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High Stakes Politics Produce A Crisis In Kosovo

Prime Minister Hashim Thaci (right) with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during their joint press conference in Pristina

Prime Minister Hashim Thaci (right) with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during their joint press conference in Pristina

Last week the Balkans again lived up to its reputation as a “crisis zone.” Only three days after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Pristina, the coalition government of Prime Minister Hashim Thaci in Kosovo unexpectedly collapsed.

On October 16, Thaci’s coalition partner, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK, founded by deceased former President Ibrahim Rugova) surprised Thaci and international representatives in Pristina by announcing it was leaving the government.

According to the constitution, elections must be held within 45 days if Thaci is unable to put together a new government. Since his main political rivals -- the LDK and charismatic war hero Ramush Haradinaj's Alliance for Kosovo's Future (AKK) -- are in disarray, Thaci would probably consider it advantageous to have elections sooner rather than trying to prolong his government's mandate until February 13, the date set for elections last week by acting President Jakup Krasniqi.

Elections would thus be held in early December, most likely on December 5. However, Thaci's international partners -- particularly the European Union, which has a large mission in Kosovo, and the United States -- may see things differently. The EU in particular is eager for talks to be held between Pristina and Belgrade on "technical" issues such as transportation and power links, air-traffic control, and trade begin as soon as possible. EU officials have called for such talks to begin before the elections. Snap elections in December could complicate Brussels' calculations.

Kosovo's fiscal situation is another complicating factor. The assembly has not yet passed a budget for next year. Failure to do so before dissolving the assembly to hold elections in December and passing this task on to the next government risks a potential fiscal crisis if the next government cannot be formed quickly. Furthermore, a large question mark remains over the privatization of Post-Telecommunication of Kosovo (PTK) because of the manner in which a bill approving the privatization was passed -- without a quorum, according to LDK and some independent deputies -- at the beginning of October. Money from the sale of PTK is reportedly needed to fund continued construction of the new superhighway crossing Kosovo from the border with Albania to that with Serbia.

With tensions between the two coalition partners growing, its collapse was inevitable. Nevertheless, the timing surprised everyone -- including the international community.

Neither the dynamics that produced the sudden political and institutional crisis in Pristina nor its consequences are completely clear. Particularly murky is the impact of the unexpected political crisis in Kosovo on the timing of the start of “dialogue” with
Serbia, which the European Union (EU) is insisting on and will mediate.

Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu’s decision to resign after he returned from the UN General Assembly meeting in New York last month precipitated the crisis. He resigned after Kosovo’s Constitutional Court ruled Sejdiu was in violation of the constitution by holding both the post of state president and head of the LDK, the junior partner in Thaci’s coalition government.

Neither the international institutions present -- particularly the International Civil Office headed by Dutch diplomat Pieter Feith -- nor local political actors raised the constitutional issue until this summer, although Sejdiu's violation of the constitution had been obvious to observers since 2008 when he assumed the presidency. Sejdiu himself tried to gloss over this by maintaining that he had "frozen" his position as head of the LDK. However, it was likewise clear that he remained the party's leader. Then a group of deputies petitioned the Constitutional Court to adjudicate the issue. The court did so, but the question remains why the issue was not raised earlier.

The available evidence suggests that Thaci was behind the move to question Sejdiu’s constitutional status, with the aim of forcing him out.

The deepening leadership crisis in the LDK and the departure of Thaci's most dangerous political rival, the charismatic war hero Ramush Haradinaj, to The Haag for an indefinite period offered Thaci a golden opportunity to capitalize on his opponents' weaknesses and call early elections that promised to secure him another four years in power. (Elections were due to be held by late 2011.)

Forcing Sejdiu’s resignation would create an institutional crisis and provide a convenient pretext to call elections. Polls indicated the PDK would gain seats, perhaps even enough to form a government by itself. In any case, early elections promised that PDK would not have to govern again with the LDK and would thus have a stronger grip on the levers of power.

Sejdiu surprised international and local officials alike by resigning quickly after the court's decision. It had been widely expected he would contest the decision or at least drag his feet in giving up office.

Sejdiu had another surprise up his sleeve, however.

On October 16, he pulled the LDK's ministers out of Thaci’s coalition, a day after the acting president had set elections for February 13, upsetting Thaci’s and the international community’s calculations. (To date, one minister has refused to follow Sedjiu's instructions and is holding onto his portfolio. Sedjiu's two major rivals have sharply criticized his action.)

This very carefully calculated tactical move permits the government technically to continue to function and requires that Thaci ask for a no-confidence vote to dissolve the asembly. But there is important unfinished business to attend to, notably next year's budget. If Thaci asks to dissolve the assembly before a budget is passed, he risks taking the blame for the failure of pension and welfare checks and state-sector salaries to arrive early next year.

Sejdiu has apparently created a genuine political crisis for Thaci for three reasons. First, on October 14, Thaci had jammed through an assembly vote on the privatization of the post and telecommunications agency, apparently without a quorum. The LDK fiercely opposed this privatization and considers the assembly’s vote invalid. (Privately, some independent deputies and even some from the PDK share this view.)

Second, acting President Krasniqi unilaterally announced the election date on October 15, only hours after LDK and PDK representatives failed to agree on a date, but agreed to meet again October 18 to continue discussions.

And finally, Thaci, during an interview on state television on the evening of October 15, made comments about the way the coalition was formed that apparently “insulted” the former president. Thaci claimed that the PDK had not invited the LDK to govern with it after the 2008 elections, but that the LDK had “begged” to join Thaci’s government so it could share the spoils of power.

Sejdiu had had enough.

It is too early to say how the collapse of the Thaci government will affect talks with Belgrade. The EU, joined last week by Clinton, is calling for “technical” talks to begin before the elections. That now looks impossible though, in fact, expert discussions on missing persons have been under way for some time

Shaun Byrnes is a retired U.S. diplomat and was head of U.S. Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission in 1998-99. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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