The leader of the left-wing opposition party claiming a surprise victory in Kosovo's parliamentary elections has pledged to start coalition talks to end the dominance of parties led by former independence fighters and turn a corner in Europe's newest state.
Onetime student leader Albin Kurti, of the upstart Self-Determination (Vetevendosje) party, vowed to turn to the second-place finishers, the center-right Democratic League (LDK) and their prime ministerial candidate Vjosa Osmani, to form a government.
Their parties appeared to take home more than 50 percent of the vote in the October 6 elections based on pledges to break a logjam of corruption and inequality among Kosovo's 1.9 million people and boost the still partially recognized Balkan country's international standing.
Outsiders are waiting to see if a government can muster a clear mandate to rejoin Western-mediated talks to normalize relations with neighboring Serbia, suggesting it could send a potentially stabilizing signal to the rest of the region.
But while Kosovo's voters appear to have run out of patience with the men who took up arms for independence in the 1990s, the way forward in Pristina could get more complicated still.
Maybe Kosovars Just Aren't That Into Former Guerrilla Leaders Anymore
Voters appear to have blamed many of the country's most stubborn problems on the tight grip on the government of ex-guerrilla fighters for independence from Serbia and their parties, most notably the long-ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK).
The PDK, which emerged from the demilitarized Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), has led each of the coalition governments that emerged from the three previous elections since the country gained independence in 2008.
None of those governments lasted a full four years in office.
These elections were prompted by the summons from The Hague that outgoing Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj received to answer questions about his wartime past, when he fought for the UCK against Serbian forces.
But any calculation that his standing among Kosovars as a former liberator would boost his election hopes looked to be dashed. His "100-Percent Kosovo Coalition" garnered nearly 12 percent in the October 6 vote.
Meanwhile, the PDK, the party seen to be associated most closely with former fighters in government -- including President Hashim Thaci -- found itself in third place. The PDK looks bound for around 21 percent of the vote, its worst-ever showing in national elections and down by more than one-third from attaining nearly 34 percent in 2017.
Most of the other major ethnic Albanian parties -- some of whom had previously partnered with the PDK in government -- rejected the idea of doing so again ahead of this vote.
Even one of the perceived winners of the elections, the conservative Democratic League, which governed with the PDK until 2017, might have been dented by its association with the ancien régime of ex-rebels.
Moreover, the Democratic League's prime ministerial candidate, U.S.-educated Osmani, campaigned in part on a portrayal of her as a successor to Kosovar independence icon Ibrahim Rugova, the country's first president.
But despite her newcomer appeal and pleas for a "transformative" vote for "the institutions of Kosovo...[and] society as a whole," Osmani's party failed to gain from voters' exodus toward new faces, falling below 25 percent support for the first time since 2010.
However, the Democratic League's performance (24.9 percent) was good enough to get it and Self-Determination (25.6 percent) a combined majority of the vote.
The shift was particularly apparent in the capital, which accounted for over 53 percent of the total vote, according to the Central Election Commission.
Self-Determination won 37 percent and the Democratic League 32.5 percent of the vote there, each more than doubling the support for the third-place PDK, which got 15 percent of Pristina's vote.
Kosovars Want Respectability And Change, And They Want It Now
While the rest of the world awaits a verdict on the talks with Serbia, the opposition victory appeared to reflect dissatisfaction among Kosovars who've felt left out of the country's notably steady economic growth of the past decade.
Independent Kosovo started off disadvantaged compared to many of its Balkan neighbors.
And while it "has outperformed its neighbors and been largely inclusive" -- it is one of just four European countries to have grown its economy every year since 2008 -- youth and women's unemployment remain high and Kosovo is still plagued by "infrastructure bottlenecks," according to the World Bank. Outmigration continues to be a problem, with remittances fueling a good portion of that economic growth.
But as Europe's youngest population with an average age of 29, it remains poor with persistent joblessness of around 25 percent (and nearly 50 percent youth unemployment).
Domestic challenges like the fight against rampant corruption and nepotism, investment in the health and education sectors, and job creation were seemingly prominent in voters' minds.
As a result, at home and abroad -- hundreds of thousands of Kosovar nationals reside elsewhere -- the outcome was widely seen as a determined cry for change.
"These [corruption and economic] issues, in essence, are demanded to a far greater degree by citizens than the dialogue process with Serbia," Arton Demhasaj, whose NGO, Cohu (Wake Up), works to expose official corruption in Kosovo, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
Kurti has vowed under his government to target five key areas: rule of law, economic development, the education and health sectors, and social issues.
Osmani has ticked off equality in the workplace as a priority and investment in education not "asphalt."
"The strongest party now is a party that has no experience in governing the country," said Toby Vogel, a writer on Southeast European issues and senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council. "I think that is a reflection of the fact that Kosovars are deeply unhappy...and they're ready for something new and they're ready to give a mandate -- perhaps not an overwhelming mandate but a mandate nevertheless -- to an untested party to form the government."
Kosovo's Democracy Got A Shot In The Arm
Kosovo is still battling for international recognition in some quarters -- more than 110 states recognize its sovereignty but notable holdouts include Russia, China, and Spain along with four other EU states – and it lies in a region where democratic and transparent government institutions are young.
The 44 percent turnout for the parliamentary elections may seem lackluster, but it marks an increase from 41 percent in the previous inconclusive elections of 2017.
And even the outgoing officials have appeared eager to confirm the legitimacy of this election process.
The PDK and other former ruling parties were quick to concede -- even with the race still tight at the top -- seemingly paving the way to the country's first major transition of power.
"We didn't win," PDK leader Kadri Veseli said late on October 6, with around 75 percent of the votes counted.
"In many ways, this was a model election, which is not always the case in the Western Balkans," Vogel said.
Tens of thousands of independent monitors were on hand for the voting, with no reports of major violations.
More than 42,000 Kosovar voters abroad registered for the election, the Central Election Commission said before the vote, or around twice the number that tried to vote two years ago.
Krenar Gashi, a researcher and doctoral fellow at the Center for EU Studies at Ghent University, called it the "first true transition of power" and "a major step in democratic consolidation" for Kosovo.
Coalition Math Might Be Less Clear-Cut Than It Seems
Despite apparently combining for nearly 51 percent of the vote, the Self-Determination and Democratic League parties alone won't hold a majority in Kosovo's 120-seat Assembly.
So, they would still need support from one or more smaller parties.
That has been something of a formality in the past.
Many of the 20 seats set aside for ethnic minorities -- 10 for Serbs and 10 for groups including Bosniaks, Roma, and ethnic Turks -- have traditionally joined Kosovo's governing coalitions, extracting relatively minor concessions -- a minister's seat here, a few deputy ministers' posts there.
But political sweeteners in the form of runaway ranks of government appear to have taken a toll on Kosovars, and it is still unclear who might form the junior element of any Self-Determination/Democratic League coalition.
Moreover, both Kurti and Osmani are novices at the job of forming and running a government.
"They are very different," said Vogel. "It's an untested alliance. It's ideologically awkward. But I think what brings them together, obviously, is their opposition to the PDK and to PDK rule. And in that sense I think both [Self-Determination] and the LDK are seeking to break with the type of politics that harks back to the days of armed resistance against Serbian oppression."
Talks With Serbia Might Be Back On The Agenda, But They Could Also Be Even More Complicated
Kurti and Osmani have signaled a willingness to at least suspend the 100-percent tariffs on Serbian and Bosnian goods that derailed the EU-mediated talks with Belgrade last year.
That could pave the way to talks that could eventually lead to UN membership for Kosovo, since Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has suggested negotiations could begin once the tariffs are gone.
"The main challenge [for the new government] will be the dialogue with Serbia and reaching an agreement that would end with mutual recognition and pave the way for Kosovo to join the UN and then continue other integration processes, such as integration in the European Union and NATO," said Cohu's Demhasaj.
But Kurti and Osmani have stressed the need for "reciprocity" in relations with Serbia, which means new obstacles could arise in the meantime.
"The dialogue will not be about what Kosovo will give to Serbia in exchange for the recognition, but what Serbia owes Kosovo," Kurti has said, according to the dpa news agency.
Kurti has advocated in the past for unification with Albania and has a long history of touting Albanian culture and ethnicity -- he routinely wears the Albanian state symbol on his lapel -- although he has remained mostly silent in recent years on the topic.
The Serbian and Kosovar presidents, Vucic and Thaci, have publicly led much of the talk of how and when to restart talks since they were interrupted following Pristina's imposition of the tariffs against Serbian goods last year.
That has included their talk of a "territorial adjustment" or "land swap" between the neighbors -- suggestions that Kurti bristled at during his campaign.
It is a plan that many observers see as having considerable support among U.S. officials who have traditionally been among Kosovo's major backers.
The Trump administration appeared to tack in its efforts to get Kosovo and Serbia back to the negotiating table in the days ahead of the election, saying it was appointing U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell as a special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo peace negotiations.
That announcement followed the State Department's appointment in August of U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Palmer as a special representative to the region, muddying outsiders' expectations of where Washington hopes to lead such a dialogue.
"So I think we're going to see a whole new dynamic in the dialogue," said Vogel. "Whether this is going to be complete stalemate [or] whether there are going to be avenues opening up that we can't even think of right now, that is of course very hard to tell."