The government of Kosovo, led by Albin Kurti, was toppled on 25 March 2020, less than two months after it was formed. The vote of no confidence was initiated by the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), a junior partner in Kurti’s Self-Determination-led government after the prime minister sacked the interior minister, Agim Veliu, an LDK member. The COVID-19 pandemic served as a smokescreen to obscure proper analysis of the government’s collapse. The coalition partners came to loggerheads when Veliu contradicted the government by supporting the declaration of a national state of emergency, which was suggested as a response to the pandemic by the country’s president, Hashim Thaçi. While the pandemic was used as a pretext, the real reason the government was toppled lies in the conflict between Kurti and Thaçi.
Kurti’s announcement of a war on corruption and organised crime and his insistence on a new approach to the dialogue with Serbia threatened the position of Kosovo’s president, who was described by Slovenian think-tank IFIMES as “a symbol of the political-criminal octopus”. With no significant support of the electorate, Thaçi was forced to seek allies beyond Kosovo’s borders. He found them in the US administration, in the form of president Trump’s special envoy for the Serbia and Kosovo negotiations, Richard Grenell, and also in the form of Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić. Even though the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia has been officially suspended for some time, these three politicians have been meeting in secret and negotiating a new, final agreement, with a view to it being signed as soon as possible. Kurti was little more than an obstacle to this plan, which is why Grenell decided to help topple the recently formed government of Kosovo. So why should the collapse of Kurti’s government be cause for concern?
One of the reasons is that the Kurti government was the last obstacle to the quick deal being negotiated by Vučić, Thaçi and Grenell. Even though Grenell has officially denied that any exchange of territory between Kosovo and Serbia has been discussed in his presence, this is an idea Vučić and Thaçi have been pushing since 2018. Let us first take a look at why a land swap might suit the interests of these three men and why they are in a hurry. As many have been quick to point out, Grenell is in a hurry to broker a “historic agreement” between Serbia and Kosovo, which could be shown off to the American public as a Trump administration’s foreign policy victory in the run-up to the presidential election. It is also not beyond the realms of possibility that Grenell is motivated by personal ambition and the acquiring credibility as an international negotiator. Thaçi, meanwhile, is eager to conclude any kind of deal that will guarantee him immunity from criminal prosecution, that is, any deal that will prevent the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in The Hague from indicting him for war crimes. Lastly, Vučić is keen to strike a deal that he will be able to present to the Serbian electorate – through rigorously controlled media – as a personal victory. An exchange of territory would, after all, be less harmful to Vučić’s ratings than an unconditional recognition of Kosovo’s independence.
And why would a land swap be bad for everyone else? Firstly, this quasi-solution would be a defeat for the idea of the state as a political community of its citizens, regardless of their ethnicity. Drawing new borders along the lines of “ethnic demarcation” would reinforce the dominance of ethno-nationalism in the region and would normalise the dangerous idea that ethnically homogenous communities are “natural”. Secondly, a territorial exchange would be difficult to implement in the real world without causing enormous human suffering – above all for those who would find themselves on the “wrong” side of the border – and there would be many of them. People would be forced to leave their homes in fear, while those who choose to stay would live their lives in segregation. Finally, the drawing of new borders in the Balkans would legitimise existing aspirations to create new, ethnically clean states. In the past, such aspirations have mostly ended in bloodshed.
Soft Coup D’état
Another reason why the overthrow of the Kosovo government is a cause for concern is that it is the start of a soft coup. This coup is supported by the Trump administration following unsuccessful attempts to exert pressure on the government of Kosovo. In late February, when Kurti announced the gradual removal of tariffs on Serbian goods and the establishment of reciprocity in bilateral relations between Kosovo and Serbia, Grenell threatened to suspend US financial aid to Kosovo and even to withdraw US troops unless the tariffs were revoked immediately and unconditionally. This strikingly disproportionate punishment was ultimately not needed as the COVID-19 crisis erupted – right on time for Thaçi and Grenell.
Disagreements over management of the crisis served as a convenient pretext for the overthrow of the Kurti government. It did not take long for the junior coalition partner, LDK, to take Thaçi’s side. This defection should be understood in light of the fact that the war on corruption announced by the prime minister would not be a problem only for Thaçi, but also for the LDK leadership. With the collapse of the Kosovo government, each of the parties involved in the coup got something they needed: Grenell cleared the way for the so-called comprehensive agreement between Belgrade and Prishtina; Thaçi got a chance to sign the agreement as a peacemaker and, in so doing, avoid being indicted for war crimes; while the LDK leadership got protection from anti-corruption measures and potential prosecutions. It should also be remembered that the collapse of Kosovo’s government is also a boon for Aleksandar Vučić, who would certainly prefer not to have Kurti as his opposite number in the negotiations.
On 22 April, once the Self-Determination party had not appointed a candidate for new prime minister and instead called for fresh elections after the pandemic, the president of Kosovo officially offered the mandate to form a new government to any party that can secure a parliamentary majority. Many have classed this act by Thaçi as unconstitutional, since Kosovo’s constitution provides no deadline by which the largest party has to put forward a new prime minister. In the meantime, support for Self-Determination among the electorate continues to grow. Since the parliamentary elections in October 2019, when Kurti’s party won just over 26 percent of the vote, polls indicate that the party’s rating has improved by as much as 50 percent. It is important to note here that the chairperson of the Kosovo assembly who headed the LDK party list in this election, Vjosa Osmani, opposed the vote of no confidence during the pandemic and also opposed the formation of a new government in which the LDK would be partnered with the so-called “war fraction” (PDK, AAK and NISMA). In spite of all of this, Thaçi and Grenell seek to present the coup as a victory for democracy, highlighting the legitimacy of a future government without Self-Determination. This attempt to redefine democratic legitimacy and to separate the concept of democracy from the will of the people is dangerous not only for Kosovo but also further abroad.
The End for the EU in the Balkans?
A third aspect of this that should be of concern is the reaction of the European Union to events in Kosovo – or rather, the failure of the EU to react. Although some European officials have voiced support for Kurti’s plan to gradually remove tariffs against Serbia or opposed the vote of no confidence during the pandemic, the European Union has proved to be unready – or unwilling – to prevent the collapse of Kosovo’s government. It remains to be seen whether it will be able to prevent the agreement on a land swap between Kosovo and Serbia. In fairness, the idea to redraw borders has first appeared within the Brussels dialogue between Belgrade and Prishtina, which indicates that the European Union may not be wholly opposed to such a notion. Thus far, the EU-led dialogue has not yielded the expected results and has come to represent a source of frustration among citizens, both in Serbia and in Kosovo.
Why then should the EU’s waning interest in the Balkans be a cause for concern? Above all because a withdrawal by the EU would leave room for other, potentially very dangerous external influences – as evidenced by recent events in Kosovo and as discussed in this article. Second, in spite of the undeniable structural problems it has faced for years, the European Union still has the potential to become, through fundamental and radical reform, a genuine community of peoples. In this process, it is important not to leave the Balkans by the wayside. Part of these reforms should be the EU’s reengagement with the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, founded on new principles and focused on the wellbeing of ordinary citizens rather than political elites.
This op-ed is part of a series of a policy commentaries entitled, “Serbia during the coronavirus pandemic” produced by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy.