Less than a year after the fall of the Kosovo government led by left-wing reformist party Vetëvendosje (“Self-Determination”), the same party has returned to power. Following a landslide victory in the parliamentary election last Sunday, Vetëvendosje is set to form a government with a markedly stronger mandate than the first time around. The election outcome marks a power shift from an old political elite to a younger generation of politicians with a progressive vision, a positive development in the Western Balkans. Moreover, it signals that it is time for the EU and US to set a new direction for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.
A Referendum on the Past 20 Years
Vetëvendosje won around 48 percent of the votes in the election held last Sunday. The result is almost double the party’s last electoral showing in the fall of 2019. In his victory speech Vetëvendosje leader, and soon to be prime minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti stated that the election was a “referendum on justice, work against state capture and corruption,” which Vetëvendosje won. It is hard to argue against that. The electorate turned its back on the two traditional parties of government, PDK and LDK, which received their lowest combined share of the vote ever (17 and 13 percent respectively).
Instead, the voters embraced the left-wing reformist platform represented by the coalition between Kurti’s Vetëvendosje and independent candidate Vjosa Osmani, who is slated to become Kosovo’s second woman president. The platform promises to tackle corruption, create jobs, and reform the economy, based on a model which is akin to the economic models of Northern Europe’s social democracies. This has resonated with younger generations and the diaspora community, which voted in record numbers. Kosovo is one of Europe’s poorest countries, with around 50 percent of its people under the age of 25. The youth is disproportionately affected by the unemployment rate which is around 30 percent.
Critique of International Actors
However, Vetëvendoje’s rise to the top cannot be explained by domestic factors alone. The party started out as a student movement in the mid-2000s campaigning for the right to self-determination for Kosovo’s people. It was vehemently opposed to international actors’ practices in Kosovo. Vetëvendosje believed that international missions in Kosovo (UNMIK and EULEX) exhibited neo-colonial tendencies, and that Kosovo had gone from being a province of Serbia before the war to becoming a permanent “international protectorate” after the war. Since entering parliament in 2011, the party has been a loud oppositional voice. It has been strongly opposed to EU-brokered agreements, believed to be harmful to Kosovo’s sovereignty, including the Association of Serb Municipalities and the Kosovo-Montenegro border demarcation.
Growing Public Dissatisfaction
The growing dissatisfaction of the Kosovo public with the EU-led Kosovo-Serbia dialogue has worked in Vetëvendosje’s favor, while the traditional political power players in Pristina have lost ground. The prevailing sentiment is that the dialogue has become a never-ending cycle of “negotiation for the sake of negotiating” because the EU has not put the fundamental issues of contention at the center of the dialogue. The dialogue has thus far focused on “technical issues” but not addressed the status of Kosovo and mutual recognition, explained by the fact that five EU member states have yet to recognize Kosovo’s independence. Furthermore, there is a sentiment that the dialogue has been skewed in favor of Serbia. This is due to the EU not sufficiently addressing Serbia’s democratic backsliding in recent years, which is at odds with Belgrade’s professed EU ambitions.
This sentiment was reinforced when the Trump administration got involved in the dialogue last year, for the sake of scoring a foreign policy deal ahead of the US election. The administration orchestrated the toppling of Kosovo’s Vetëvendosje-led government and Kurti, who was believed to stand in the way of a deal. In September, two separate deals between the US and the two parties were signed in Washington. They were skewed in favor of Serbia, had few binding stipulations, and contradicted EU policies. The outcome of the election suggests that the Trump administration only boosted Kurti and Vetëvendosje’s popularity.
The Way Forward
The EU and the US should pay careful attention to the message sent from Kosovo last Sunday. Firstly, the election was deemed free and fair by internationals and saw the opposition win, an antithesis to the parliamentary election in Serbia last year. The election result has potential for democratic reverberations in the rest of the Western Balkans, a region in need of political figures that abide by democratic values and offset autocratic tendencies. The EU and the US should embrace and support democratic developments in Kosovo because they hold positive promises for the wider region.
Secondly, the outcome of the election shows that there is a strong desire to change the direction of the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue. Kurti has stated that the dialogue with Serbia will not be a priority of the new government, a clear signal to the EU and US that he is not interested in continuing the dialogue in the direction it has been going for the past decade. Kurti is expected to seek a reframing of the dialogue, where mutual recognition becomes a precondition for new rounds of negotiations with Belgrade, not a potential end result. Statements made by the Biden administration suggest that the US will reengage pushing for a comprehensive agreement centered around mutual recognition. The US should seek to coordinate its efforts with the EU to reset the dialogue to center around mutual recognition, and address post-war issues that have yet to be resolved, including the status of missing persons, war reparations, and compensation for victims of wartime sexual abuse.