Kosovo’s make it or break it year

Will endless re-negotiation of deals with Serbia, on-going political stalemate and erosion of public trust render Kosovo’s situation Kafkaesque in 2016?

It was a gloomy start to the New Year in Kosovo. The country has just left behind a very bad year marked by political violence, extreme polarisation, economic stagnation and shattered hopes and expectations regarding visa liberalisation. The prospects for 2016 aren’t any better, either.

Kosovo starts 2016 at a critical juncture, facing numerous and complex challenges, which may threaten the very existence of an already fragile and contested country. So much so that it begs the question: Can Kosovo save itself?

Predicting the course of political crisis in Kosovo over the 11 months is a mug’s game. But there are identifiable challenges for the coming year whose resolution–or lack thereof– will determine its future for many years.

At the heart of the existential quandary that confronts Kosovo is the political conflict between the government and opposition. Six months of quarrelling has paralysed key political institutions, polarised society and put into question the legitimacy and credibility of the security and judicial system. With the two camps firmly entrenched in their diametrical positions, the conflict threatens to unravel more than 16 years of intra-Albanian political dialogue and institution building. This adds to and even overshadows the Albanian-Serb political division that has characterised Kosovo politics for a long time.

In addition to the uncompromising stance of the two sides, the prolongation of the crisis has occurred also in part thanks to the lack of international intervention. In the absence of such intervention, which until very recently was commonplace in the country’s political theatre, Kosovo’s politicians now seem to be both clueless and unwilling to solve the current political crisis on their own.

The two initial causes of the opposition’s protest – border demarcation with Montenegro and the formation of the Association/Community of Serb municipalities – are gradually fading away from the public discourse of the main camps. As a consequence, the current crisis has become a zero-sum game where one side (the opposition) insist on unconditional and immediate resignation of the government and new elections, and the other (the government) struggles to maintain political dominance. A key point in this struggle is the election of the new president in February or March.

The outcome of the presidential election is likely to determine the outcome of the intra-Albanian power struggles in Kosovo for some time. The opposition is desperate to prevent Hashim Thaçi’s (who is the main candidate so far) election both because he remains the arch-enemy of most of political leaders but also, more importantly, to deepen the crisis and trigger early elections. Moreover, Thaçi’s election is opposed by a number of MPs within PDK’s partner in governance, LDK, as well as a number of international political factors.

Regardless of the presidential election outcome, inter- and intra-party dynamics in Kosovo indicate that early elections or government reshuffling are inevitable at some point this year. If not as a result of the (failed) election of the new president, they might be triggered by the establishment of the so called ‘Special Court’ and the prosecution of key former KLA leaders. Indeed, the functionalisation of the ‘Special Court’ and Kosovo’s (in)ability to cope with this highly important, complex and controversial process is the second biggest challenge for Kosovo.

Another extremely important challenge is the process of dialogue with Serbia. With a growing discontent and frustration in Kosovo about the slow pace of implementation of the agreements and its very format and outcome, this government or a new one will find little room for maneuvering. Undoubtedly, the drafting of the statute of the Association/Community and its creation remains a great importance, both symbolically and legally. Without a clear vision about the final outcome of the negotiation process and an endless (re)negotiation of previous agreements, agendas and implementation strategies, this process is at the risk turning into a Kafkaesque situation. Worse, the whole process is becoming one that addresses the needs of the ruling party in Serbia and its affiliates in Kosovo rather than those of the Kosovo Serb population.

With the Serbian elections being held in April and the lingering political crisis in Kosovo, a reconfiguration of the whole process is inexorable. A new and broader roadmap with precise targets and deadlines would benefit both countries, for it would enable them to reach a more meaningful normalisation of relations (with legally binding obligations) and thus turn the focus to domestic reforms and EU integration process. Yet, unfortunately, Kosovo’s current plunge into uncertain and potentially risky political waters, as well as Serbia’s ability to continuously delay talks on ‘big issues’ coupled with the bureaucratic inertia of Brussels, offer little hope of a substantial change in the format of the dialogue any time soon.

Having faced ‘external shocks’ in the form of the ‘Special Court’ and Brussels dialogue, Kosovo proved incapable of pushing forward its two other key agendas: international statehood consolidation and economic development. International recognition of the country and membership in international institutions has come to a practical standstill in the last two years. The failed UNESCO bid combined with a stronger and more active Serb international engagement could easily turn into a serious setback for Kosovo’s diplomatic and political battle to affirm itself internationally. Therefore, it is essential for Kosovo’s leadership to come up with a bolder approach and concrete plan to increase international recognitions and membership in international recognitions. Membership in a major international political organisation, such as the Council of Europe, is more than necessary for Kosovo to kick-start a new stage in it diplomatic battle for international recognition and affirmation. Otherwise, the country risks cementing its status as a partially recognised and contested country for many years to come.
With respect to the economy, development is hindered by Kosovo’s persistent trade deficit, an inefficient public sector, very low employment, a degraded education system and, most importantly, pervasive corruption. The lack of political will to fight corruption and the grey economy remains a paramount problem and concern that needs a bolder strategy and, above all, concrete results. The widespread perception about corruption – according to International Transparency’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2015, Kosovo is ranked 103 out of 167 countries in the world – certainly aids the process of erosion of legitimacy of the Kosovo state and institutions. Without a doubt, diminishing legitimacy and trust in state institutions as a result of endemic corruption is far more serious and consequential than short term inter-party battles for political domination.
Although a positive recommendation for the long-awaited visa liberalisation process could prove a reason for some optimism, this year is likely to be a very challenging one for Kosovo’s morale. Or, to put it in the words of Enver Hoxha, recently quoted by the British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the only certain thing is that “this year will be tougher than last year.”


17 February 2016 - 16:39

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