Corruption and Conflict Dominate Election in Kosovo

A former political prisoner who lasted just four months as Kosovo’s prime minister is eyeing a return to power in an election that could have wider geopolitical repercussions for Europe’s most unstable region.

Less than a year after he was ousted because of disagreements over how to handle the emerging coronavirus pandemic, Albin Kurti’s party is leading opinion polls before Sunday’s snap vote. His core promise is to tackle corruption, but more importantly for the outside world is a pledge to leverage American support in Kosovo’s intractable standoff with Serbia.

Kosovo is still at the crossroads of power struggles more than two decades after NATO intervened to halt the most recent of the 1990s wars that ripped apart former Yugoslavia. Although the European Union’s enlargement is on the back-burner as it fights the pandemic, any hope of joining the bloc and integrating with the West rests on Serbia and Kosovo mending ties.

Corruption and Conflict Dominate Election in Kosovo

Should Kurti win, he’s bound to be a much tougher partner in talks with Serbia. He blames Kosovo’s larger neighbor, which refuses to recognize the nation as a sovereign state, for unsettling the region by turning to Russia and China.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic last month reiterated that his country will not recognize Kosovo as an independent state under his leadership. U.S. President Joe Biden, meanwhile, urged him a week ago to reach an accord with Kosovo based on “mutual recognition.”

“Biden has been an unwavering supporter of Kosovo’s fight for freedom and its cause for independence,” Kurti, 45, said by email. “I am hopeful that he will continue to support Kosovo not just as a young country, but as a young democracy that faces tremendous pressure from Serbia.”

Last year was rocky for the leadership in Kosovo, one of Europe’s poorest countries. With an economy reliant on aid and remittances down because of the pandemic, integrating with the region and beyond is now even more vital to its financial viability as well as stability.

Two months after Kurti’s departure as prime minister, his political adversary, President Hashim Thaci, quit to fight allegations of war crimes that he denies.

Kurti’s Self Determination Movement is predicted by pollsters to win between 44% to 51% of Sunday’s votes. Should that be the case, it’s likely to govern with the support of minority lawmakers who traditionally back the winner. Results are due in the evening.

The parliament’s new makeup will be crucial as it will also pick the next president as early as next month. Kurti is formally running with Vjosa Osmani, the current speaker of parliament and acting president. Now a member of his party, she plans to run in the presidential election.

Kurti’s career has been defined by the Balkans conflict more than most. He spent almost three years in a Serb jail after being arrested during the 1999 NATO-led bombing that drove Serb forces out of Kosovo and then sentenced.

Corruption and Conflict Dominate Election in Kosovo

Upon release after the downfall of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, he organized protests targeting the international administrators who oversaw Kosovo’s transition to fledgling democracy. In 2007, two activists from his party died and dozens were injured in a clash with United Nations police.

After 2013, when the presidents of Kosovo and Serbia signed a framework agreement envisioning some autonomy for Serbs in Kosovo, Kurti’s party repeatedly disrupted parliament by setting off tear gas grenades. Kurti was arrested for his role in the protests and given a suspended sentence. Because of that conviction, he’s been barred from running in Sunday elections as a lawmaker, though can still be appointed by his party as prime minister.

His ouster last year was welcomed by Donald Trump’s envoy as the U.S. sought a quick fix of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Kurti has said any talks with Belgrade should focus on a historic “debt that Serbia owes to Kosovo.”

Serbia considers the former province, a majority of whose population is ethnic Albanian, a cradle of its state and Orthodox religion. Russia, China and five EU members are also among the countries that don’t recognize Kosovo. There’s also the thorny issue of the return of some 220,000 Serbs who fled Kosovo during the war at the end of the 1990s.

In a letter to Vucic ahead of Serbia’s national day on Feb. 15, Biden urged him to reconcile the dispute with Kosovo. “We remain steadfast in our support for Serbia’s goal of European integration and encourage you to continue taking the hard steps forward to reach that aim,” he said.

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