European Western Balkans

Disputes over tariffs and COVID-19 symptom of major rifts among Kosovo leaders

Albin Kurti and Hashim Thaçi; Photo: Twitter / HashimThaciRKS

The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have provoked a serious political crisis in Kosovo, as Albin Kurti’s government could possibly crumble due to a rift among coalition partners. The leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) Isa Mustafa announced that his party will initiate a vote of no confidence in the Kosovo Parliament against the Government in which LDK is a junior partner, following disputes over both the 100% tariffs and the response to the pandemic.

This move came after prime minister and leader of Vetëvendosje Albin Kurti dismissed the Minister of the Interior and Public Administration Agim Veliu due to disagreements about whether a state of emergency due to COVID-19 should be declared. Minister Veliu, a member of LDK, went against the position of the government and prime minister Kurti by supporting the declaration of the state of emergency, advocated by the President of Kosovo Hashim Thaçi.

The disagreement about the COVID-19 pandemic represents a part of a larger rift within Kosovo’s political landscape, in which prime minister Kurti and his party are pitted against president Thaçi, with government junior partner LDK standing in the middle, being part of the coalition but aligning with the President on a few fundamental issues.

The suspension of tariffs – the main contention point

In previous weeks, the main issue in Kosovo politics was the abolishment of 100% tariffs on goods from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, introduced by the government of Ramush Haradinaj in November 2018, which brought the Belgrade – Pristina dialogue to a complete halt.

While prime minister Kurti insisted that tariffs should be replaced by “reciprocity measures” against Serbia and decided upon gradual cancellation of tariffs beginning on 15 March, his coalition partners LDK and president Hashim Thaçi both insisted that the tariffs should be abolished immediately without further conditions.

Last Sunday, Kurti apologized for not being able to lift the 100% tariffs as planned since he could not reach an agreement with LDK about the decision to replace the tariffs with reciprocity measures, a measure he continues to insist on.

“This is not about the revoking of the tariffs to start the dialogue, that is a lie. This is about revoking the tariffs to end the dialogue with an agreement prepared earlier”, said Kurti – reports N1 – and added that President Thaçi and Serbian President Vučić already reached an agreement and that they want to topple him and his government.

On Friday, however, prime minister Kurti signed a decision on partially lifting the 100% tariffs from 1 April, due to be confirmed on the next Government meeting. It is yet to be seen, however, will this please his coalition partners.

International pressure: Who is anti-American and who is anti-European?

What made this issue incredibly important for Kosovo politics was the international pressure. While EU welcomed Kurti’s decision to gradually abolish the tariffs, US officials were adamant that this should be done immediately. There were even threats that USA could reduce its military presence in Kosovo unless tariffs are revoked, and president Trump’s special envoy for Serbia – Kosovo negotiations Richard Grenell engaged in intensive twitter diplomacy to put pressure on Kosovo politicians to deliver.

The President and the Prime Minister even exchanged accusations about who is “anti-American” and who is “anti-European” in regard to the decision on tariffs, further strengthening the impression that their rift is a matter of diverging American and European interest in the region.

Executive Director of the CiviKos Platform and member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) Donika Emini believes this is exactly the image president Thaçi wanted to create.

“This narrative was highly pushed by President Thaçi who effectively worked on linking himself with the US, a more effective and trusted partner of Kosovo, leaving Kurti and the government to the EU, a slow in delivery, not trusted partner which “betrayed” Kosovo with visa liberalization process”, said Emini for EWB.

She believes that solid circumstances for him to establish this perception were created during the electoral campaign in Kosovo and in the EU last year, when him, president Vučić and US envoy Grenell continued working on the dialogue and on twitter diplomacy.

“In this regard, there were immense pressures to throw Kurti into the process without being consolidated within the government and in international arena. Throw Kurti in a process which he was not part, and a terrain which is well known and developed by Thaçi gradually throughout time”, explains Emini.

She believes it is true that there were tensions between the EU and President Thaçi after the Alpbach Forum in August 2018, and that since then the EU started seeking another more credible partner in the process. But, according to Emini, to date Kurti has been known as a leader “open to all options and partners but reluctant to external pressure which might push him in unknown territory”.

Viola von Cramon-Taubadel; Photo: European Union

Viola von Cramon-Taubadel, European Parliament’s standing rapporteur on Kosovo, understood the disagreement over the COVID-19 pandemic as a part of the broader struggle between prime minister Kurti on one side and president Thaçi and LDK on the other.

“President Thaçi and the coalition partner LDK members are both using the corona crisis as a pretext for their power games. The reason behind LDK leadership for calling for vote of no confidence is obviously not the question of how to handle the current crisis”, reads the statement by von Cramon-Taubadel.

The EP rapporteur claims that the crisis is about “who is sitting at the table in the dialogue”, and called on the US not to disregard the Kosovo government because of its own-short term interests.

“This is the task of the government, not any other actors. The US should not go over the government in order to protect their short-sighted business interest. We need to strive for stability and clear responsibilities, not shady backroom deals”, stated von Cramon-Taubadel.

The two rifts: International relations and domestic Kosovo politics

But the rift between LVV and Kurti one side and LDK and Thaçi on the other has much deeper roots than just the question of tariffs and international policies pursued by the two leaders. While LVV was a long-term opposition party without strong ties with the Kosovo establishment and no accusations of links with organized crime structures, LDK and Thaçi’s Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), were the two main parties in Kosovo in the last 20 years.

LDK and PDK are themselves bitter rivals, however, as LDK was found by the late President Rugova in 1989, while PDK was the main party to come of out the Kosovo Liberation Army. The two parties, however, both represent the Kosovo establishment and had the tendency of forming coalitions rather than allowing LVV to become a part of the government.

Donika Emini believes that the current rift has to do both with international politics and the internal politics in Kosovo.

“It is both combined. The internal historic feuds between Kurti and Thaçi or Kurti and the old establishment linked to state capture and the international division in relation to Kosovo and Serbia issue – more precisely on how the end result of this process will look like”, explains Emini.

She reminds that the LVV-LDK coalition already has a track record of instability, evident in the almost 4-months period of trying to form the government and from its first 45 days in office.

“Tensions have been multi-folded, caused by internal and external factors. The internally driven factors are mainly caused by the differences between the two parties, not just in ideology but also in the way they operate and function – with LVV being very reactive and vocal and LDK traditionally known as ‘institutionalist’ not very operational party”, explains Emini.

On the other hand, says Emini, the new government is being haunted by the 100% tariffs toward goods from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“The external factors are linked to the pressure from the US administration and President Thaçi to lift the tariffs immediately and not as by the principle of reciprocity proposed by the Government. In this regard, the pressure from the opposition and the tendency to block the work in the Assembly has been made clear sine the first session”, explains the CiviKos executive director.

Donika Emini believes this gave the impression that Kosovo has two parallel governments instead of one.

“The constant flirts of LDK with the President and the opposition, clearly shows a tendency to blackmail VV, which has been acting unilaterally on many issues, and showcase power in the coalition”, explains Emini.

Richard Grenell and Hashim Thaci; Photo: President of the Republic of Kosovo

She believes that the international divisions can be bridged if there is an internal coordination between Thaçi, “who has been part of the process and doesn’t want to let it go off his hands” and Prime Minister Kurti, who is newly elected and “most legitimate politician to lead the dialogue enjoying the wide support and trust by the citizens.”

Emini said that this process needs to be “led and guided by a unified political leadership in Kosovo”, constituting of both position and opposition, and become a “multi-stakeholder process which will then guide international partners included in the process as facilitators.”

“Political unification is the key due to the fact that the agreement needs to go through the parliament. Should this process be unilaterally led by “stabilitocrats”, the demarcation scenario with Montenegro is very likely to happen and cause internal conflict with implications in the rest of the region”, explained Emini, alluding to the problems with ratification of border demarcation agreement with Montenegro in the Kosovo parliament.

What happens next?

The announcement by Isa Mustafa that LDK will initiate a vote of no confidence against the Government in the Kosovo Parliament appears to be an expected culmination of the rift within the ruling coalition on the question of tariffs and dismissal of minister Agim Veliu by the Prime Minister. The fall of the government after only 45 days (and counting) would set an historic record, not an easy feat within a traditionally unstable Kosovo political system.

However, timing of such a decision, which would be taken in the middle of a worldwide pandemic and a major public health concern, is not viewed positively neither by the European Union nor the citizens of Kosovo.

European Parliament rapporteur Viola von Cramon-Taubadel called on the LDK not to bring down the Kosovo government before the epidemic is over.

“At a time of extraordinary circumstances and closure of borders, where normal political life is vastly suspended the coalition partners should set their differences aside and focus on measures against the spread of corona virus. LDK should consider suspending its decision on a motion of no confidence until after the end of the public health crisis”, reads her statement.

According to von Cramon-Taubadel, “it is the vital interest of the EU and the US to have a stable and functioning government in Kosovo, a government which already showed its goodwill to cooperate with Belgrade and with the international actors.”

Manfred Weber and Isa Mustafa; Photo: LDK

Donika Emini does not believe that the announced motion of no confidence will actually lead to the downfall of the LVV-LDK government.

“There are rumours (rightly so) about a potential coalition of the traditionally known partners in Kosovo, LDK and PDK. Clearly, LDK cannot free itself from the influence from PDK and the cooperation in the past”, says Emini.

However, as she explains, the Kosovo Constitution awarded the mandate to Vetëvendosje, because of which it is not that easy to simply swap coalition partners.

“At this point, it is easier for both Vetëvendosje and LDK sit and discuss how to overcome the differences at least during this period of time. It is physically impossible to organize elections and any swap in the government against the citizens will is going to pose serious consequences for LDK as the initiator of the no-confidence vote of its own government”, said Emini.

She explains that seeing such a political manoeuvre at the time of an unprecedented global crisis represented a huge blow for the citizens of Kosovo, who protested from their balconies.

“Last elections”, reminds Emini, “citizens showed that they can punish political elites working against their interests. The same will take place again.”

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