Nine years after proclaiming independence, fragile Kosovo votes Sunday (11 June) at a time of high tension with Serbia, rampant unemployment and some of its leaders threatened with prosecution for war crimes.
The parliamentary election – Kosovo’s third since 2008 – is the most important since the independence declaration, according to Slovenian think-tank IFIMES, which specialises in the Balkan region.
While Kosovo’s sovereignty is now recognised by more than 110 countries, tensions between Belgrade and its former province – which is predominantly ethnic Albanian – have risen to their highest level since talks to “normalise” relations began in 2011.
The process, crucial to both sides’ progress towards European Union membership, has ground to a halt. The delicate question of granting more autonomy to Kosovo’s Serb minority through an “association of municipalities” is still unresolved.
The impasse comes years after the late 1990s Kosovo war, which saw the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) battle Serbian forces for independence and left 13,000 people dead, including 10,000 ethnic Albanians.
‘War wing coalition’
— European WB (@European_WB) May 30, 2017
Controversial former guerrilla leader Ramush Haradinaj could now end up prime minister – for a second time – after the polls.
— InSerbia News (@InSerbiaNetwork) June 3, 2017
Although his Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) is small, he has formed a bloc dubbed the “war wing coalition” with the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) founded by powerful President Hashim Thaci, another leading ex-rebel.
Strange opinion polls appear days before #Kosovo elections – same party gets 27 % in one poll & 19 % in another. Which one to trust? None!
— Agron Bajrami (@AgronBajrami) June 1, 2017
Hard-talking Haradinaj is considered a war criminal by Belgrade and is critical of the dialogue with Serbia, which he still considers an “enemy”.
But French Balkan specialist Loic Tregoures points out that neither Belgrade nor Pristina “has an interest in being designated as the one that formally breaks off the dialogue, even if that dialogue is in bad shape”.
Though key to international observers, the issue appears increasingly incidental in the eyes of the approximately 1.8 million citizens of Kosovo, who are faced with poverty and an unemployment rate touching around a third of the working age population.
Elections in Kosovo Sunday, but many Kosovars are busy with something else: waiting at embassies for visa's to the EU pic.twitter.com/5Z44rbO5fZ
— Mitra Nazar (@Mitrala) June 8, 2017
For young people who wish to join the exodus to the EU, the issue of visa liberalisation is crucial.
“We have to choose the leadership that serves the people, not just those who think about their own pocket, rob us and make us sink,” said 60-year-old former miner Xhevat Tahiri.
Economist Avdullah Hoti, the outgoing finance minister, now eyeing the prime minister’s job, insists his centre-right alliance is the only one that can “ensure a European future for Kosovo”.
The head of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), nicknamed “Kosovo’s Macron” after the new French president, Hoti pledged to “continue the dialogue with Serbia” in an interview with AFP.
But the 42-year-old would find it hard to win an absolute majority.
Only an alliance with the opposition Vetevendosje (Self-determination) party of former student leader Albin Kurti – who is pledging a fight against corruption – seems likely to open the doors of power to Hoti.
— Lëvizja VETËVENDOSJE (@LVetevendosje) May 31, 2017
The “war wing coalition” should perhaps be less worried about these rivals than the judicial system.
A special court set up at The Hague to try war crimes allegedly committed by the rebel KLA could pronounce its first indictments by the end of the year.
Among those speculated to appear on the list of suspects are Thaci and the outgoing chairman of the assembly, Kadri Veseli.
“No one knows who will be charged, but it could change the political balance and make certain characters disappear,” said Tregoures.
It is “perhaps not innocent that the PDK has been sure to convene early elections before this court starts work,” he added.
Polls will be open across Kosovo from 0500 GMT to 1700 GMT.
“I don’t believe that there is going to be a change, as the state and major posts are captured by wrongdoers,” said Ramadan Shala, a 59-year-old teacher.