Will the European Parliament defend Kosovo’s democracy?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Covid-19 crisis with its overall ban on entry to the Schengen zone by non-EU residents and citizens may present a window of opportunity to allow visa free travel for Kosovars. [Tony Bowden/Flickr]

Kosovo has illegally arrested one third of the parliamentary opposition. On Thursday (21 January) the European Parliament will discuss a draft resolution on Kosovo, which does not even mention the arrests, writes Andrea Lorenzo Capussela. 

Andrea Lorenzo Capussela is the author of State-Building in Kosovo: Democracy, Corruption and the EU in the Balkans.

Last month, Kosovo arrested 13 of its 31 opposition MPs. Among them was the main opposition leader. Most were kept under house arrest, or put in jail for a month. Some are still detained.

The arrests are illegal, I argued here on 15 December, and signal a worrying trend. Freedom House regularly qualifies Kosovo – formally a liberal constitutional democracy – as a “semi-consolidated authoritarian regime”: facing fierce popular and parliamentary opposition, occasionally violent, the political elite that presides over that regime seems to have opted for consolidation, rather than for openness.

Hence my criticism of a draft resolution on Kosovo, submitted in early December to the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament, which does not even mention those arrests.

On Thursday, the committee will discuss the draft and the amendments that have been tabled in the meantime (the consolidated text is available here), and will approve a text to be submitted to the full parliament in the next weeks.

Two amendments (68 and 71) do mention the arrests: either to call for an investigation on “possible abuses of power” in connection to them, or to note that “under the [sic] Kosovo’s constitution parliamentarians cannot be arrested without parliament’s consent”. Parliament’s consent was never sought, and according to reports in the Kosovo press, confirmed by a judicial decision issued last Friday (15 January), the arrests were unwarranted. Although these two amendments fall well short of the condemnation that these illegal political arrests would merit, if approved, they would nonetheless send a useful signal.

But this seems unlikely because the author of the draft – MEP Ulrike Lunacek, the rapporteur on Kosovo – has tabled a competing amendment (67), which merely “urges the Kosovo Assembly to clarify the rules concerning the lifting of the immunity of its members”. Although this does cast doubt over the legality of the arrests, making the rules “clearer” for future cases will not clarify the present one. The existing rules are clear enough, and have been breached manifestly and repeatedly.

The Committee on Foreign Affairs numbers several passionate and articulate defenders of Kosovo’s interests, which deserve to be protected (including from some populist, xenophobic MEPs). My point is that Kosovo’s interests – as opposed to those of its political elite, which partly coincides with its economic and criminal elites – would be better served by taking a more realistic look at the problems of the country.

Paragraph 16 of the draft resolution, for example, rests on the implicit assumption that the roots of Kosovo’s problems lie in its legislation, which is judged to be either incomplete or not strong enough. Hence the praise, in that paragraph, for the adoption of a new law on the judiciary, and the advice to strengthen the rules protecting the judiciary’s independence. But Kosovo already has virtually all the laws it needs to have. Its problem is that laws are almost systematically ignored when they conflict with the interests of the elites, be they political, economic or criminal. This is possible, in turn, because political and legal accountability are very low, and this is why the elite will be happy to oblige and pass even a ferocious law on judicial independence, for this too will be ignored when the time comes.

The draft resolution seems oblivious to these deeper, systemic problems. It even “welcomes the improvement of road transport and mobility infrastructures with regard, in particular, to motorways”. This mainly refers to a highway, whose construction lacked any serious economic rationale, whose overall cost was equivalent to 25% of GDP, and whose construction cost rose by 2.7 times between tender and completion, owing presumably to corruption. The final per kilometre cost was 2.5 times higher than the comparable average cost in Germany (I illustrate this data in this article). The highway is well-built, but welcoming this waste of public money is economically, politically, and morally wrong, especially in a country with genuinely lamentable health, education, and employment statistics.

Indeed, the resolution sometimes seems to confuse the interests of Kosovo with those of its elite. This is a serious flaw, for in most respects the two are diametrically opposed: that elite has built the governance system that managed to produce a robbery of the scale I have just described, and has every interest in maintaining it; but that governance system is the origin of Kosovo’s most serious problem.

Finally, a comment on the passage concerning Kosovo’s failed application to join UNESCO. The draft regrets UNESCO’s vote, and, as an implicit complaint against it, goes on to “welcom[e] that several Serb religious and cultural heritage sites regrettably destroyed in 2004 have been renovated with Kosovo tax payers’ money, like the orthodox Cathedral”. This argument, often used by Kosovo’s government to support its bid, is both inaccurate (the money came mainly from the EU: reconstruction works largely stopped after the grants ran out in 2010–11) and obsolete (the renovated cathedral was opened in 2009. I attended the ceremony). Now, regretting UNESCO’s decision is legitimate. Omitting the fact that Kosovo’s government deserved that defeat is disingenuous, but probably innocuous, but digging up the argument, seven years after the 2009 ceremony, borders on ridiculous.

This suggests that the resolution is based, at least in part, on unreliable sources of information. And such sources are presumably close to Kosovo’s elite, for including that argument can only serve their interest in covering up their gauche UNESCO campaign; and praising the highway without regretting its huge costs (monetary and opportunity costs) can only serve their interest in covering up that robbery.

But why these passages ended up in the draft resolution is a secondary question, which can remain open. What matters is that neither Kosovo’s nor the European Parliament’s interests would be served by welcoming that highway or cathedral, yet remaining silent on the political arrests and the illiberal shift they suggest. I hope that the foreign affairs committee will realise this, and adopt a resolution that assists those forces, domestic and foreign, which aspire to change Kosovo’s unfair, inefficient, and increasingly authoritarian governance system.

>> Read: The loud silence about Kosovo

>> Read: Kosovo needs tough love from the European Parliament, not euphemisms

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