One year of Kurti’s government: how is it going?
Crises and change, Kurti’s government under the microscope.
When Albin Kurti took over as Prime Minister of Kosovo, in the first constitutive session of the Assembly — on March 22, 2021 — he said that they were there “to live up to the will of the people.” He said that February’s general elections were “a referendum, where the people were clearly and rightly determined on the path our country wants to take in the next four years.”
He was addressing a country that was still suffering the consequences of restrictive measures against COVID-19, a country where the daily positive case rate and death numbers were in the triple and double digits respectively. At the same time, Prime Minister Kurti said he understood the difficult lives most citizens have due to unemployment and poverty. He promised that with the beginning of his rule, “we will start a new journey towards progress, reducing inequalities and increasing opportunities for all.”
In the general elections held on February 14, Lëvizja Vetëvendosje (VV), in a joint list with the Guxo political initiative established by Vjosa Osmani, won 50.28% of the vote in a landslide victory, which has not happened in post-independence Kosovo. Their program, focused on justice and equality, created high expectations.
Today, a full year since Kurti took office, we look back and examine the progress his government made this year and the prospects for the government in the years to come, with analysis from experts on the relevant issues such as the management of inflation and the energy crisis, judicial system reforms and the protection of human rights.
Through the waves of the pandemic
March 2021 marked one year since the beginning of the pandemic. During the first week of Kurti’s rule there were over 6,500 positive cases of the coronavirus confirmed and over 80 Covid-related deaths. At that point Kosovo had not received any vaccine doses. Kurti’s governing plan had management of the pandemic as the number one priority, and the promise was to vaccinate 60% of the population by the end of 2021.
The first shipment of vaccines arrived on March 28, donated by the COVAX alliance. Vaccination initially targeted health workers and those over the age of 85. In mid-June, mass vaccination began when government-purchased vaccines and additional vaccines provided by partner countries began arriving.
The most recent two waves of the pandemic, caused by the Delta and Omicron variants, although occurring at different times, came after lockdown measures were eased on the eve of the arrival of the diaspora during the summer and year-end holidays. This happened mainly because the new variants were already virulent in the countries the diaspora came from, the Kurti government did not require full vaccination at the border and violations of Covid measures were largely overlooked.
Despite prioritizing the pandemic, on the eve of the Delta wave in August, VV nominated Minister of Health Arben Vitia for mayor of Prishtina in the local elections held in October. As a result, within nine months there were three different ministers of health.
Health sector journalist at Gazeta Shneta
The pandemic was well managed in the first months of the second Kurti Government. However, things changed in June 2021 and the government came under pressure from businesses, and then “prioritized” the economy through the arrival of the diaspora. The summer season was almost completely out of control without any measures and no recommendations for protection from Covid-19 being implemented. In general, all government decisions on measures against the pandemic have been decisions based on the consequences of new waves, so the measures were strengthened only when an increase of cases started.
The administration of the vaccination process has worked well, but not enough has been done to raise public awareness of the vaccination’s importance. Unfortunately, fake news and conspiracy theories have gained ground during this time, as opposed to the recommendations and scientific arguments in favor of vaccination. This is one of the main failures of the government in the vaccination process.
In the middle of an energy crisis
At the end of 2021 the world found itself in the middle of an energy crisis. In Kosovo, the energy crisis emerged as a result of the interaction of internal factors — the country’s unstable local energy production and increased consumption — and an external one — the rise of energy prices on the global market.
Amid power outages, the government declared a 60-day state of emergency about energy. The government decided to allocate 20 million euros to Kosovo Energy Corporation (KEC) to subsidize electricity imports.
As this was not a sustainable solution, the Energy Regulatory Office (ERO) opened an extraordinary tariff review process at the request of Kosovo Electricity Distribution Company (KEDC) due to rising import prices. ERO’s new decision — approved on February 8 and valid until March 31, 2023 — decided that the bills for household customers who use over 800 kWh per month will increase by up to over 100%. The Kurti government allocated a sum of 75 million euros to subsidize electricity bills, which will be used for a period of one year.
Meanwhile, the government’s plan foresees the revision of the Energy Strategy and the drafting of the National Energy and Climate Plan, which aims to provide sustainable energy and improve air quality. But apart from the formation of the working group for drafting the Energy Strategy (2022-2031) in November 2021, no further steps have been made public.
Independent energy consultant and former director of KEC
With KEC subsidizing the import of energy and electricity bills, the government did not offer a solution. The Kurti government has taken on competencies and responsibilities that do not belong to it, for example subsidizing KEC for energy imports, while not doing its job as a decision maker. As a result, we are now in March, the energy crisis is continuing — although it is not being spoken about — the internal problems that led to the energy crisis in December are continuing because nothing was done in that direction.
Therefore, the low reliability of KEK’s existing power plants (that is, the instability of domestic production) and the lack of a strategy will bring the same situation in winter.
This government should have proactive policies, a specific point of contact in the government for the energy sector and an energy strategy aimed at diversifying energy sources to achieve energy stability.
In June, the Kurti government introduced an Economic Recovery Package of 420 million euros aimed at helping sectors affected by the pandemic. Although this package included a range of measures affecting different sectors of the economy, some measures received more attention because they were included in the governance plan for reducing poverty and increasing social welfare. While some welcomed these measures, others argued that they only addressed the problems in a superficial manner.
Since September, unemployed mothers started receiving payments of 170 euros per month for six months after giving birth, while employed mothers receive these payments for three months. Also in August, the distribution of child allowances began. Children up to the age of 2 receive allowances of 20 euros per month, while children from the ages of 2 to 16 receive 10 euros per month.
In the same month, the government decided to remove tuition fees for students at the bachelor’s and master’s levels at public universities. Also, more than 1,000 scholarships were given to women studying in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). This was one of the points of the governing program for the education sector, which also included the establishment of a scientific research fund, which has not yet been initiated.
In October, a 10% subsidy on consumer loans up to the amount of 10,000 euros was launched. However, the only loans that are actually subsidized up to 10% are those up to 3,000 euros, so anyone who takes a loan over 3,000 euros only receives a maximum subsidy of 300 euros.
As of January 2022, the government decided to increase the benefits for state-funded pensions for four pension categories. According to this decision, no pension will be below 100 euros. This led to an increase in pensions of 10 to 20 euros per month for pensioners who receive pensions due to their age, family, disability or incapacity to work.
Social policy researcher
The approach of the VV Government in the field of social policy prioritizes social investment. This is a fair approach that fits the needs of Kosovo. So far, the government has realized several dimensions of this social investment policy. However, these measures must be accompanied by other additions. Unfortunately, the government has not moved transparently and committed to its main commitment — the opening of 160 public institutions of early childhood education and care (ECEC). Without moving in this direction, the maternity benefits for unemployed women could have undesirable consequences unintended by the government — such as strengthening conservatism.
The government should use the creation of public ECECs and employment policies to radicalize women’s employment. It is an obligation for the government to produce results in this regard, because in addition to being oriented as a progressive left party, it has also had the support of the majority of Kosovo women in the elections. In social investment policy, the government’s interest in structural reforms in higher education and research has been, surprisingly, completely absent.
Facing increasing inflation
The rise in prices — inflation — started in April 2021 when prices rose 2.4% compared to 2020, and peaked in February 2022 when inflation reached the rate of 7.5%. It is not yet known how much the outbreak of war in Ukraine will increase March’s monthly inflation rate because the official data for this month will be published in April.
As a response to inflation, in October 2021 the government announced a package of measures that would help citizens. So far, an additional 100 euros have been allocated for November and December for some pension scheme beneficiaries, consumer loans have been subsidized and financial means were allocated to farmers.
Although there are limited means available to lessen the burden of inflation, raising the minimum wage was widely discussed as the right option. The process of increasing the minimum wage began this year, but the government and the unions are not agreeing about the level the wage should be set at. The government has proposed increasing the minimum wage to 264 euros, while the unions are demanding that it be 400 euros, close to Kosovo’s 2020 average salary of 416 euros. The minimum wage, which is either 130 or 170 euros depending on age, has not changed since 2011.
Amid this severe economic situation and in the absence of supervision by the relevant state bodies, in March 2022 secret agreements were revealed between traders that artificially increased the prices of some products up to 100%. The Kosovo Competition Agency (KCA), as the institution responsible for investigating and canceling agreements between enterprises engaged in goods and services, has been non-functional since June 2021.
However, after the price of a liter of cooking oil in markets suddenly rose from 2.10 euros to 3.49 euros, the government sent the Market Inspectorate out to inspect the warehouses of distributors. The Ministry of Trade confirmed that some sellers had emptied retail shelves of cooking oil a day earlier to create the impression that there was a shortage of the product. The next day, they returned the product to the shelves at the inflated price. After the inspectorate closed two warehouses, the price of cooking oil returned to its previous price.
Researcher, GAP Institute
As inflation was low when he took office, Kurti’s government at the time did not prioritize the issue. When they faced it, they offered short-term solutions, such as doubling payments to beneficiaries of social schemes and pensions for November and December 2021 — this was part of the Economic Recovery Package. Even with the subsidy for energy bills, a mitigating measure was taken — but the price increase could have been avoided to some extent by the government as the global energy crisis was being discussed and addressed months earlier.
As prices continue to rise, I believe that the government can take more measures to manage this situation, by raising the minimum wage and creating tax exemptions for some basic products to help households and businesses manage the burden of inflation.
(Not) prioritizing the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue
Since 2011, for each government that has come to power, the issue of the EU-facilitated Kosovo-Serbia dialogue has been a major topic. For more than a decade, the dialogue has been taking place on two levels, technical and political, with the aim of addressing the still unresolved issues between the two countries. So far, over 35 agreements have been signed, though a large number of them are lagging in terms of implementation.
In Kosovo there has never been an internal consensus on dialogue. From its beginning, VV has been a fierce critic of dialogue. It insisted during the election campaign that Kosovo should sit down as an equal with Serbia in dialogue and that an internal bottom-up dialogue should also be initiated, first with Kosovo Serbs. During both the campaign and when he first took power, Prime Minister Kurti continued to emphasize that dialogue was not a priority over the promised internal reforms.
Throughout 2021, the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue was conducted mainly at the expert level, while at the high political level two EU facilitation meetings were held between Kurti and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić in June and July. No progress was made in any of these meetings.
The next meeting was scheduled to be held in September, but on September 20, 2021, the government decided to apply reciprocity measures to Serbian-registered vehicles entering Kosovo. This meant removing Serbian license plates and paying for a temporary license plate, similar to what Kosovo-registered vehicles have had to do to enter Serbia since 2011.
Many Kosovo Serbs, who often have Serbian-registered vehicles, gathered in protest and blocked traffic at the Jarinje and Brnjak border crossings for several days. For their part, the government sent the special police unit. An interim agreement between the two parties reached in Brussels helped de-escalate the situation until a permanent solution is found — for which talks are continuing in Brussels at the technical level.
But dialogue at the political level has remained suspended since then. Prime Minister Kurti remains optimistic that an agreement will be reached within his mandate. Meanwhile, pressure from the EU and the U.S. to reach a final agreement between the two countries is mounting.
Researcher at Group for Legal and Political Studies (GLPS)
It should be welcome news that the Kosovo government has pushed the principle of reciprocity in the dialogue with Serbia and that there is increased caution in engaging in dialogue. This is because Kosovo’s haste in the past has cost us many agreements that are not only harmful but constitute an obstacle to the integration of Serbs in the institutions of our republic.
However, concrete results in the dialogue are lacking. More could have been done in building internal consensus on the process, expanding international support for Kosovo’s position in the dialogue, as well as creating a genuine dialogue with local Kosovo Serbs that should have started a long time ago.
Looking at international and regional developments, there are also external factors influencing things such as the April 2022 elections in Serbia and France and the recent crisis in Ukraine. These are factors that make it difficult to focus on the dialogue.
However, these cannot serve as excuses for not properly preparing the Kosovo side for the moment when the dialogue begins its course.
Still behind on foreign policy
Promising to reform the diplomatic service, the government decided to release all political appointees from diplomatic missions. While some consulates had already been without ambassadors for years now, the Kurti government’s dismissals — including that of 12 ambassadors — from May 19 to the end of September, left 21 of 32 diplomatic missions around the world without ambassadors.
At a time when the political configuration on the world stage was changing, Kosovo has stalled out in gaining membership in international organizations and in the process of new recognitions, and the country was left without representatives in key capitals such as Washington D.C., London, Brussels and Berlin.
Fourteen new ambassadors were appointed at the end of November, but it is still unclear what the Kurti government is doing to gain new recognitions and membership in international organizations. The moratorium mediated by the previous U.S. administration and signed by the previous government that called for Kosovo not to apply for entry into international organizations and for Serbia to temporarily halt its de-recognition campaign for a year, expired on September 4, 2021.
The Kurti government has not yet applied to Interpol, but says it is in the preparatory phase for applying this year. Meanwhile, until recently, there was no signal that work was being done to achieve new recognitions for Kosovo, a process which has stagnated. Israel was the 117th country to recognize Kosovo in 2021 and is one of the four countries to do so in the last five years.
The war in Ukraine set Kurti’s cabinet into motion. In March, they formed the inter-institutional working group on integration into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and announced that Kosovo would apply for membership in the Council of Europe. Diplomatic relations with East Timor were also established during this period.
Journalist covering dialogue and foreign policy for the KOHA group
The Kurti government began its mandate with great promises in terms of foreign policy reform — whether in internal reorganization or representation abroad. But what we have seen so far is a conception of foreign policy that is just limited to the dialogue with Serbia. Although we have asked several times, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not given any signal about the actions for the phase after September 4, 2021 and whether strategies have been drafted to address the stagnation in terms of recognitions and memberships.
A year later, there are no signs of fulfilling the commitments in the governing program. During this period, the most important decision-making centers were left without ambassadors for several months after the “broom” of Minister of Foreign Affairs Donika Gërvalla-Schwarz. Despite the government’s promise that new ambassadors would be appointed soon, this did not happen, causing Kosovo to reduce its level of representation.
Kosovo needs a reform of its foreign service, which would guarantee dignified representation and order within the ministry and appointments made through meritocracy. Of course, this should be accompanied by transparency, which has been lacking so far. For many processes and developments within this department, the Minister of Foreign Affairs has chosen silence.
Trouble with the media
During the past year, the government’s relationship with the media wasn’t the best. Many editors have talked about a kind of government closure to the media, with ministers who communicate more on social media than in press conferences. There have been complaints that they are not transparent as they do not answer journalists’ questions and Prime Minister Kurti has been criticized for not holding press conferences.
A case of particular interest occurred in April 2021, which involved the news website Insajder and the then-Minister of Health Arben Vitia. Insajder claimed that based on the documents it had secured, the Ministry of Health had refused to sign an agreement with vaccine manufacturer Pfizer/BioNTech.
Vitia hastily denied this at a press conference, calling the news “untrue” and “harmful” and insisting on the “confidentiality” of the process. He even called on the prosecution to take action “against anyone who harms such a sensitive and vital process.” The director of Insajder, Parim Olluri, was questioned by the police.
Another controversy, this time involving the husband of President Vjosa Osmani, Prindon Sadriu, occurred recently. The online news site Gazeta Express published a news article that included a line in brackets “You can leave this only if you want to take a swipe at Vjosa.” After this, Osmani’s husband Sadriu called the media “a joint criminal enterprise.”
The Kurti government, which is in coalition with President Osmani’s Guxo party, has been criticized by newsrooms for not responding to Sadriu’s statement, which used language that can foster an unsafe environment for journalists.
Despite this, civil society has praised as a positive step the Assembly’s dismissal of the existing board of the public broadcaster — a board that was widely seen as political — and the transparent election of a new board. Since 2011 when Radio Television of Kosovo (RTK) passed directly to the state budget, the public broadcaster has been considered to be under the political influence of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK). Criticism of RTK over the years includes claims of bias, non-meritocratic hiring and mismanagement of financial resources.
Executive Director of Press Council of Kosovo (PCK)
Albin Kurti and VV have come to power with the promise of radical transparency in all areas, including the media. But now a year of governance has highlighted a completely different approach. In many cases the government has not been willing to cooperate with journalists and the media on the issues they have addressed. Meanwhile, there has been an attempt by government and party officials to attack specific media outlets that have been more critical.
The current government sees some media in Kosovo as hostile and tries to label and attack them. In general, the government, as well as the presidency, are not doing their job properly in relation to the media. “Radical transparency” in many cases has turned into “radical closure” for the media and journalists.
A lot of work ahead for justice
Reform in the justice system was an area of special emphasis in Kurti’s governing program. He planned to launch the vetting process for judges and prosecutors, confiscate unjustifiable property and establish a Commercial Court.
The first steps have already been made for all objectives. The government has approved the concept paper for a full vetting process of the judicial system and has tasked a working group to draft constitutional amendments. However, this initiative was not supported by the Judicial Council and the Prosecutorial Council, which said that they have the internal capacity to perform such a verification. Meanwhile, the EU considered full vetting as the last option.
On December 29, 2021, the Draft Law on the State Bureau for Verification and Confiscation of Unjustifiable Assets was approved. Civil society organizations in this area say that there are sufficient existing mechanisms within the current system of law and order and that the establishment of a State Bureau will not increase effectiveness in combating unjustifiable property.
Meanwhile, in January 2022, the draft law on the Commercial Court was adopted by the Assembly, which aims to resolve disputes in the field of business, thus accelerating the resolution of these disputes that usually drag on for years due to the backlog of cases in the courts. However, given the budgetary implications, it’s still unknown when this court will become operational.
The vetting process and the confiscation of property are moving in the direction of strengthening the rule of law in the country and creating the conditions for greater legal certainty for citizens.
So the vetting process is a necessary process to restore citizens’ confidence in the institutions of the Republic of Kosovo. However, it remains to be seen what the final outcome of these laws will be and how much the recommendations of civil society given in the working groups will be included.
Fragile Human Rights
Femicide and gender-based violence have continued. In 2021 alone, three women were killed, while reports of violence against women and other cases of domestic violence continue to highlight the ongoing institutional negligence towards these cases.
Kurti’s governing program includes the prevention of domestic violence against women and on a gender basis as a special point. It lays out a plan to develop policies and mechanisms against violence, including awareness campaigns. Despite this, little progress has been made. At the end of January, the only success was the approval of the National Strategy for Protection from Domestic Violence and Violence Against Women 2022-2026.
On the other hand, in the governing program, in the special point dedicated to human rights, LGBTQ+ persons are not mentioned at all and Prime Minister Kurti didn’t make an appearance at the 2021 Pride Parade.
The rights of LGBTQ+ persons were recently in focus due to a vote on the draft law of the Civil Code on March 16. The draft law contains 1,630 articles and is considered to be the most important document after the Constitution, regulating various segments of life, such as equality in front of the law, human rights, property issues, economic transactions, contracts, family relations, children’s rights and inheritance.
But paragraph 2 of article 1138, which reads, “Registered civil unions between persons of the same sex are allowed. The conditions and procedures are regulated by a special law,” was the focus of attention. In fact, it became the reason that the draft Civil Code did not pass on March 16 following lengthy comments from Assembly members who oppose granting rights to LGBTQ couples. Human rights activists also opposed the wording of the civil code, but from the other side, arguing that it would fall short of granting full equality to the LGBTQ community.
Executive Director, Center for Information, Criticism and Action (QIKA)
The Kurti government came to power on the promise, among others, of commitment to gender and social equality. What we have noticed during a year of this government have been some ad-hoc policies which have resembled improvisation more than attempts at solving the long-existing problems at their core.
We believe that every citizen has the right to marriage. The draft Civil Code proposed by the government is discriminatory in this regard, because it sees marriage as a legally registered union between two spouses of different sexes, i.e., husband and wife. On the other hand, registered civil unions between persons of the same sex would be allowed, and the procedures for this will be regulated by a special law. We consider this to be exceptional. There should be no such a division. Marriage should belong to all citizens without exception and the government has an obligation to push this forward.
“Maternity payments” are one of the policies that the government has “sold” as empowering for women, which we consider to be in fact anti-feminist in essence. We believe that such policies that focus on women only in their reproductive role, not accompanied by concrete employment policies, have the risk of further confining women inside the homes under the burden of unpaid work.
New initiatives of the Kurti government
The Kurti government also took legal steps to lay the foundation for new initiatives: the establishment of the Sovereign and Security Funds.
With the dismissal of the board of the Privatization Agency of Kosovo, the government in March 2022 approved the concept document for the establishment of the Sovereign Fund, which will take ownership of Kosovo’s strategic assets and will have the responsibility to invest in increasing their value.
After the start of the war in Ukraine, the government also established the Security Fund, which they are asking citizens to contribute to. The funds are intended to be used to support the state’s security strategy.
While some processes have started, others have stalled. One thing is for sure, the next three years of the Kurti government will be busy. K
Feature image: Kosovo Government.
Designs and illustrations: Arrita Katona & Dina Hajrullahu / K2.0
This article has been produced with the financial support of the “Balkan Trust for Democracy,” a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.