Kosovo voters want a new future, but old problems linger

  • >>Barbara Surk and Marc Santora, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-10-07 15:00:40 BdST

Voting at a polling station in the northern part of the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica, Kosovo, on Sunday. The New York Times

Two decades after Kosovo was racked by war, and a decade after it declared independence from neighbouring Serbia, which refuses to recognise it as a state, the small Balkans country is holding its fourth parliamentary elections.

The choices are stark: Voters in the nation of 1.8 million have the option of selecting new leaders — including possibly its first female prime minister — or sticking with a cast of politicians who rose to prominence during the war and have amassed significant wealth in one of the poorest countries in Europe.

The top candidates are the nationalist former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, who resigned in June after he was summoned for questioning to a court in The Hague that is investigating crimes against ethnic Serbs during and after the 1998-99 war; Albin Kurti of the nationalist and left-leaning Vetevendosje party; and Vjosa Osmani, of the centre-right Democratic League.

All the candidates have campaigned on a vow to root out corruption, to fight organized crime and nepotism and to lower unemployment, which stands at 25%. They have promised to prioritize jobs, education and health care before yielding to pressure from the international community to negotiate with Serbia on reaching a final settlement on Kosovo’s status.

Serbia has so far blocked Kosovo from joining the United Nations and other international bodies, and five European Union states still decline to recognize it. A final settlement might also remove a barrier to Serbia’s one day becoming a member of the EU.

It is unlikely that any party will win an outright majority, making a coalition government the most probable outcome — but forming such an alliance is a process that has led to prolonged political wrangling in years past.

For all that Kosovo has gained since independence — it is now recognized as an independent nation by more than 100 countries — the territory remains in limbo, unable to reach a lasting peace with Serbia, even as its own government is plagued by corruption.

Osmani, 37, the Democratic League candidate who is also a law professor and a member of parliament, said in a recent interview, “It’s important that Kosovo is represented by leaders who have risen in politics through merit, hard work and a resolve to do better.”

She added that some politicians of the war generation had “failed Kosovo citizens badly.”

Former guerrilla fighters such as Haradinaj, President Hashim Thaci and the former speaker of parliament, Kadri Veseli, have dominated the country’s leadership since the war has ended. Veseli, a front-runner for prime minister, is running for the Democratic Party of Kosovo, the party of Thaci, a longtime rival of Haradinaj.

But the emergence of a fresh generation of politicians has fuelled hope among many in Kosovo that their country can shake off the corruption and mismanagement of the postwar years. Politicians of the newer stripe tend to concentrate on elevating the quality of governance in Kosovo and not blaming the conflict with Serbia for problems such as the rampant public spending, corrupt judiciary and inefficient police force.

Lulzim Peci, formerly the country’s ambassador to Sweden and now a director of the Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development in Pristina, underlined the need to move on.

“This an opportunity for the new generation of politicians to break the cycle of using Serbia as an excuse for the mistakes of Kosovo’s governments,” he said.

Whether that will be so easy is another question, said Shpend Ahmeti, the mayor of Pristina and leader of the Social Democratic Party of Kosovo, which is allied with Haradinaj.

“Sure, you can campaign on fighting corruption and improving education,” he said. “But when you are elected to lead, you better be prepared to perform under pressure of the international community to talk to Serbia.”

Those talks have stalled for nearly a year since Haradinaj’s government imposed 100% tariffs on Serbian exports to Kosovo and pushed the parliament to pass legislation to form an army. The moves angered EU officials who had been mediating the difficult dialogue to normalize relations between Serbia and Kosovo since 2011, and prompted criticism from NATO, which has been keeping a tense peace in the area since 2000.

Osmani said the impatience of the international community with both parties had not been lost on politicians like herself.

“It’s time for politicians with clean hands, no links to crime and corruption, to lead this country,” she said.

© 2019 New York Times News Service