In-depth | Elections2021

Elections 2021: Week 3 — What did I miss?

From colorful language to diaspora dilemmas, all in one place.

Following the news every day can be exhausting at the best of times, even when there isn’t a pandemic playing havoc with our lives. 

So as we approach yet another round of elections, we don’t blame you if you feel like switching all phone notifications off, shutting down your laptop and avoiding the 24/7 news headlines like… well, the plague.

But while it might all be a bit too much to follow along in real time with the familiar rollercoaster of promises, debates and scandals, it doesn’t mean you don’t want to stay informed. 

That’s why, each week until election day on February 14, we’re bringing you the “highlights” (and “lowlights”) of the past seven days. 

With the official election campaign having finally started on Wednesday (February 3) — after weeks of unofficial campaigning — election fever stepped up a notch this week…

Surprise, surprise…?

This year’s election campaign had almost been heading toward an actual surprise: No promises on visa liberalization.

After several false alarms — and even one tragicomic declaration in 2018 by then-Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj that “liberalization happened the day before yesterday” — it appeared that this year politicians had finally decided to retire what has easily been the “most popular promise” of campaigns past.

But on Thursday (February 4), the allure of it proved too strong for acting prime minister and LDK prime ministerial candidate Avdullah Hoti. Speaking in gatherings in Istog and Peja he announced: “In 2021 we will conclude visa liberalization, because the governments of many EU countries trust us.”

Meanwhile, not all parties’ prime ministerial candidates are as clear-cut as might be expected given that the official campaign is underway. In the final brochure containing the list of candidates published by the Central Election Commission (CEC) on Wednesday, Vetëvendosje’s list starts with the number two candidate, Vjosa Osmani. This follows an intense dispute between Vetëvendosje (VV) and the CEC, which ended with Albin Kurti being deleted from the number one spot due to a recent criminal conviction. 

On January 29 VV said they would not appeal to the Constitutional Court following last week’s Supreme Court decision that barred Kurti from running. Despite his omission, Kurti has continued to insist that his party will “still have 110 candidates on the list,” referring to the number of candidates — which included him — on the original list submitted by VV to the CEC.  

Get with the program

VV this week became the last of the major parties to present its electoral program, although it has yet to publish a written version. On Tuesday, the night before this election’s campaign official start, VV’s leader Albin Kurti introduced the candidates running for deputies after he presented his party’s priorities.

He said the first order of business for his government would be the pandemic, starting with the vaccination of over 60% of the population by the end of the year, securing sufficient medicines and tests, training staff and communication with citizens. He also mentioned cooperation with countries from the region, especially Albania, to counteract the pandemic. 

Kurti further talked about the economic measures his government would undertake, focusing on support to women entrepreneurs, youth, agricultural businesses, and the protection of workers’ rights. He promised his government would raise the minimum wage to 250 euros for 40 hours of work a week, and that it would be exempt from taxes. 

“Within the first 100 days, we will lift the diplomatic moratorium of the Hoti Government.”

Memli Krasniqi, PDK

His LDK rival, Avdullah Hoti, offered a more generous promise; as with PDK’s prime ministerial candidate Enver Hoxhaj, he pledged a minimum wage of 300 euros, “regardless of age.”

Hoxhaj and Memli Krasniqi this week presented the foreign policy and Kosovo image “recovery” section of PDK’s electoral program. Perhaps most eye-catching was the promise to lift the one year moratorium on applying for membership of international organizations that was part of the September 2020 agreement signed by then Prime Minister Hoti in Washington.

“Within the first 100 days, we will lift the diplomatic moratorium of the Hoti Government,” Krasniqi said on Sunday. “Within the first 100 days we will reorganize the state platform for reconfiguring diplomatic relations with countries with which diplomatic relationships have been hurt by the incompetence of the Kurti and Hoti governments, and we will reorganize our approach to new recognitions, not just as a formality but also as content.”

Hoxhaj served as deputy prime minister between 2017 and 2019 in the coalition government led by AAK’s Ramush Haradinaj. Shortly after the Haradinaj-led coalition took office, the first “derecognition” of Kosovo was reported, and 15 are reported to have taken place in total since Serbia started its campaign encouraging countries to withdraw their recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Belgrade agreed to pause its “derecognition” campaign as part of the same bullet point of the agreement in which Kosovo agreed to pause seeking membership of international organizations. 

AAK’s list carrier and presidential aspirant Haradinaj hasn’t presented anything new in terms of electoral promises since publishing his party’s program several weeks ago, but he has re-emphasized earlier statements on his party’s priority to join NATO. 

In a Euronews Albania debate on Wednesday, Haradinaj said he “was sending a message” to Serbia and all others who want to block Kosovo that their efforts will be counterproductive. “If Kosovo is not in NATO’s doors, we will unite with Albania,” he said, repeating a hardball ultimatum that he first mentioned — seemingly out of the blue — two weeks ago.

Too good to be true?

Hoxhaj has a lot to live up to when it comes to big election promises. Ahead of the 2017 election his predecessor as PDK prime ministerial candidate, Kadri Veseli, promised voters Kosovo would become the “Switzerland of the Balkans” in terms of its economy, while in 2014 Hashim Thaçi famously promised to create 200,000 new jobs.

Speaking on a visit to the village of Suhodoll — just north of the River Ibër on the outskirts of Mitrovica — Hoxhaj told supporters on Wednesday (February 3) that PDK plans to rebuild every house in the north of the country.

“For Albanian families currently living in the north or who want to return to their properties, [PDK’s] recovery [program] will also share funds for home rebuilding, agriculture development, employment and creation of small enterprises as family businesses,” Hoxhaj wrote in a Facebook post. “We are continuing what was started by Hashim Thaçi, Bajram Rexhepi and Ali Kadriu, with the support of Kadri Veseli. Every house will be rebuilt in the north.”

Kosovo governments have long struggled to implement policies in the Serb-majority north of the country, which still largely operates within Belgrade’s parallel structures. 

The issue of house-building is a particularly sensitive topic, with political figures in both Kosovo and Serbia accusing each other of trying to manipulate the ethnic make-up of the area for political gain. Local citizens have previously accused political leaders of using the issue for “political games” to secure votes ahead of elections and of ignoring their issues away from election cycles.

They said WHAT?

In the hard-fought war of words in this election campaign, not even famous landmarks in faraway places are out of bounds. 

“We could not allow the White House to be called yellow or red,” Avdullah Hoti stated as he kicked off LDK’s official election campaign in Podujeva.

Hoti was defending his party’s decision to initiate a no-confidence vote in its own coalition partner, VV, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring in a move that LDK has framed as protecting Kosovo’s special friendship with the U.S. 

His colorful language was a reference to Albin Kurti’s “there is no agreement signed either at the White, Green or Red House,” speech on the day of the no-confidence vote as the then prime minister firmly rejected the idea of potential “territorial exchange” with him as prime minister. Many people at the time assumed that a long rumored land swap deal with Serbia — first introduced by then-President Hashim Thaçi and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić — could be part of an upcoming agreement that was being heavily pushed by the Trump administration, and Kurti alleged that this was the real reason behind his government’s dismissal.

“Everyone has the right to move around the four corners of Kosovo, but it should not be used at any time for campaigning and to show things that do not stand.”

Avdullah Hoti, LDK

This week, Kurti and Vjosa Osmani visited North Mitrovica — a Serb-majority municipality that many have speculated would be part of any land swap agreement. In videos published on social media, the two can be seen being met by dozens of people chanting “This is Serbia” and using ethnic slurs and offensive language as they walk along a street.

Hoti later commented on his political rivals’ encounter with cryptic words: 

“With some causes and issues, we must leave them out of the election campaign; it is the territory of Kosovo without any doubt and is not contested in any form,” he said. “Everyone has the right to move around the four corners of Kosovo, but it should not be used at any time for campaigning and to show things that do not stand and do not exist.”

Hoxhaj also issued his own comments about the incident, appearing to mock both Kurti and Osmani, who as president of the Assembly — and as per the Constitution — became acting president of Kosovo following Hashim Thaçi’s resignation in November. 

“Imagine the acting president, who hurried one hour after Hashim Thaçi left [office, and] yesterday rushed toward the north for a handful of votes together with the famous [former] prime minister [Kurti],” he said. “Fifteen Serb children came out and stopped the acting president’s convoy, stopped the former prime minister.”

“The attempt to present Skenderaj as a dangerous area is longstanding.”

PDK's Skenderaj branch

This wasn’t the only instance this week where Kurti was met with unwelcoming chants. As he walked through the town square of Skenderaj — a long-time PDK bastion — on Monday, a group of people threw eggs and stones at him, chanting “Thaçi,” “KLA,” and “Go back to Serbia.”

PDK later issued a statement asking why Kurti had been accompanied by special units of the Kosovo Police, when he hadn’t had such protection in North Mitrovica. “The attempt to present Skenderaj as a dangerous area is longstanding,” the reaction read. “They [Skenderaj citizens] will not today or ever fall prey to low provocations from anyone.”

Kurti later denied that the police had been special units, saying it was the same police presence that had accompanied him elsewhere in the pre-election period.

Diaspora calling

The saga for diaspora voters rumbled on this week as the new voter registration process for voters outside Kosovo — which included verification phone calls for the first time — appeared to have wreaked havoc with the Central Election Commission’s (CEC) preparations. 

According to the CEC’s reported operational plan, voter registration procedures were due to have been completed last Wednesday (January 27). But almost a week later the Commission announced that around 19,000 applicants had still not been contacted and more than 17,000 had not picked up the phone. 

On Tuesday, the CEC approved the voters list for the election, including 102,100 voters outside Kosovo — a new record and almost three times as many as the previous record number of 35,087 diaspora voters who successfully registered for the 2019 elections. 

The CEC also decided that it would continue attempting to contact the remaining 36,000 applicants who had yet to be reached by phone; if they cannot be reached by Saturday (February 6), any ballot packages received from these applicants will not be verified.

Members of the diaspora have for weeks been taking to social media to express their frustration and confusion with the process amidst a lack of timely and clear information from the CEC. 

This was added to on Wednesday afternoon, when the Elections Complaints and Appeals Panel (ECAP) published an announcement highlighting that anybody outside Kosovo wishing to appeal their exclusion from the voters list must do so by post, not email. However, the deadline for sending appeals was 18:00 that same afternoon (with the date of posting taken as the relevant date).

ECAP subsequently went back on its decision to only consider posted appeals, announcing on Friday that out of “goodwill” it had decided to consider 281 complaints received via email by the deadline; of these it said it had accepted 144 and was instructing the CEC to add those names to the voters list.*

In the meantime, the official voting period for voters outside of Kosovo opened on Tuesday morning, but the ballot paper and brochure containing the list of candidates had still not been approved or made publicly available by the CEC. 

By the time they were officially approved and published on the CEC’s website later on Tuesday afternoon, diaspora members and politicians were voicing their frustrations that postal voters had effectively lost a day in which to submit their ballots in what was already a very tight window. 

Many diaspora voters have reported paying dozens of euros in express delivery fees in an attempt to ensure their ballots are counted, but with the global disruption to postal services caused by the COVID-19 pandemic added to Kosovo’s notoriously unreliable postal system, there is still no guarantee they will arrive before the February 12 deadline.

Government watch

The Students’ Parliament of the University of Prishtina announced on Wednesday that acting Prime Minister Hoti had agreed to fulfil all of the requests made by the Students’ Parliament’s Conference last week. 

These included a return to physically attending courses from next semester, releasing all bachelor’s students from university fees and halving master’s and PhD student fees. It also said that students from the Presheva Valley — three majority Albanian municipalities in Serbia — will not pay for semesters in their first year of studies.

On Thursday it was revealed that former LDK deputy candidate Valbon Krasniqi had won the race to become director of the public health institution ShKSUK.

The Students’ Parliament’s Facebook post read that official decisions from the Ministry of Education and the government would follow, while the University of Prishtina said it had not received anything official in this regard and that it would continue to implement the decisions in force until it receives different information from the competent authorities. 

Separately, on Thursday it was revealed that former LDK deputy candidate Valbon Krasniqi had won the race to become director of the public health institution University Clinical Hospital Service of Kosovo (ShKSUK). Krasniqi initially failed to make the short list after being assessed as lacking the required managerial experience for the role, but he found his way back into contention last week after an apparent reassessment.

ShKSUK’s board refused BIRN’s request to monitor the competition, reportedly issuing its refusal 20 minutes after the written test for candidates had started, when the BIRN monitor had already arrived at the room where the test was being held.

Responding to BIRN’s complaint, acting prime minister Hoti said: “It does not stand that a public institution acts in violation of the law. If someone works in violation of the law, legal procedures should be followed in that regard, but they [ShKSUK’s board] are independent in their work.”

He urged BIRN to “follow the legal procedures,” adding: “You have the right to access all documents; ask for access, according to the law, within seven days all institutions are obliged to allow you access.”

Pandemic watch 

The National Institute of Public Health issued a call on Sunday for a tightening of COVID-19 restrictions, including a strict ban on gatherings. The call followed confirmation that the new “UK strain” of the virus — which scientists believe could be up to 70% more transmissible than the original strain — has been detected in Kosovo. 

Despite the stark warnings, Kosovo’s political parties have continued to completely ignore restrictive measures that are intended to slow the spread of the virus. As the official campaign got underway this week, all of the major political parties have been regularly pictured holding large rallies, often indoors, with no physical distancing and often no masks.

Before the official election campaign even got underway, a picture emerged of a mass PDK rally in Ferizaj on Monday with hundreds of people packed together inside, where the virus spreads more easily. The following day PDK was fined for breaching COVID-19 regulations by the Municipality of Prizren, in what is believed to be the first COVID-related fine issued to a political party outside of Prishtina.

Minister of Health Armend Zemaj has posted pictures of himself apparently breaching COVID-19 rules at an LDK election rally for the second time in successive weeks.

AAK and Nisma have also received more fines this week for holding mass indoor events with more than the 30 permitted participants, while VV has received fines for large outdoor events with more than 50 people. 

Minister of Health Armend Zemaj — who regularly urges citizens to respect COVID restrictions — has also posted pictures of himself apparently breaching the rules at an LDK election rally for the second time in successive weeks.

Meanwhile, an international vaccine distribution forecast published this week indicated that Kosovo could receive its first COVID-19 vaccines by the end of February. The report by the GAVI-COVAX alliance revealed that Kosovo has been allocated 100,800 AstraZeneca vaccine doses this year by the global scheme aimed at ensuring a fair global distribution. 

Since individuals require two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, this would be enough to vaccinate 50,400 people — approximately 3% of Kosovo’s population — with priority expected to be given to the most vulnerable citizens such as frontline health care workers. 

The official number of new COVID-19 cases appeared to plateau this week at an average of around 300 per day, although the number of cases reported as “active” continued to grow; the National Institute of Public Health reported around 6,700 active cases on Friday, up from around 6,200 at the same point last week.

The number of deaths officially attributed to COVID-19 dropped slightly this week — 32 deaths were reported in the past 7 days (since Saturday, January 30), slightly less than the 40 deaths reported in the same period last week.K

Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.

* Editor’s note (05.02.21): The information on ECAP’s decision to ultimately allow emailed appeals was added to the article after it was originally published.