The joint ticket of Albin Kurti’s Vetëvendosje (‘Self-Determination Movement’) and Vjosa Osmani, the acting president who now hopes to fully assume the post, has swept to power in snap elections in Kosovo.
They have promised to tackle a "huge wall of corruption" that has hindered progress over the past two decades. It marks a fundamental shift away from the two parties who have dominated post-war politics in Kosovo - the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) - and the latest chapter in the fascinating story of this social movement turned political force.
It is Vetëvendosje’s second electoral triumph in less than eighteen months. Their first stint in government came to a premature end after a US-engineered demise of their governing coalition with the LDK last March, just as the first wave of COVID-19 hit.
The subsequent Trump-sponsored Washington deal involving Serbia and Kosovo may have secured Israeli recognition of the latter's independence (in return for its embassy being located in Jerusalem against EU wishes), but very little else. The subsequent mishandling of the pandemic has only bred further discontent amongst an increasingly impatient electorate.
The extent of their victory puts to bed the idea that their success derives solely from Kosovo’s youthful demographic. Their message of anti-corruption and social justice has resonated far more broadly; grounded as it has long has been in nationalistic demands (including occasional calls for unification with neighbouring Albania) and opposition to the international community (including the very Ahtisaari plan on which Kosovo’s declaration of independence was based).
Nationalism, however, has largely taken a backseat this time out; save for another former prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj (who himself has eyes on the presidency), also voicing the prospect of unification with Albania.
The indictment of Hashim Thaçi, Kadri Veseli, and others - who now await trial on war crimes charges at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague - did not prompt a groundswell of support for the PDK as they may well have hoped. Thaçi, it should be recalled, stepped down as president to face the charges.
Weeding out corruption
Despite the groundswell of support for a Kurti-led administration, the challenges of governing remain pronounced. One of the first will be to remove those elements of the old regime embedded in Kosovo’s institutions. The heads of certain public institutions and companies will be easier to change, with meritocratic appointments driving improved governance whilst starving the previous incumbents of public resources they have long exploited.
Kosovo’s rule of law institutions and intelligence structures, however, pose a very real and fundamental difficulty for an administration committed to weeding out corruption. Attempts to prosecute previous abuses of office and worse are likely to be buried in the long grass. Should they make it to court, stalling tactics, defence party appeals, and subsequent re-trials will further frustrate the process. Managing expectations about what can be achieved in the short-term will be necessary.
Such reform processes themselves will be fraught with difficulties. The vetting of judges and prosecutors in Albania - which included asset justifications and background checks - led to a host of dismissals and resignations.
The process has been time-consuming and entailed external oversight, something that Kurti may not be willing to contemplate. Accusations of political interference in the appointment of new judges and concerns about their subsequent independence have prompted new concerns. It is a process that can not be undertaken lightly, especially when it runs the risk of paralysing the system entirely.
Then there is the question of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. Kurti has regularly spoken not only about an unwillingness to entertain the prospect of further compromise with Belgrade but to review those agreements reached and implemented to date. The latter would constitute a huge setback for the fledgling process of normalisation; one that has seen Kosovo Serb judges and prosecutors integrated into the Kosovo system and the Civil Protection Corps disbanded.
This will create new dilemmas for the EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue, Miroslav Lajčák. Having failed to uphold its promise of visa liberalisation for Kosovo upon the fulfilment of a host of conditions - including the demarcation of its border with Montenegro, which prompted various Vetëvendosje politicians to set-off tear gas in Kosovo’s parliament - the EU’s leverage with which to compel Pristina into further talks is greatly diminished.
With Kurti seemingly able to govern without the support of Srpska Lista (who again took all ten seats reserved for the Kosovo Serb minority), there will be considerable deliberation over the appointment of the ministerial and deputy ministerial posts guaranteed to the Kosovo Serb community.
Even if Kurti looks beyond Srpska Lista for Serb representatives, constitutional provisions require that such candidates be endorsed by MPs representing the Kosovo Serb community. It is a conundrum that can not be easily resolved.
With vaccine pressures a potential source of tension in Kosovo itself - a Serb-run health centre in Štrpce in south Kosovo was already raided by police in search of vaccines - Kurti would be wise to pursue constructive dialogue on the matter with Belgrade, involving EU mediation if needs be. A successful vaccination roll-out has the possibility to build bridges between Belgrade and Pristina.
Whilst it would be too dramatic to describe Kurti and Vetëvendosje as Kosovo’s last hope, their reascent to power has created great and understandable expectations. The pursuit of their anti-corruption drive will put the new administration on a collision course with embedded elements of the old regime; a regime that has dominated Kosovo politics for some two decades.
Nor can Kurti ignore the realities of dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, and the need to commit to a process leading to a comprehensive normalisation of relations. Amidst a profound socio-economic crisis, Kurti will quickly find that his Valentine’s Day victory has no honeymoon.
Ian Bancroft is a writer and diplomat. He is the author of ‘Dragon's Teeth: Tales from North Kosovo’.