Lately | Politics

Kosovo government falls in midst of COVID-19 crisis

LDK helps bring down its own coalition, despite citizen anger.

Kosovo’s government has been dismissed after the Assembly passed a motion of no confidence in it. 

The motion, submitted by junior coalition party Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), passed with 82 votes in favor and 32 against (with 1 abstention).

With the Constitution requiring a simple majority of Kosovo’s 120 deputies to support the motion, and with deputies in all opposition parties having voted for it, the backing of many LDK deputies proved decisive.

The move to dismiss the Vetëvendosje-LDK coalition government, which has only been in power for 52 days following elections last October, comes amidst the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis as governments around the world battle to contain the global pandemic.

During the marathon 12-hour extraordinary session, held despite the government ban on gatherings, deputies wore masks over their mouths and noses throughout, while journalists and other guests were banned in order to allow the deputies more space to retain a 1.5 meter distance between them. The unparalleled conditions were an effort to follow recommendations by the Institute for Public Health, whom the Assembly Presidency had asked if it was safe to hold the session.

The government has received local and international plaudits for its handling of the coronavirus response, while citizens, civil society actors and many foreign embassies had strongly urged politicians to continue focusing on the immediate challenges, not their own political maneuvers; the notable exception was the U.S., whose Ambassador to Kosovo tweeted on Tuesday night that he was “pleased” the no confidence vote was taking place. 

Ahead of the Assembly vote, citizens once again took to their balconies to hit pots and pans, continuing their now daily protests against politicians prioritizing their own political agendas rather than focusing on the containment of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the session, a few dozen protesters also broke their social isolation to take to the streets outside the Assembly building; being careful to maintain the required 2-meter distance from each other and with most people wearing masks, some held handmade signs declaring “Against the motion.”

However, divisions and power struggles have escalated over recent days, initiated by President Hashim Thaçi’s assertion that Kosovo should declare a State of Emergency, which would concentrate significant power in his hands.  

Speaking in the Assembly ahead of the vote, Prime Minister Albin Kurti said that his government was being brought down because Thaçi wants to sign a deal with Serbia based on land swap. This was a reference to Thaçi’s efforts to position himself at the center of the dialogue process, and the widely held analysis that the U.S. wants a quick deal — facilitated by Special Presidential Envoy on the Dialogue Richard Grenell — that can be branded as a foreign policy success ahead of presidential elections scheduled for November.

“With me as prime minister there is no agreement signed either at the White, Green or Red House for territorial swap,” Kurti said, during a fiery address.

Meanwhile, eight new COVID-19 cases were confirmed on Wednesday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 71; Monday saw a significant leap in numbers, as the Institute of Public Health confirmed 26 new cases following the testing of 100 contacts of people who had previously tested positive. 

Minister of Health Arben Vitia said on Wednesday evening that one of the patients who had previously tested positive for the virus, had now returned a negative result. “We also need a screening test and hopefully we will have the first COVID 19 patient cured in Kosovo,” he said.

Constitutional crisis

The dismissal of the government adds another layer of uncertainty for citizens — who have already seen their lives turned upside down by the COVID-19 measures — as it appears to bring about a constitutional crisis.

According to the Constitution, the successful vote of no confidence means the government is now considered dismissed. It also means “the Assembly may be dissolved by the President…” 

If the Assembly is dissolved, the Constitution states that elections must take place within 45 days. However, with extensive special measures — including a curfew and ban on public gatherings — currently in place to help contain COVID-19, it is unclear how this could happen in practice. 

For a State of Emergency to be enacted, the Constitution also requires the president to declare it “upon consultation with the Prime Minister,” and for it to receive the backing of two-thirds of Assembly deputies.

This is uncharted territory.

There have been some suggestions, including from lawyer and President of the Assembly Vjosa Osmani, that “constitutional provisions” enable the president to give the most voted party — in this case Vetëvendosje — another chance to form a government; Osmani said that if this fails, then the precedent has been for the country to go to new elections.

Article 95.5 of the Constitution says: “If the Prime Minister resigns or for any other reason the post becomes vacant, the Government ceases and the President of the Republic of Kosovo appoints a new candidate in consultation with the majority party or coalition that has won the majority in the Assembly to establish the Government.”

An extensive Constitutional Commentary, published in 2013 by two constitutional court judges, also appears to support the idea that the largest party should be given another chance to form a government:

“As the motion of no confidence in the government passes, the government loses all constitutional authority to exercise its powers, and ipso jure [by the law itself] goes into the new process of appointing the government, through the nomination of a candidate by the president of the republic,” it says.

However, this is uncharted territory.

Coalition cracks

The motion of no confidence in the government was submitted by the LDK Parliamentary Group on Friday, March 20, triggering a five day deadline for the vote to take place in the Assembly. 

The move came after Prime Minister Kurti did not meet LDK leader Isa Mustafa’s twin demands to reinstate his party’s vice president, Agim Veliu, as minister of internal affairs and public administration, and refused to immediately and unequivocally lift the 100% tariff on products coming from Serbia. 

Kurti fired Veliu on March 18 for issuing statements counter to the official government position on the COVID-19 pandemic response, after he spoke in support of President Thaçi’s proposal to declare a State of Emergency. The government has insisted that a State of Emergency — which would limit constitutional freedoms and give executive powers to the National Security Council, headed in these circumstances by the president — is not yet required, saying that the situation is being managed by the government.

The Prime Minister’s Office notice of Veliu’s dismissal says: “Through his statements made public, but not supported by his attitudes at internal meetings, the Minister of Internal Affairs and Public Administration, Mr. Veliu has demonstrated a significant lack of leadership and has undermined the work of the government, of which he is part of.”

Mustafa later wrote in a Facebook post: “[I expect Kurti] and those with whom he collaborated in this low act to apologize to him [Veliu] and to LDK for his actions.”

Responding to criticism that he had broken the coalition agreement by failing to call a meeting with the LDK leader before firing Veliu, Kurti said that he had informed Mustafa but did not have a meeting with him because a meeting would imply that he was willing to discuss it, whereas he had already made the decision.

Kosovo has come under sustained pressure from the U.S. to unconditionally remove the 100% tariff as Donald Trump’s administration has taken a much more engaged role in Kosovo-Serbia relations in recent months; at the beginning of March, Thaçi and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić were hosted in the White House, as part of Washington’s efforts to press hard for an “agreement” to be signed.

In a press conference on Friday, Mustafa said that he had written to Kurti to drop the 100% tariff on products from Serbia because “the friendship with the U.S. is at risk,” but that he hadn’t received a response.

Later that evening, Kurti announced that the government had decided to remove the 100% tariff on raw materials coming from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that by April 1 it would issue another decision to replace the tariff that remains on other products with “reciprocal measures.”

State of Emergency debate

Events have moved quickly in recent days.

During a weekend of uncertainty over whether LDK would continue with the motion it had submitted on Friday, and with the government saying that Kosovo was entering “crucial” weeks in its fight to limit the spread of COVID-19, Sunday afternoon marked the first death in Kosovo from the virus. 

Thaçi responded by re-raising the idea of imposing a State of Emergency, something he had already called for days earlier: “State institutions must be ready to declare a State of Emergency immediately if necessary,” he said in a Facebook post. 

On Monday, after 26 new cases were confirmed, the government took the decision to further restrict the movement and gathering of citizens. The latest measures prohibit the movement of citizens and private vehicles between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m., except for medical needs, production, supply and sale of essential goods and for services and activities related to pandemic management. 

No more than two persons can move together outside, and they must maintain a distance of 2 meters from others at all times. Meetings are prohibited in all settings — private and public, open and closed — except when necessary to carry out work tasks for the prevention and combating of the pandemic, and when a 2-meter distance is maintained.

“The government has taken a decision that comes as a result of the recommendations of experts in the field."

Furtuna Sheremeti, PM's legal adviser

That same night, President Thaçi called an extraordinary late night press conference, in which he labelled this decision as “unconstitutional” and told citizens that they were not obliged to respect it. He further said that neither the police nor the security authorities should enforce it because they would be committing a criminal offense, using the moment to once again call for a State of Emergency. 

The government has insisted that all measures introduced are within its competences. Kurti’s legal adviser, Furtuna Sheremeti, told that the decision was based on Article 55 of the Constitution on Limitations of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, and not on Article 56 (on State of Emergency) which is about “derogation” from rights and freedoms during a State of Emergency. 

“The government has taken a decision that comes as a result of the recommendations of experts in the field and it is a matter of a specific timeframe,” she said. “It is [also] in line with the Law on Infectious Disease Prevention.”

On Tuesday, Thaçi announced that he had submitted the government’s decision to the Constitutional Court and had requested an “interim measure,” and he called on Kurti to suspend the latest measures until the Court issued a decision.

Kurti responded on Wednesday in a Facebook post, saying: “we have requested the Constitutional Court to reject [Thaçi’s] request in relation to the imposition of interim measures,” as according to him, it didn’t fulfill the three conditions set out in the Rules of Procedure of the Constitutional Court: making a prima facie [accepted as correct until proved otherwise] case, proving that the execution of the decision causes irreparable harm, and proving that the interim measure requested from the Constitutional Court is in the public interest.

Democratic legitimacy in question 

Developments over recent days have also raised significant questions of democratic legitimacy. 

President Thaçi’s attempts to force a State of Emergency, against the wishes of the elected government, have been seen by some as tantamount to an attempted “coup,” particularly in light of Tuesday night’s press conference, in which he appeared to urge citizens to disobey restrictive measures introduced by the government as part of moves to combat COVID-19.  

“The president has declared himself the arbiter and final interpreter of the country’s constitution,” wrote publicist Veton Surroi in Koha Ditore. “He has thus called on the police and security authorities for insubordination, with the explanation that they would otherwise be committing a criminal offense. This is more than an infraction, it’s an attempt to overthrow the country’s constitutional system.”

The way in which the motion of no confidence has played out has also left many citizens feeling angry, disillusioned and uncertain about the future.

For many in Kosovo, the new coalition government, headed by Vetëvendosje — a party that had risen to top the polls having never previously held power — represented an opportunity for change and progress after years of stagnation; those parties who voted to bring down the recently elected coalition were all part of recent governments that have been surrounded by numerous corruption scandals.

“I urge all Members of Parliament not to support this motion, because it is neither timely nor will it produce Kosovo a government that has legitimacy.”

Vjosa Osmani, LDK (Tuesday, March 24)

Adding to questions over the legitimacy of the move to instigate a motion of no confidence is its lack of support from Vjosa Osmani, overwhelmingly the most popular LDK candidate in October’s elections, having been front and center of the party’s election campaign. 

The LDK prime ministerial candidate received the personal endorsement of 85% of the party’s 206,000 voters, and in securing 176,000 personal votes she received over 100,000 more votes than the next most voted LDK deputy candidate. Party leader Isa Mustafa and vice president Agim Veliu, who were central in initiating the vote of no confidence, did not stand as candidates.

Osmani told a press conference on Tuesday that she “absolutely [did] not” support the motion of no confidence. “I urge all Members of Parliament not to support this motion, because it is neither timely nor will it produce Kosovo a government that has legitimacy,” she said, adding that any new government that may be formed after the no-confidence vote would include parties with which the LDK has pledged not to enter into coalition. 

She was one of three LDK deputies to vote against the motion in the Assembly, having also been amongst a minority of senior figures to vote against tabling it in the first place during LDK’s presidency meeting last week. Several other LDK members had called on LDK and VV to find a common language at this difficult time and not to break up the coalition. 

Following Osmani’s press conference on Tuesday, Veliu used a T7 TV debate to call her appeal to vote down the motion of no confidence as “treason.” 

“Vjosa Osmani’s attitude is not something new in LDK — she has done this before,” he said. “If she continues to appeal against LDK decisions daily and to work with others against us, it makes no sense for her to stay in LDK.”

Questions have also been raised over Kurti’s decision to sack Agim Veliu so swiftly in the midst of a crisis situation. 

Kurti has been accused by critics in the past of failing to tolerate dissenting voices, while Veliu’s prominent position within LDK, and the already delicate nature of the coalition’s relationship after months of tense negotiations to come together in the first place, appeared to make this a particularly risky decision. 

Analyst Enver Robelli has argued that although Veliu has never hidden his view that the VV-LDK coalition was wrong, Kurti’s haste to fire him “is not harmless” and appears to be a calculation for his own party’s electoral interests.

U.S. out on its own

The current political situation in Kosovo has also exposed big divisions in trans-Atlantic foreign policies in the region.

On Tuesday, the QUINT embassies — Germany, France, Italy, the U.S. and UK — appeared united after releasing a statement urging political leaders “to preserve and ensure the integrity and functionality of Kosovo’s government and institutions at this critical moment and to prioritize the fight against COVID-19 in Kosovo over politics.”

The EU also released a statement calling for unity: “We call on all institutional leaders to work together, in full adherence to Kosovo’s constitution and to put all their energy and efforts towards fighting the pandemic and keeping Kosovo people safe. This is not the time for political or institutional antagonisms, this is the time for political unity.”

The European Parliament’s rapporteur for Kosovo, Viola von Cramon-Taubadel, said that the situation should not be used “to any individual politician’s advantage.” 

“Kosovo needs a stable government that can lead its citizens through these times of uncertainty and crisis. Respecting the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue is vital to the future of the whole Western Balkan region and the EU and it must be the government of Kosovo sitting round the negotiating table, not other actors,” she tweeted, referencing the divide between Kosovo’s government and Thaçi over who should be representing Kosovo in the dialogue with Serbia. 

Adding to the pressure, the ambassadors of France and Germany in Kosovo issued a joint demarche calling on LDK to renounce the motion of no-confidence against the government.

However, on Tuesday evening U.S. Ambassador Philip Kosnett broke with the apparent unity by tweeting that he was “pleased” to see that the Assembly would hold the no-confidence vote. “As I told the PM today, it is important for the Assembly and all Kosovo institutions to respect the Constitution,” read the tweet, which was immediately retweeted by the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy Richard Grenell. 

Von Cramon-Taubadel responded by asking Kosnett how he, as an ambassador, could be pleased to see a functional government “tumbling” in the pandemic. She continued: “Unbelievable. Irresponsible. I feel terribly sorry for the citizens of Kosovo. They don’t deserve this.”K

Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0 (from archive).