On a visit to Albania in March, Kosovo’s new prime minister, Albin Kurti, called on Albanians to vote for change as Kosovars did on February 14: “Albanians deserve better,” he said.
Kurti, an ethnic-Albanian along with around 90% of Kosovo’s 1.8 million population, urged voters to elect the members of his leftist-nationalist Vetevendosje movement who are running for seats in the Albanian parliament on April 25 on an anti-corruption mandate.
It was anti-corruption and opposition to entrenched political elites that led to Vetevendosje’s landslide election on February 14. Kurti now serves as prime minister while his ally, Vjosa Osmani, was sworn in as president on April 4. Vetevendosje has 58 seats in Kosovo’s 120-seat parliament, a working majority with the support of 10 non-Serb minority politicians.
In Albania, such a result is extremely unlikely, especially given that Vetevendosje is competing in just three counties with its leader, Boiken Abazi, running in the capital Tirana. Albania’s election later this month remains a two-horse race, with Edi Rama’s Socialist Party and the Democratic Party of Albania, under Lulzim Basha, the two main parties.
Vetevendosje, which has only been active for two years in Albania, may not even pass the 1% threshold to enter parliament, according to recent polls.
But Abazi has big plans: he told Euronews Albania that Vetevendosje will ultimately contest every seat in the country at future elections and secure a referendum on the unification between Albania and Kosovo.
It is the nationalist part of Kurti and Vetevendosje’s "leftist nationalist" designation that relates to unification - or reunification, as it is referred to in both countries.
Ever since Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 the two nations have established shared diplomatic missions and signed as many as 140 bilateral agreements, and during the war with Serbia in 1998 and 1999, Albania opened its doors to hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees fleeing violence and ethnic cleansing.
For many Kosovars, a union with Albania would provide security against an increasingly expansionist and nationalist Serbia, and make it more difficult for Belgrade to meddle in the politics of its neighbour via Kosovo’s 120,000-strong Serbian minority. It is also seen as an alternative to Kosovo’s perennially-stalled negotiations with the European Union.
Unification would likely be opposed by all of Kosovo’s international allies and would scupper the EU and US-brokered dialogue with Serbia. As such a referendum on a union with Albania has often been threatened by politicians in Kosovo when relations are particularly strained with Brussels or Washington, much to the chagrin of American and European leaders.
In 2019, Hashim Thaci threatened to hold a referendum on Kosovo joining Albania, although Kosovo’s constitution currently lacks the mechanism to do so. In February 2021, Kurti told Euronews that if a referendum were held on unification - or re-unification, as many Kosovars refer to it - he would vote in favour of Kosovo joining a federation with Albania.
But despite its long and storied history and huge support in Kosovo - a recent poll had 64% of Kosovars saying they would vote yes - it was not a major campaigning issue for Vetevendosje in the run-up to the February poll. It was as a leftist and not a nationalist party that Vetevendosje dominated - and ultimately triumphed - on February 14.
“Lëvizja Vetëvendosje (LVV) of Kosovo managed to clinch to power only when it ditched its nationalist rhetoric and ran on an anti-corruption campaign,” Alfonc Rakaj, an analyst, told Euronews.
“Ethnic Albanians are first and foremost concerned with welfare, economic prosperity and stability. As a result, it is imperative to improve living standards, boost democratic credentials and accountability as a counterweight to nationalist appeal.”
Just as Vetevendosje avoided the issue of unification in the run-up to February 14, so its Albanian sister party has in the run-up to 25 April. That, analysts say, is for the best.
“It doesn’t resonate with Albanians and is practically a non-issue for the public at large,” said Rakaj.
Abazi, Vetevendosje’s candidate in Tirana, told Euronews Albania that he supports a referendum in both states on unification. But in its campaign, it has focused on the issue indirectly: for example, by lobbying for a lifting of the toll on the highway that connects Kosovo and Albania. Mostly its campaign has echoed Kurti’s: combatting corruption and tackling elites.
While nationalism has seen a resurgence recently in countries such as Serbia and Hungary, that has not been the case in Albania. In 2013, for example, a newly-established nationalist party, the Red and Black Alliance called for unification with Kosovo during elections and secured less than 11,000 votes nationwide. Its leader’s call for a referendum was largely ignored.
Unlike Kurti, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has not often commented on the issue of unification. In 2017, he told Politico that he could not rule out a "little union" between Albania and Kosovo if the EU decided to take membership off the table. But he has never come out formerly for or against in the way Kurti has several times in his political career.
Rama, as well as Kurti - despite his recent comments - likely realises that given that the response of the international community would be unified and strongly against, to openly push for it would be against the interest of either country and a waste of political capital, especially given that the actual political and economic benefits of a union are largely unknown.
If anything, dealings between the two countries have been increasingly strained in recent years, Rakaj says, with the European Union recently downgrading their relationship from "excellent" to "good". In this, Kurti will not have improved matters by his March comments, a direct attack on nearly eight years of Rama’s rule and the elites that dominate most of Albania’s political parties.
And not for the first time. On November 28, 2020, Vetevendosje was due to hold a march on Albania’s Anniversary of Independence to protest the toll fees on the Albania-Kosovo highway and lobby for a common market between the two states.
Dejona Mihali, a Vetevendosje coordinator, said Albanians should join the march to protest the government’s use of public-private partnership contracts.
Although it was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, Rama criticised Vetevendosje in a television interview, arguing that it was inappropriate for a Kosovo-based party to use Albania’s national day to make a political point. “Imagine if the Socialist Party called for a protest on Kosovo’s Day of Independence: What would people in Kosovo think about this?” he said.
But it goes both ways. In 2018, during a speech to Kosovo’s parliament, Rama suggested that as Kosovo and Albania would have a shared foreign policy and diplomatic missions, perhaps the territories should also have a single president. Avdullah Hoti, later prime minister of Kosovo, said Rama’s comments “showed a lack of respect” for Kosovo’s independence.
Hoti continued, in a Facebook post soon after Rama’s speech, that the preference for Kosovars was an independent state that was integrated into both the European Union and NATO.
His comments illustrate that for many Kosovars, a union with Albania is the second-best option, a Plan B to be enacted if and when European integration is taken off the table. Unlike the rest of the Balkans, citizens of Kosovo still do not have visa-free travel to the EU while its lack of recognition by five European member states keeps the prospect of joining the bloc in limbo.
Progress has been made dependent on dialogue with Serbia, which itself is stalled given the political chasm between Pristina and Belgrade. Since his election, Kurti has said only an apology, full recognition and war reparations from Serbia will be sufficient to reach a deal that normalises relations, something that Serbia’s nationalist government would never accept.
That is coupled with an increasing hostility within the EU towards further enlargement, particularly when it comes to the Balkans. France’s Emmanuel Macron has singled out Albania as an example of a state that is not ready to join the bloc, arguing recently that the greatest number of people claiming asylum in France are Albanian nationals.
In Kosovo, meanwhile, the continued failure to grant its citizens visa-free travel is not only seen as an annoyance but as a betrayal. If Albania and Kosovo both find the doors of Europe slammed shut, they may both conclude that a federation is the next best option. This is especially true for Kosovo, which faces continued international isolation as the alternative.
“The question of re-unification between Albania and Kosovo has resurfaced in the recent years as a result of international failure to recognize and accept Kosovo as an equal member of the international society of sovereign states,” said Gëzim Visoka, associate professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Dublin City University.
“Aware that the EU has failed so far to formulate a unified policy on Kosovo’s independence and is constantly delaying the membership prospects, it is not unlikely that European integration as a strategic project for Kosovo will be replaced in the future with an authentic and alternative project, which is neo-functional and de facto reunification with Albania.”
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