In-depth | Democracy

Looking back on Kosovo’s ‘government of hope’

Did we get a glimpse of a better future?

By - 17.06.2020

On the evening of October 6, 2019, Albin Kurti led a triumphant march from his party’s headquarters toward Skanderbeg Square in the heart of Prishtina.

Almost a decade of uncompromising opposition and protests against the older parties that had been in government since Kosovo gained first liberty and then independence had catapulted Vetëvendosje (VV) to the top of the general election polls with more than 26% of the votes. The left-aligning movement had risen meteorically from those who voiced their discontent on the streets and had only entered parliamentary politics for the first time less than a decade earlier.

The square packed with supporters who cheered as Kurti gave one of his most awaited speeches, filled with distinctive remarks and wordplay that have served him well on his own journey from student protester in the ’90s to the most popular politician in Kosovo.

Albin Kurti led Vetëvendosje to the top of the polls in the October 2019 elections after promising a clean break from the tainted governments of the past. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

To anyone who understood the weight of the events, it seemed that VV was about to kick off a long period in power after years of criticizing the widespread corruption of prior administrations from the outside. For both natural sympathizers and those more warily prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone who had yet to violate their trust, it was widely agreed that this moment marked a turning point in Kosovo’s recent history.

While no one expected Kurti’s governance to pass unchallenged, few believed that his party’s coalition with second-placed Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) would last a mere 52 days. 

On March 25, with the country on strict lockdown and the government battling to prevent the global COVID-19 pandemic from overwhelming Kosovo’s fragile health care system, the “government of hope” was brought down by a motion of no-confidence, instigated by its own junior partner.

Some critics suggested Kurti had been naive and arrogant in his handling of delicate topics and that he was at least partly responsible for the government’s quick demise. Others believe the administration he headed was the collateral damage of a captured state.

It would remain in office — now as an acting-government — for a further 70 days, before familiar faces clubbed together to form a new government of their own in highly contested circumstances, . 

After the Kurti-led coalition spent a little over a hundred days in office, all told, K2.0 looks back on the most anticipated and short-lived government in Kosovo’s history.

A qualified cabinet

After months of at times labored and tumultuous negotiations, which threatened to break down on a number of occasions, on February 3 — almost four months after elections — the much anticipated coalition government was finally confirmed

The slimmed-down cabinet, with six ministers from VV, six from LDK and three from minority community parties, looked very different from any cabinet in Kosovo’s past, and not only because it contained a higher percentage of women than ever before.

Analysts say that in terms of ministers’ backgrounds, the cabinet formed by the VV-LDK coalition was the most qualified in Kosovo’s history. Photo: Office of the Prime Minister.

Westminster Foundation for Democracy politics expert Albert Krasniqi says that with the names chosen for ministers, this cabinet raised the bar and established a higher standard for future governments by relying on people without links to past corruption.

“In general, neither VV or LDK [alone] could come up with a better cabinet composition when it comes to the qualifications of ministers,” Krasniqi says.

In early 2018, VV had experienced an acrimonious split when a number of important figures within the movement dramatically left, accusing Kurti of installing authoritarian practices and cultivating a “cult of personality” for himself and the party.

Krasniqi thinks that those events left an impression on the party’s ranks and influenced the selection of government ministers two years later. He points to the appointments of ministers such as Rozeta Hajdari and Blerim Reka, who were not party members but were given opportunities to fill the gaps left by the departure of a number of figures that had been touted as future ministers.

Their appointments in particular have often been seen as an indication that commitment and professionalism were important factors in the process for selecting ministers.

Donika Emini says that the composition of the VV-LDK cabinet was “incomparable” to anything that had gone before in Kosovo.

Reka, chosen to lead Kosovo’s Ministry of European Integration, had broad experience in academia and diplomacy and had previously served as North Macedonia’s ambassador in Brussels. In April 2019, VV had endorsed his efforts to become president of North Macedonia in the presidential election.

Hajdari’s appointment to lead the Ministry of Economy, Employment, Trade, Industry, Entrepreneurship and Strategic Investment — a new “superministry” that fused together six major departments — caught many by surprise. Educated in Sweden and with a background working in the private sector and cooperating with foreign organizations focusing on education development, Hajdari was seen as a purely technocratic selection.

Donika Emini, political expert and head of NGO network, Civikos, agrees with Krasniqi that the nature of the cabinet appointments marked a significant departure from past administrations. She says that the composition of the VV-LDK cabinet was “incomparable” to anything that had gone before in Kosovo.

“In past governments, the ministers’ seats were reserved for the most powerful figures in their parties without taking into account the level of professionalism and competence,” she says.

Other ministers were also selected based on their previous experience. The position of minister of health was given to Arben Vitia, who had received plaudits during his time heading the Municipality of Prishtina’s Department of Health during Shpend Ahmeti’s first term as mayor of the capital. 

Responsibility for the Ministry of Finance and Transfers was handed to Besnik Bislimi, who holds a PhD in Macroeconomics from a German university and has built a reputation as a respected university professor in Prishtina.

And the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment was headed up by Lumir Abdixhiku, who holds a PhD in economics from a UK university and significant experience in the field in Kosovo after leading the Riinvest Institute think tank for years.

But while many of the appointments were applauded, others raised eyebrows.

Haki Abazi’s appointment as deputy prime minister was unexpected for many, having only joined VV in the summer of 2019, just months before the elections. He was known for his connections abroad after a long career working with the Rockefeller Foundation and various civil society organizations in Kosovo.

The most controversial cabinet selection however, was that of Agim Veliu, ex-mayor of LDK “bastion” Podujeva and one of the most influential figures within LDK’s “old guard.” He openly opposed the political positions of LDK’s popular prime ministerial candidate, Vjosa Osmani, and as a figure who had been part of prior governments that had been heavily tainted by corruption scandals, he did often seem to be “the black sheep of the family.”

When the coalition was still being negotiated, Veliu was accused by both VV representatives and senior members of his own party of being completely uninterested in successfully concluding a coalition deal. VV vice-chairman Besnik Bislimi said in a TV interview that on various occasions, Veliu had hastily urged the LDK negotiators to leave the talks and collapse the negotiations.

Veliu’s abrupt firing by Kurti on March 17 — after the interior minister had backed President Hashim Thaçi rather than Kurti in a dispute over whether a state of emergency should be declared that would have given Thaçi significant additional powers — would ultimately be cited by his party as a trigger for bringing the government down.

Although there was not enough time to judge his performance as minister, Emini says that the appointment of Veliu sent a negative message to the public as the Ministry of Interior is crucial in the fight against corruption, repeatedly stressed by the coalition as one of the main pillars of its governance.

Uncompromising diplomacy

One of the issues that was always considered likely to test the strength of the VV-LDK coalition was relations with foreign powers, and particularly the internationally facilitated efforts to “normalize” relations with Serbia. So it would prove to be.

VV’s protest movement roots had largely been founded on opposing what it saw as excessive foreign intervention in shaping Kosovo’s future and — as the party name itself indicates — promoting the idea of greater self-determination. For years, their stances and at times controversial direct action tactics had seen them treated as pariahs by foreign embassies, but that had gradually changed as the party showed that it was a serious electoral contender.

LDK, on the other hand, had long promoted its internationalist credentials, to the extent that it often faced accusations of simply doing anything they were told to do by foreign embassies, regardless of whether it was in Kosovo’s interests or not. 

Added to this tricky dynamic, there were already cracks emerging in the previously united front presented by the EU and U.S. over the future of the dialogue process with Serbia, as the Trump administration injected urgency into negotiations that had stalled under the EU’s watch.

Within days of taking office, there were increasing signs of the juggling act that the Kurti-led government would have to hastily get to grips with. 

Trump’s appointment as U.S. Special Envoy for Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, Richard Grenell, had met with Kurti in January and openly stated that the United States expected the new government in Prishtina to act quickly to abolish the 100% tariff on Serbian products and other trade barriers to open the way for the dialogue to resume, this time with the direct participation of the U.S.

The VV-LDK coalition was immediately forced to walk a diplomatic tightrope as Trump’s special envoy Richard Grenell (left) led efforts to ramp up pressure and appeared to favor working with President Thaçi (right) over the government. Photo: Astrit Ibrahimi / Office of the President.

Kurti maintained that he planned to abolish the tariffs — introduced by his predecessor as a response to Serbia’s sustained international “derecognition” campaign — and replace it with reciprocal measures. This had been a central point of VV’s election campaign and would subsequently be translated into the VV-LDK coalition agreement.

However the U.S. pressure continued to be ramped up, including a tweet from Donald Trump Jr., son of the U.S. president, at the beginning of March threatening to withdraw the U.S.’s substantial military support in Kosovo if the government didn’t do as it said.

In the following weeks, the warning that the U.S. could withdraw their troops from Kosovo if the tariff wasn’t immediately removed served as a strong argument for critics and added to coalition tensions. But Kurti seemed unfazed, and on many occasions said that he hadn’t received any such warning in an official capacity, and that he didn’t believe that such drastic measures would be undertaken from Kosovo’s main ally.

Days before the no-confidence vote, Kurti announced that he was pressing ahead with plans for a phased removal of the 100% tariff. 

However, the disagreement over how the dialogue should be approached had by now already proven toxic for the government, as LDK vociferously insisted that the U.S. wishes be followed. This would be cited as the party’s second reason for initiating the motion of no-confidence.

Foreign affairs expert Toby Vogel says that the U.S. pressure played an important role in toppling the government, even showing a striking brazenness and aggressiveness, “an unfriendly and bullying act to a very close, loyal ally.”

“On the U.S. side, it was an administration that is desperate for a quick diplomatic win, especially one achieved through bullying and unilateral action against the wishes of the Europeans, that would allow the quick withdrawal of U.S. troops,” he says.

But Vogel also says that behind the toppling lies another “troubling reason”: “On the Kosovo side, this was the old guard who feared that Kurti would destroy their business model and expose their abuse of power.”

The outgoing administration did fully lift the 100 tariff on March 31 and began introducing the promised reciprocal trade measures in its place, much to the ire of Grenell and the Trump administration. However this decision would be short-lived, as one of the first acts by the present administration led by LDK’s Avdullah Hoti was to repeal the reciprocity decisions in order to “remove all barriers to the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.”

Out with the old… 

Despite its short tenure in power, the VV-LDK government showed signs that it was prepared to initiate some of the urgent reforms that had been backed by voters in the recent elections.

Almost as soon as the coalition was voted in, the new government set about what it said was clearing the boards of public enterprises from members who had been installed via the direct influence of political parties in previous administrations.

The government dismissed the boards of various utility companies and public enterprises, but was strongly criticized for filling the gaps with a number of its own party affiliates. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

In a series of decisions that began in the initial days and continued through the acting-government period, the cabinet fired the boards of Kosovo Post, Kosovo Telecom, the Kosovo Energy Corporation (KEK) and other important public enterprises. It was reported that LDK ministers did not participate or vote in these votes, some of which took place in virtual meetings after lockdown measures had been introduced.

“The government showed a readiness to undertake reforms, especially in its approach against corruption and state capture,” Emini says.

But when the government decided to appoint a number of VV members and former deputy candidates to the same positions, a public uproar followed as Kurti and his party had repeatedly criticized such actions in the past and had promised to eradicate the practice once elected in office.

Emini considers that these appointments represented clear violations and were not acceptable. “The explicit violation of that commitment sent a negative message to citizens; that government came with the promise to fight ‘state capture,’” she says.

Nevertheless, Kurti backed the decision to “temporarily” nominate members of his party to the boards, arguing that the public enterprises are in very bad shape and urgent intervention was needed to stop the “financial bleeding” that they were suffering.

There was also controversy when Minister of Education Hykmete Bajrami replaced members of the University of Prishtina’s Steering Committee with lecturers from private universities, with critics pointing to a conflict of interest given that private universities are effectively UP’s competition. Bajrami defended the decision, saying that the individuals appointed were experts in their field and were not party affiliated.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of March, Minister of Foreign Affairs Glauk Konjufca initiated a wave of recalls of ambassadors, consuls and other members of Kosovo’s diplomatic corps, many of whom had been political appointments. By the time the government left office, however, this decision was still awaiting the required presidential decree from Thaçi.

Down a different road

The new minister of infrastructure set out his intentions to break from the controversial big infrastructure projects of previous administrations that had often lacked transparency and been beset by corruption scandals. 

Lumir Abdixhiku quickly cancelled a 110 million euro contract to build the “Anamorava” Highway, a project initiated by the previous government. He said that necessary legal procedures had been overlooked when allocating the budget, and that building the highway linking Prishtina and Gjilan would therefore be postponed.

Minister of Infrastructure Lumir Abdixhiku (center) was commended for cancelling controversial big road-building projects. Photo: Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment.

He also canceled plans to build another, bigger road — the “Dukagjini” Highway — that had been planned to stretch from Prizren to Istog, a small municipality near Peja. This had been a flagship project for the previous government led by Ramush Haradinaj, but it had long been viewed by opponents as unnecessary and politically motivated because the road was set to connect municipalities where Haradinaj’s AAK party traditionally dominates. 

The highway, which is estimated to cost up to 1 billion euros, was one of four major road-building projects subsequently included in the governing program of the Hoti administration. 

Jury’s still out on judicial reforms

One of the main institutional pillars for which VV has long called for reform is that of the justice system. Over the years, despite significant support from international and domestic organizations, there have been few signs that the justice system has made notable progress in upholding the rule of law. 

One of the processes that has been advocated for tackling similar systemic corruption and malpractice in other countries’ judiciaries is judicial vetting, where judges and prosecutors are subjected to detailed scrutiny from a commission regarding their wealth; VV has long called for such a process in Kosovo and both they and LDK included it as a central pillar in their election campaigns.

The Kurti-led government quickly set about trying to implement long promised reforms in Kosovo’s justice system, but was met with stiff resistance. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

In a move that was considered a priority, in mid-February, Minister of Justice Albulena Haxhiu kick-started the initial procedures that she said would see a comprehensive vetting process initiated within two years, during which time the required legal framework should be drawn up by the Assembly.

“The vetting process is one of the most challenging initiatives undertaken by the government,” Emini says.

However, attempts to initiate the reforms were met with resistance. Haxhiu said that the Prosecutorial and Judicial councils of Kosovo — the two most important bodies in the justice system — had hesitated to cooperate in the procedures of assembling a commission to start the vetting process, and she accused them of being afraid of the process. 

Bahri Hyseni, head of the Prosecutorial Council and one of the participants of the infamous “Pronto” wiretapping affair — in which high profile PDK party members were heard exercising undue influence in the hiring process for public positions — said that a vetting process is not necessary because “it had been done once in the past.”

Political figures from parties who had been in previous administrations, including AAK’s new Minister of Justice Selim Selimi, voiced their opposition to the proposed reforms, suggesting that the proposed initiative to identify and remove corrupt judges and prosecutors amounted to political intervention in the independent judiciary. 

The new coalition government’s program for government indicated that the vetting process has now been sidelined by the Hoti-led administration.

A rollercoaster pandemic

One of the most pressing issues that the VV-LDK government had to deal with was one that nobody could have seen coming: the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The first cases were confirmed in Europe at the end of January, just days before the government in Kosovo took office, but it wasn’t until March 13 that Kosovo had its first confirmed cases. As the pandemic had spread to neighboring countries, it had already become clear that Kosovo was not going to be left unscathed, and the government had begun to issue advice on hand-washing and avoiding physical contact where possible.

On the day the first two cases were confirmed, the government issued strict lockdown measures, shutting cafes, bars and many other businesses overnight and urging people to remain in their homes. 

A website was quickly established with key information, Minister of Health Arben Vitia held daily press conferences with the National Institute for Public Health, and emergency capacity at health care facilities was rapidly expanded. The government also announced the closure of the borders in an attempt to prevent new cases from being brought into Kosovo, and announced emergency economic measures aimed at protecting the most vulnerable in society.

As the number of new cases in Kosovo rose at a much slower rate to that of many other European countries, and the death toll stabilized, the coalition’s response received local and international plaudits. 

Minister of Health Arben Vitia received widespread praise for his overhaul handling of Kosovo’s pandemic response, but also criticism after a student in mandatory quarantine died by suicide. Photo: Ministry of Health.

Vitia in particular was widely commended for being a reassuringly competent presence at the heart of the crisis and helping to avert an immediate catastrophe as many had feared when the virus first arrived.

Other ministers similarly received praise for their responses, including Minister of Education Bajrami, who engaged outside expertise to quickly establish an online learning platform for Kosovo’s school children who were no longer able to attend classes. 

And Minister of Infrastructure and Environment Abdixhiku appeared to further enhance his reputation as a reliable operator by working closely with other ministries to quickly establish processes for returning citizens stranded abroad and for safely transporting arrivals between the airport and the quarantine center. Abdixhiku would later become one of the few leading LDK figures not to back the motion of no confidence in the government, and he was not named as a minister in the Hoti administration.

However there was also criticism — especially in the early days — that the government was not making information on newly introduced restrictive measures available quickly enough in minority languages, leaving some citizens unaware of measures that were already being enforced.

The government also faced criticism and legal challenges from party political rivals and from the president, particularly as it intensified lockdown measures. 

President Thaçi accused the government of breaching the Constitution by introducing a curfew on March 23 as the number of cases threatened to rise. In an extraordinary press conference, he told citizens, the police and security authorities that they were not obliged to respect the government’s decision, and repeated his previous calls for a State of Emergency to be introduced.

In a blow to the government, on April 1 the Constitutional Court upheld Thaçi’s complaint, ruling that citizens’ movements could not be restricted through government decision; such a decision could only be taken by the Ministry of Health — under legislation designed to combat infectious diseases — or by the Assembly. Having lost its majority in the midst of the dispute, the Ministry of Health took the required administrative steps in order to align with the Constitutional Court’s decision.

Prime Minister Kurti conceded that the institutions might have failed in its handling of the situation.

Some of the most serious criticism leveled at the government during the pandemic response followed the death of 26-year-old Agon Musliu, who committed suicide on May 3 while in mandatory isolation in Prishtina’s student dormitories turned quarantine center. He had traveled to Kosovo from Germany, where he was studying.

Documents presented to the local media showed that Musliu had health issues, including mental health concerns, and his family say they asked for him to be allowed to self-isolate at home like many of his fellow travellers from Germany. Musliu’s father later told media that he blamed the Ministry of Health for forcing his son to enter quarantine, despite his health condition. With many facts in the case still unclear, an investigation was quickly established and is still ongoing.

Vitia said that he considered resigning over the incident, and in a subsequent TV interview, Prime Minister Kurti conceded that the institutions, and specifically the Ministry of External Affairs, might have failed in its handling of the situation. But Kurti added that he didn’t want to speak further on the topic until more facts have been ascertained.

By the time the VV-LDK coalition re-packed their boxes and vacated their offices on June 3, the initial phase of the pandemic had been largely contained. Many of the lockdown decisions had been reversed as part of a phased easing and some elements of life were beginning to look a little more familiar than the tumult of the preceding months.

But one area of familiarity that many citizens will not welcome is the return of the “same old faces” at the heart of their government after having had the merest glimpse of something different.K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.