February 17th marked eight years since Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence. The last eight years have witnessed a nascent state struggle with gaining international recognition, the challenges of overlapping sovereignty in the North of the country, as well as the birthing pains of political and economic uncertainty obstructing the path towards normalization. Indeed, despite the EU-brokered deal between Kosovo and Serbia in August 2015 being hailed as a “landmark achievement in the normalization process” by Federica Mogherini (the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission), the situation in Kosovo appears to have moved even further away from anything that could be termed “normal.” Although Kosovo’s Prime Minister Isa Mustafa has stated that such an agreement would aid Kosovo in establishing sovereignty across the entire country, opposition to the Kosovo government in the form of violent protest are increasingly commonplace in the wake of the August accord. As Reuters reported last December, the agreement has precipitated what is arguably Kosovo’s worst political crisis in the years following the declaration of independence in 2008.
At the center of the opposition’s condemnation of the deal is the perceived violation of Kosovo’s constitution and the threats to the state’s sovereignty that it would instigate. In this regard, the government opposition parties comprised of Vetevendosje (Self-Determination), the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) and Nisma për Kosovën have come together and acted to bring the country to a political stalemate and channel public opinion against the government by objecting to the agreement on two central grounds.
First, the opposition has protested against the agreement to reposition the Montenegro-Kosovo border which, in ceding a small amount of territory to Montenegro, has been argued by Fatmir Limaj (leader of Nisma për Kosovën) to be evidence of the government “trading with our state’s sovereignty.” Montenegro has since acknowledged that mistakes were made regarding the demarcation of borders, which subsequently bolstered the credibility of the opposition’s objections and further undermined the government.
The issue of particular salience, however, is the agreement to establish an Association of Serbian Municipalities, which would grant greater local powers to the Serbian minority in Kosovo. According to the document published by the European External Action Service (EEAS), the objectives of the Association are for the purpose of “promoting the interests of the Kosovo Serb community” by strengthening local democracy, representing municipalities before the central authorities, improving access to education and health care, and developing local economy. The Association would also possibly receive some financing from Serbia and have significant independence without necessarily reporting to Kosovo institutions. Whilst Mustafa has argued that such an association would have no executive power, Aleksandar Vučić, the Prime Minister of Serbia, has argued the contrary. The agreement, therefore, has been subject to two significantly different interpretations by the two main parties involved. As Ksenija Bozovic, chairwoman of north Mitrovica’s municipal assembly commented on the deal, “Pristina gives us one version of information and Belgrade says something different.”
Subsequently, it is no surprise that this paradoxical interpretation has paved the way for the opposition in Kosovo’s objection to the agreement. They opine that the introduction of such an Association would make the Kosovo government “dysfunctional,” that “linking Serbian communities would create conditions for Kosovo to be partitioned along ethnic lines,” and that the granting of such executive power is in violation of the country’s constitution. Certainly, despite Pristina’s initial acceptance of the accord in Brussels in August, it was only four months later that Kosovo’s Constitutional Court ruled that parts of the deal violate the country’s constitution since the Association would have executive rights, which are reserved for the central government. As a protestor commented to Vice News during demonstrations in Pristina on the 9th January, such an agreement arguably gives the Serbian community “excessive rights,” and creates a “government on top of [the Kosovan] government.”
As such, the opposition parties have systematically disrupted the government’s activity in protest of the its agreement to the EU-brokered deal with Serbia by releasing tear-gas canisters during parliamentary sessions, throwing eggs at the Prime Minister, and preventing debates by whistling. The opposition has also organized a campaign of protests and threatened the government with daily demonstrations unless Mustafa resigns and calls early elections before February 17th: the 8th anniversary of Kosovan independence. This ultimatum and threat of constant protest has since been revised to a February 27th deadline for the government to resign and hold a new election.
The violent campaign of disruption by opposition MPs in parliament have fed the image that Kosovo is in the midst of a salient political crisis. Many of these opposition rallies (although announced to be peaceful) have instead turned violent, as epitomized by the images of civilians throwing Molotov cocktails and other objects at government buildings, and of police intervening by employing riot gear, tear gas, and armored vehicles. The government has accused the opposition of trying to usurp power through violence, whilst the opposition has argued the situation warrants MPs acting in such a dramatic fashion.
Nevertheless, despite the concerns about the arrangements for the Serbian minority being visibly at the forefront of the objections, one must be wary of perceiving this civil unrest wholly through the lens of ethnic identity and the nature of past conflict. Whilst the agreement to grant Kosovo Serbs greater authority has engendered concerns amongst the majority-Albanian population (as exemplified by how most of the participants in the protest on the 8th anniversary of Kosovo independence held Albania’s red-and-black national flag rather than Kosovo flags, and how some held banners with slogans such as “we don’t want Serbia in Kosovo”), there are other important issues at play.
Even though many citizens do fear the accord will further entrench ethnic divisions and increase Serbia’s hold over the country given the Association’s relative independence, the EU-brokered deal has arguably served more as a catalyst given the long-standing dissatisfaction with the government, and disillusion with the general economic and political condition of the state. Many protestors cited their belief in the widespread corruption of Kosovo’s authorities and high levels of unemployment as the main driving factors for protest. As a citizen living in Mitrovica stated to Vice News regarding the protests:
“This civil unrest is a normal thing; unemployment brought it…If there was work, there would not be all these protests, because everyone would think about their future. If you are working, you have a better future.”
As discussed by the International Labour Organisation, it is well documented that high levels of unemployment and economic uncertainty increases social unrest. Consequently, with the Youth Unemployment Rate in Kosovo at 61%, the life expectancy being 10 years lower than in the EU, 38% of the population under 19 years of age, a low quality education system, and with average per capita income being around one tenth of that of the EU, it is not surprising that tensions and dissatisfaction have culminated in civil disorder. Such factors cannot be underestimated in framing this unrest and anger against the government.
The outcome of this political crisis thus remains to be seen. Despite attempts this month by the government for dialogue with the opposition, two out of the three opposition bloc parties boycotted the inter-party meeting, with the one opposition party in attendance (the AAK) remaining steadfast in the demand for elections to be called. Moreover, whilst the government is attempting to resume normal parliamentary activity this week, opposition MPs have stated that their tactics of disruption will not subside and tear-gas has again been used to block parliamentary activity. As Aida Derguti from Vetevendosje stated on the 19th February, “let us not pretend that we are back to normality.”
Therefore, with the absence of any real political dialogue and with the continuance of violent protests, it appears that any essence of normality and stability in Kosovo is fleeting. This crisis carries dangerous implications for it diminishes the likelihood for the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo and damages both countries’ efforts to gain EU membership. Furthermore, the objection and reaction to the agreement for the Association of Serbian Municipalities could further destabilize the already fragile situation in the North and further entrench the ethnic fault lines between Kosovo Serbs and the rest of the population.
Kosovo thus remains stuck between a rock and a hard place, with a political crisis typical of post-conflict states seeking to find a balance between accommodating divisive ethnic identities through special mechanisms of power-sharing without inviting the political stalemate of an “ethnically branded political system” that we have witnessed in Bosnia and Ukraine. These problems are likely to be further compounded by the economic problems in the country, low trust in the government, and high levels of unemployment. As a protestor commented during the protest on the 8th anniversary of independence, “we are totally disappointed…Kosovo is not what we dreamt it would be.”
Without the hope of a positive and secure future, Kosovo will remain trapped in its abnormal state of limbo as power-sharing agreements languish, ethnic tensions persist, and civil unrest continues. Thus, violent uncertainty may become the new normal in a fragile Kosovo for the foreseeable future.
Born in Singapore but raised in Britain, Fiona Wong completed her Bachelor of Science in Politics with International Relations at the University of Bath, before recently finishing her M.A. in European Politics, Policy and Society at the University of Bath, Univerzita Karlova v Praze and Università degli Studi di Siena. She currently lives and works in Tuscany, and is seeking an opportunity to further explore identity politics, immigration, and asylum policy. Her Twitter is @caipirinha27.