Fron Nahzi, Washington, BIRN, April 7, 2020

Washington needs to stem the growth of anti-Western sentiment in Kosovo caused by its ongoing support for a corrupt political old guard and more or less open support for the toppling of a popular leader.

Long before the now ousted Albin Kurti became Prime Minister of Kosovo, he had established a reputation as a left-wing nationalist who was willing to stand-up to the West.

He had founded the Vetevendosje [Self-Determination] Movement, to rid Kosovo of the United Nations and European Union administrative bodies, which he felt neglected Kosovo’s best interests.

Local and international watchdog organizations often criticized the UN and the EU for failing to stop Kosovo’s downward spiral into a mafia state. As frustration mounted with their inability to rein in the corruption, many Kosovars, the young in particular, joined Kurti’s movement.

For years Kurti led mass protests against the UN and EU, which sometimes led to violent attacks, blaming them for allowing the ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, and the Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, free rein to plunder the country’s resources – and for brokering agreements that often favoured Serbia.

In 2013, Vetevendosje protested against the “soft partition” of Kosovo under which the UN awarded municipalities with a Serb majority considerable autonomy from the government in Pristina.

Kurti and his followers also managed to butt heads with the US. In 2012, the US ambassador accused Kurti and his followers of sending a threatening letter to former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, over a bid to take over Kosovo’s state-owned telecommunication company, PTK. In 2013, a Vetevendosje protest in front of the Kosovo assembly got out of hand and the US ambassador injured her arm as she tried to make her way through the protest, which she blamed on the demonstrators.  In both instances, Vetevendosje denied the accusations.

On March 23 this year, Kurti’s newly elected government became the first political casualty of the coronavirus pandemic. The collapse of the government brings to light how party politics can take precedence over the welfare of citizens, and how US policy is taking shape in the region.

Kurti, 45, won last year’s general elections on a left-wing nationalist platform. It called for taking back the state from corrupt leaders and for putting an end to the backroom deals that it said President Hashim Thaci was pursuing with Washington to end the Serbia-Kosovo stalemate.

As a key leader of the PDK, Thaci has been a fixture in Kosovo governments for more than 20 years, having previously served as Prime Minister. Before that he was political head of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA. He is expected to appear before the Kosovo special court in The Hague to face allegations of war crimes during his time as KLA leader.

After only 50 days in office, Kurti’s reign came to an end over how to best curtail the spread of the coronavirus. His Interior Minister, from his junior coalition partner, the LDK, warned to declare the coronavirus a state of emergency, thereby giving President Thaci authority to oversee the crisis.

This came as a surprise to many, not only because the post of president is mainly ceremonial but also because the PDK and LDK are long-time political enemies. Kurti dismissed the minister without the approval of Isa Mustafa, head of the LDK. Mustafa responded by calling for a vote of no confidence, thereby igniting a political storm that united the former political foes.

To garner public support for the no-confidence vote during the pandemic, LDK and PDK leaders accused Kurti of being anti-American – a hot claim in a country where the US is widely revered as savior, for leading the 1999 NATO campaign against Serbia’s ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo.

In the weeks leading up to the no-confidence vote, much was made of a request from Washington for Kurti to remove the 100-per-cent tariffs that Kosovo has imposed on Serbian imports as part of efforts to normalize relations between the countries.

Led by Republican members of Congress, and with support from Donald Trump Jr, the US threatened to end its $49 million funding of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, MCC, in Kosovo and even pull US peacekeepers out of the country.

Despite the pressure, Kurti refused to budge. Before the no-confidence vote, France, Germany and large segments of the Kosovar public pleaded with the parties to maintain a common front against the coronavirus. The LDK and PDK continued however, and collaborated to oust Kurti’s government.

The US applauded these political leaders, and again called on the Kosovo government to lift the tariffs on Serbian goods, saying they were “harming the people of Kosovo by hindering regional cooperation against COVID-19 – including by delaying the entry into Kosovo of needed supplies and hindering economic growth.” In the same statement, Washington denied having taken part in any secret deal to swap lands between Serbia and Kosovo.

Western countries, and in particular the US, find themselves in a political conundrum between working with an old guard of corrupt friendly leaders whose public support is declining, or with Kurti’s stubborn nationalist party, whose support is growing.

While Kurti is less likely than them to bend to US and Western pressure  – and is likely to pay a price for this – he remains by far the most popular political leader in Kosovo.

Recent events only feed into Kurti’s playbook. He rose to power by blaming Kosovo’s political and economic failures on the old Kosovar leaders and on the West that supported them.

He called for a new generation of nationalists to step up, and his left-wing nationalist brand attracted a cross spectrum of supporters. They range from a growing anti-Western faction that promotes closer ties to Turkey to a vast majority of the public that seeks to end the PDK and LDK’s kleptocracy.

The toppling of Kurti’s government, when the public sought a common front against the coronavirus, is again seen as proof that the old guard will get together to protect their ill-gained profits. Unfortunately, the US is seen as having sided with the kleptocrats who are less likely than Kurti to question Washington’s policies on solving the Serbia-Kosovo stalemate.

The US needs to stem the growing anti-Western sentiment in Kosovo caused by its ongoing support for Kosovo’s corrupt elite. This trend is especially prevalent among the young, who make up more than half of the population of Kosovo. It needs to take a hard line against Kosovo’s corrupt leaders and avoid mixed messages. A classic case of mixed messaging was when the MCC drastically reduced funding in 2018, over the Thaci administration’s failure to combat corruption, and the next day awarded the MCC leadership position to Thaci’s former Deputy Foreign Minister, Petrit Selemi who many Kosovars say is moonlighting as Thaci’s social media manager.

The US should condition its aid to Kosovo on the fight against corruption, the prosecution of corrupt political leaders, and on ensuring the judiciary’s independence.  If the US threat to withdraw aid helped to bring down Kurti, it will likely also work to remove corrupt leaders.

To ensure a lasting solution between Serbia and Kosovo, the US needs to even the playing field. A good first step would be to pressure Belgrade to end its international campaign against the recognition of Kosovo in return for Pristina lifting tariffs on Serbian goods. At this very critical time, the US must also rise above Balkan politics and support the immediate needs of the public – stopping the spread of the deadly coronavirus.