European Western Balkans

Kosovo: a hasty rotation of power

Pristina, Kosovo; Photo: European Union

The article was originally published on BiEPAG Blog.

‘Aurea prima sata est aetas, quae vindice nullo, / sponte sua, sine lege fidem rectumque colebat.’ Without laws or judges, Ovid says, during the Golden Age ‘rectitude spontaneous in the heart prevailed’. Now even laws and judges may not be enough.

Italy saw no rotation of power for half a century, for example, and rectitude suffered. In 1974 the poet Pier Paolo Pasolini published an article on the country’s main newspaper, which is a litany of paragraphs all beginning like this: ‘I know. I know the names of those responsible for (a famous crime follows)’. Then he says: ‘I know. But I have no evidence. I don’t even have clues.’ The evidence came out twenty years later: colossal theft, on a scale unseen in any Western country before or since.

Since Kosovo was separated from Serbia, twenty years ago, there has been no rotation of power. A fairly homogenous elite, divided in several parties but joined by common interests, ruled the country unmolested. They are thieves. They are not usually described thus, because there is no evidence, but we have clues.

One would expect such a country to stagnate and be unequal. The data do show stagnation, but very mild inequality: according to the World Bank the Gini index is 29, significantly below France (31.6). That is hardly credible, and one reason might be that when interviewed for the household survey thieves are less than precise in describing their wealth. My superficial impression, having lived in both places, is that the country is far more unequal than France.

Two decades of stagnation, theft, and inequality can explain why the October 2019 election was won by a party whose manifesto rested on two pillars: social justice and the fight against corruption. Named Vetevendosje, this party is controversial (in the past it used tactics such as opening tear-gas canisters in parliament, and has been plausibly accused of nationalism). Those two aspirations were credible though, as the party is unique – in Kosovo, and perhaps the whole region – in relying on grassroots support and the politics of ideas rather than on clientelism, illegal financing, and election fraud.

After long negotiations, in early February Vetevendosje took the decision – as risky as it was responsible – to form a coalition with the least tainted party of the old elite. The latter quickly changed its mind, however, and used the pandemic to bring down the government. On 25 March the Vetevendosje-led executive fell.

The party invoked a snap election (opinion polls suggest that since the 2019 election its support has more than doubled, to well above 50%). Kosovo’s president – the main leader of the old elite, arguably, and the ‘most dangerous’ of the country’s several ‘criminal bosses’, according to a plausible 2010 Council of Europe report – preferred to appoint a fresh cabinet instead.

He faced an obstacle, though, as an unreasonable rule in Kosovo’s constitution required him to invite Vetevendosje to form the next government. Only if they refused, or failed to gain a majority in parliament, could he appoint a prime minister from another party. The president side-stepped this rule. Vetevendosje went before the constitutional court.

Kosovo’s judiciary lacks any independence. EU reports on the country are generally more charitable than my own analysis, but one of them notes that in Kosovo judges ‘tend to act in anticipatory obedience to external influences’: as befits good servants, they know their masters’ desires well enough to satisfy them before being asked.

The same is true of the constitutional court. An analysis I published in 2014 concludes that it consistently used its powers to satisfy the interests of Kosovo’s elite regardless of the law or the evidence. Some of the court’s decisions are so laughable that they enliven even such a boring paper as mine. This time too the court followed this line. The new government took office a few days ago.

The old elite has thus gained three more years in power, potentially, which it can use to bribe or intimidate citizens away from Vetevendosje and prepare for another round of ‘industrial-scale’ election fraud. For this seems to be their last opportunity: if they miss it, Kosovo will shake them off its back and finally begin its democratic and economic development.

The elite’s actions do betray a promising haste, in fact. They could have complied with that rule, voted down Vetevendosje’s (second) cabinet, and appointed one of their own. This would have delayed the retaking of power by a couple of weeks: vulnerable as they know they are, they evidently thought that that was too long.

Vetevendosje recently organized a demonstration, perfectly peaceful and scrupulously respectful of the social-distancing rules, as a drill for subsequent, larger ones. This tactic could succeed: based on an empirical regularity, political scientist Erica Chenoweth suggests that if 3.5% of the population actively participates in peaceful protests change typically follows.

On might ask, where was the international community during all this? Kosovo is a Western creation, after all, and surely those powers cannot let it go to rot like this. The UN, the EU and the Western powers that guided their policies in Kosovo have traditionally been very tolerant with the old elite. For long they actively opposed Vetevendosje. When public opinion shifted in its favour, however, some Western diplomacies shifted too. Many European governments criticized the felling of the cabinet it led, for it coincided with the peak of the pandemic in Kosovo. Washington supported it instead, for reasons related to the image of the civil servant inhabiting the White House.

The prospect of protests might give pause even to those European capitals. Their concern may be that politics should unfold within its formal institutional frame, which the West has built with huge expenditure (for fifteen years aid was about 10% of GDP per year, on average). May they consider that this polity’s institutions are by now so rotten, within their ornate legal shells, that they must be rebuilt from scratch.

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