not a new phenomenon in Kosovo. In 1997, it was students at the University of Pristina who began the protest movement that eventually led to Serbia’s bloody crackdown and then the military occupation of Kosovo, only ended in 1999 after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign forced Serb militias and the Yugoslav army to withdraw.
On the ground, it was young Kosovars including the then 30-year-old Hashem Thaci that led the Kosovan Liberation Army (KLA) to victory in the mountains of northern Kosovo, and Thaci too that ten years later - in 2008 - stood up in the Kosovan parliament and declared independence.
Now, another ten years on, it is Kosovo’s youth that is having its say again, but this time against the old guard of former KLA leader-turned-politicians which Kurti openly accuses of enriching themselves at the expense of Kosovo. He has singled out Thaci, who remains perhaps the best-known of the KLA veterans still in Kosovan politics, for particular scorn.
Kurti is also opposed to any concessions being made to Belgrade during the ongoing EU and, more recently, US-led dialogue with Serbia. He has also previously said that he favours a union between Kosovo, where 90% of the population are Albanian, and Albania.
It is not only the emergence of Vetëvendosje that shook up Kosovan politics in 2020. In June, Thaci and Kadri Veseli, a former speaker of the parliament and leader of the PDK, were indicted for war crimes and both are now awaiting trial at the Hague. Thaci resigned as president when his indictment was confirmed in October, although he was due to stand down in May 2021.
Thaci’s replacement as acting president, Vjosa Osmani, is emblematic of a new generation of Kosovar politicians that were not senior members of the KLA and did not play an active role in the conflict of the late 1990s. Osmani and Kurti have agreed to a joint parliamentary list on February 14, further bolstering the prospects of a Kurti-led government.
An uncertain future
What is not clear, however, is how long any new government will be able to last. Even if Vetëvendosje is able to secure 61 votes to make Kurti prime minister, the election has been complicated by the fact that Osmani is running in the February 14 election. If she is elected, it is not clear whether she can continue in her role as acting president.
If she cannot, the new government will have to get a new president elected, which requires a two-thirds majority in parliament. If that fails, new elections are called.
As a result, what is most likely after February 14 is a prolonged period of horse-trading as rival parties in the parliament hash out a deal that will get a prime minister and president in place.
The confusion, Rashiti explains, is very much a product of Kosovo’s existence as a young state.
Unlike the states of Europe, Kosovo’s constitution is only 12-years-old, and it is not like there are decades of case law to look back on.
This fact leads to the confusing situation by which Kurti was barred from running in 2021 due to a conviction in 2018, but he was not barred from running in 2019.
Equally, Kurti may be appointed prime minister next week despite not having won an election, while Osmani will run for parliament despite currently being president.
There’s nothing in the constitution to say that these things are allowed - but there’s nothing that says they aren’t, either.
“It’s not like Italy,” said Rashiti. “The constitution is very short, and it is very new, and it doesn’t provide a roadmap of how you resolve every political issue.
“The legal set up, the rules of procedure, laws have been made on an ad hoc basis, without much [of a] look at what is missing. There’s a massive legal gap - and not just a gap, but contradictions. On top of that, politics is very, very new. It is learning how to adapt.”
Internationally, a Kurti-led government may not be as big a challenge in Washington under President Joe Biden as it would have been under Donald Trump and his former Balkan envoy, Richard Grenell, who was believed to be behind a controversial plan to offer Belgrade Serb-majority parts of northern Kosovo in return for its recognition of Kosovo.
Around 120,000 Serbs live in Kosovo, mostly concentrated in four provinces in the north of the country as well as in small enclaves in the country’s south-east. Although there is little contact between the Serbian and Albanian communities in these areas, Kosovo’s parliament has 10 seats reserved for Serbian members of parliament.
But despite the overwhelming demographic imbalance, Kosovo has played an outsized role in Serbian history. It is home to some of the most sacred sites of the Serbian Orthodox Church and was briefly part of medieval Serbia before it was swallowed up by the Ottoman Empire, along with the rest of the Balkan peninsula, in the 14th century.
Since the fall of Yugoslavia, Kosovo has been a rallying cry for Serbian nationalists, from Slobodan Milosevic through to Aleksander Vucic, the current leader of Serbia. Vucic has said that he would rather sacrifice the prospect of EU membership than recognise an independent Kosovo without concessions, widely believed to be Serb majority provinces joining Serbia.
Kurti has ruled out any idea of so-called land swaps, the prospect of which met with horror in Europe and especially in the Balkans, where the division of land and territory along ethnic lines has such a bloody legacy. Kurti believes that Kosovo has paid a high enough price to its neighbour and called for recognition, an apology and reparations from Belgrade.
Will Kosovo turn inwards?
Few expect Biden, tasked with healing an exhausted and divided America and wrestling with the COVID-19 pandemic, to have a great deal of time for the Balkans. But his support in 1999 for the NATO action against Slobodan Milosevic has already made him something of a hero in Kosovo. In 2016, Kosovo named a road after Biden’s late son, Beau.
Other than the Bidens, international heroes are increasingly few and far between. There is a growing feeling amongst Kosovars that the international community has done little to help Kosovo gain international recognition, strengthen its institutions or fight its corner over issues such as membership of the United Nations, which has been blocked by Russia and Serbia.
When visa-free travel was granted to Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia in 2009, it was not extended to Kosovo - despite the fact that 22 out of 27 EU member states recognise Kosovo as an independent state. Over a decade later and Kosovo appears no closer to resolving the issue. In Kosovo, it is seen as a betrayal.
“[Kosovans] are disillusioned with the EU, because once they did the things that the EU asked them to they were not granted visa-free travel,” said Igor Bandovic, director at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy. “They had the same road map, but once they accomplished that, they were not granted [it]. It was a blow to the reputation and credibility of the EU in Kosovo.”
Part of Kurti’s appeal, then, has also been his message that Europe has forgotten Kosovo - so Kosovo needs to stop waiting for Europe.
“[Kurti’s] whole strategy and message were that we should take care of our own. We should invest in our own capacities and not rely on international efforts,” said Bandovic.
“[They support] the EU, NATO, [and] the role of the US, [but] most people have realised - and most of the people are young - that they have to deal with their problems on their own.”
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