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Kosovo's Voters Make Fresh Attempt At 'New Era' In Balkan 'Clash Of Generations'

Workers in the Kosovar capital, Pristina, install a giant election poster showing prime ministerial candidate Albin Kurti (right) and acting President Vjosa Osmani.
Workers in the Kosovar capital, Pristina, install a giant election poster showing prime ministerial candidate Albin Kurti (right) and acting President Vjosa Osmani.

Newly independent Kosovo spent much of its first decade stuck in the political mud.

Led almost exclusively by veterans of a bloody war for independence, it was weighed down by only being partially recognized and by an exodus of emigrés who could have helped the tiny Balkan country gain economic traction.

When voters in 2019 appeared to plot a new course behind an emerging nationalist party that challenged the old guard, Kosovars watched one year later as their push for change sputtered into a political dead end.

The resulting power vacuum and caretaker leadership have persisted through national tests like an unprecedented health crisis, mounting pressure to mend diplomatic fences with neighbor Serbia, and war crimes indictments that unseated a powerful president and other senior politicians.

But Kosovo's voters will be back for more on February 14.

"Despite all the difficulties, this election will be a kind of new test, yet again, to prove what started in October 2019," says Vedran Dzihic, a professor at the University of Vienna and a senior researcher at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs (OIIP), of the vote that broke the tight grip on power of the Democratic Party (PDK) and other groups led by ex-guerrillas.

He says subsequent events have been a nasty reminder of the "clientelism" and immaturity of the Kosovar political scene.

The coalition government led by Albin Kurti and his Self-Determination (Vetevendosje) party, which took power after the 2019 elections, lasted just two months before it was toppled by a no-confidence vote based ostensibly on its handling of the coronavirus pandemic early last year.

Albin Kurti on the campaign trail earlier this month
Albin Kurti on the campaign trail earlier this month

Recent polls show Self-Determination with support of between 40 and 50 percent this time around, well above its 26 percent plurality in the last elections.

It probably won't be enough to give Kurti's party sole control of the 120-seat parliament.

Old And New Guards

But it could far outpace its soured former coalition partner, the Democratic League (LDK), or the other of Kosovo's big three parties: the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), which is led by former liberation army fighters. Each of those parties has been polling somewhere around 20 percent.

"There is an obvious clash of generations and political styles now for the voters to decide which way to go," Dzihic says.

Dzihic identifies three main contrasts between the old and new guards.

Election campaign posters on the streets of Pristina
Election campaign posters on the streets of Pristina

The first is the difference between the "old-fashioned, established, quite corrupt and clientelistic parties rather oriented toward keeping their privileges," he says.

Another is the perceived attention to domestic issues, including the COVID-19 crisis, which Dzihic says neither the LDK-supported caretaker government nor Kurti's government appeared to manage very well.

The third fracture point is generational.

"Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe, and there is a growing confidence of young generations, and also women, and they want to see a different type of politics," Dzihic says.

'Collective Action Problem'

These national elections are the fifth since independence, with the intervals narrowing with each successive vote.

They were called on short notice by Kurti ally and acting President Vjusa Osmani after the courts threw out the mandate of the caretaker government last month based on legislation banning individuals with recent criminal convictions from parliament.

Since then, the campaign has featured late-hour disqualifications of senior politicians, including Kurti himself, based on the same law, as well as an outcry within Kosovo's sizable diaspora over glitches in registration and the distribution of ballots.

The concern has been that it could all signal more than just growing pains for a fledgling European democracy of some 2 million people that's only about one-third the size of Belgium.

But Kosovars also do not appear to be overly bitter about the setbacks of frequent elections to replace battered coalitions.

"We don't believe them. We're so used to these promises," Elma Ejupi, an economics student in Pristina, tells RFE/RL of the pledges that accompany each election cycle. "They promised before new jobs, which never happened, especially not for young people. We should, however, vote and try to effect change."

Ahead of the Balkans' first election since the opposition in nearby Montenegro turned the tables on a party that had ruled for three decades, a recent study by the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) think tank said a majority of Kosovars still have faith that elections can bring change.

Kosovars were second only to Montenegrins in breaking out of what BiEPAG described as "the Balkans' collective action problem."

"The significantly higher trust in the electoral process in Montenegro, and partially also in Kosovo and in North Macedonia, after election results which confirmed that such change is possible, cannot be overstated," the BiEPAG authors said.

They said the "'changeability' of the government is an important precondition for democratization" in a tough region democratically.

But they added that such hope "must lead to the improvement of institutions' performance and their independence for it to have long-lasting positive effects."

With enduring faith that votes matter, turnout on February 14 could be high despite the recency of the last election.

That could boost the prospects for Kurti and his opposition allies, according to Bekim Baliqi, a professor of political science at the University of Pristina.

"All these controversies regarding diaspora voting, [the] Kurti exclusion, and so on may have countereffects -- they might increase mobilization of the opposition or provoke reaction to the undecided electorate to vote against ruling parties," Baliqi tells RFE/RL. "In this sense...the dissent among citizens about these government decisions and actions will only increase the legitimacy of the voting, perceiving it as a kind or referendum, as the opposition called it."

'All That's Left Is To Run Away'

"They lie. They work for themselves and no one works for the people," Nuhi Dili, a voter in Pristina, tells RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "In 21 years, the situation hasn't gotten better. Visa liberalization, nothing. Economy, the same.... I'll vote for those I've made up my mind on, but if they don't implement their promises, all that's left is to run away from Kosovo."

Kosovars, like many of their Balkan neighbors, have already shown a willingness to uproot themselves and set out for greener pastures if their governments continue to fail them.

Acting Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani (center) participates in an election rally on February 12.
Acting Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani (center) participates in an election rally on February 12.

The outflow of Kosovars has eased since its peak early last decade, but the best estimates still represent a 10 percent drop since independence in 2008.

"Kosovo's had so many elections and everybody considers every election to be a turning point," says Robert Austin, an East-Central and Southeastern Europe specialist at the University of Toronto. "And the problem with Kosovo is sometimes you reach a turning point and then nothing turns."

But it could be an "extremely important" election for Kosovo, he says, particularly if Kurti gets a chance to finish what he started as prime minister a little over a year ago.

If that happens, Austin says, "it could start a new era for Kosovo."

Dzihic suggests much the same thing.

"If everything runs smoothly now, and if you get significant change, that will be yet more exceptional proof of a continuing resilience and quality of Kosovo democracy," Dzihic says.

He sees some hope in the political ascendancies of Kurti and acting President Osmani, who has expressed support for Self-Determination and is herself expected to seek election in an indirect presidential election that hasn't been scheduled but should take place by early March.

"This tandem could be really something new or could initiate a kind of a new era for Kosovo, at least internally," Dzihic says.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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    RFE/RL's Balkan Service

    In 2019, RFE/RL's Balkan Service marked 25 years of reporting in one of the world’s most contested regions, championing professionalism and moderation in a media landscape that is sharply divided along ethnic and partisan lines.

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