Kosovo is slowly recovering from Trump’s coup

The left-wing party Trump helped remove from power in Kosovo in 2020 may win the February 14 elections.

Leader of the Movement for Self-Determination Albin Kurti, flanked by his wife, takes part in a rally on the last day of campaigning for the parliamentary elections in Pristina on February 12, 2021 [AFP/Stringer]

In March 2020, under pressure from the Trump administration, the coalition government of Albin Kurti’s Movement for Self-Determination (LVV) in Kosovo collapsed in what some have seen as a political coup. United States President Donald Trump was running for re-election and he badly needed easy “diplomatic wins” to brag about at his campaign rallies. Kurti happened to be in the way of one of them.

The Trump administration wanted Kosovo and Serbia to sign a “peace deal”, although the two countries were not at war. Kurti opposed such a meaningless diplomatic exercise. So with the help of Kosovo’s old political and economic elite, Special US Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo, Richard Grenell, put immense pressure on LVV’s junior coalition partner, the right-wing Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), which withdrew its support for the government.

In June, LDK’s Avdullah Hoti formed a new coalition government and three months later he, along with Serbian President Aleksander Vucic, was at the White House, signing what Trump repeatedly called a “peace deal”, but what in reality was a letter of intent on a few economic issues, relations with Israel and the designation of Hezbollah as a “terrorist” organisation.

On December 21, Kosovo’s Constitutional Court ruled that Hoti’s government was unconstitutional and paved the way for new parliamentary elections to take place on February 14. With polls showing Kurti’s party in the lead, it seems Kosovo may well be on its way to recovering from Trump’s coup and perhaps entering a new era of transformation.

Bringing down a progressive government

Kurti’s government, which came to power in February 2020, marked a certain break with the established ideology, policies and trends that have dominated the political scene in the country since 1999. It was a government with a leftist, progressive programme, focusing on social-economic issues and anti-corruption efforts.

Because of that, Kurti’s government was perceived as a threat by big capital and the old elite. The fact that they saw his modest social-democratic policies as unacceptable shows just how far to the right these political agents have moved.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that these forces joined hands with the right-wing Trump administration to stage a political coup against Kurti. Trump wanted him out in order to get a new government willing to participate in the theatrics of signing a “peace deal” with Serbia. And Kosovo’s old guard wanted the collapse of his government so it could go back to “business as usual”.

Trump used the “peace deal” in his campaign, falsely claiming that he put a stop to Albanians and Serbs killing each other. His administration clearly had no consideration for history, truth or democracy.

It willingly helped bring down a democratically elected government so that it could push for a deal between Kosovo and Serbia that was no more than a photo op for Trump ahead of the US elections. This brought to power an incompetent government in Kosovo – one that has completely mishandled the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in record numbers of infections and deaths, a broken economy and rampant corruption.

The old elite got what it wanted. It continued its corrupt practices, bringing Kosovo to the edge of hopelessness. Already suffering from structural problems, the economy shrank by more than 8 percent in 2020 due to the effects of the pandemic, with unemployment hitting 30 percent for the general population.

The health system is in collapse, while education has also been hit hard by the anti-pandemic measures. It is in these harsh economic, social and political circumstances that Kosovo’s sixth election in 12 years is taking place.

A new way forward

The new government will be faced with many issues, for which there are no easy solutions. The electoral programme of the LVV, which is set to win the parliamentary majority, is centred on two main pillars: jobs and justice.

Kosovo’s economy survives on remittances, but due to a lack of industrial production and a severe trade deficit, they cannot be channelled productively. For this reason, the LVV’s programme aims at pushing forward investments in labour-intensive industries, supporting state-owned enterprises through a sovereign wealth fund, helping small and medium businesses through Kosovo’s development bank, and gearing education towards the job market.

The second pillar is concerned with improving social provision and dismantling state capture – i.e. the control that the political and criminal elite exerts over the state apparatus and economy. The LVV has proposed expanding social welfare services by extending financial support to single mothers and the elderly, establishing maternity and paternity leave guarantees, guaranteeing free tuition for college students, etc.

The party has also called for an overhaul of the judicial system, the intelligence services and the police by establishing a vetting process for people appointed to leadership positions within these structures.

This progressive agenda is making the LVV quite popular. Polls show that it can get anywhere between 40 and 50 percent of the vote and that the majority of its electorate are young people, women and the elderly, who are considered the most vulnerable groups within Kosovo’s 1.8 million population.

But if the LVV wins the elections, it is quite likely that the international community will impose its own agenda on the government and demand that dialogue with Serbia is a top priority. This will likely happen despite the fact  that negotiations with Belgrade are not among the top concerns of the citizens of Kosovo.

The new government will thus be faced with a rather peculiar choice: focusing its energy on addressing the needs of its people or succumbing to the pressure from the international community, which sees any dialogue – however useless – as an achievement.

Does Kosovo need more dialogue with Serbia?

The problem between Kosovo and Serbia is not the lack of negotiations. In fact, over the last two decades Serbia and Kosovo have spent more time engaging in formal dialogue than not. The problem is rather that there is too much dialogue that leads to nothing.

There is a very simple, but fundamental question to be asked about the nature of dialogue with Serbia: what is there to negotiate, when Kosovo has declared independence and has been recognised by over 100 United Nations member states?

Serbia has demanded that Kosovo establish another layer of executive power through the Association of the Serbian Municipalities. But a sovereign country does not negotiate its form of government with another as it goes against its sovereignty. Accepting Serbia’s demands would not only divide our country along ethnic lines, but it would also violate our constitution.

What Kosovo should negotiate with Serbia is war reparations, compensation for wartime sexual violence, unpaid pensions to Kosovo Albanians during the 1990s, the status of missing persons, cultural artefacts, etc.

The priority of the government should be dialogue with the Kosovo Serbs and other national minorities on social and economic issues. The government should engage in dialogue with Serbia if it sees there can be some mutual benefit to it.

Kosovo and Serbia need to break away from the perpetual cycle of negotiations for the sake of negotiating. It does more harm than good at this point.

The reason why Kurti and the LVV are so popular is that they promise a clean break with the failed socioeconomic and political policies that successive Kosovo governments have adopted, including the endless and futile cycle of talks with Serbia.

It is still way too early to predict how or if the next LVV government is going to be successful at all. But what is clear is that Kosovo appears to be at a crossroads: it will either continue down the same self-destructive path or begin a major political and socioeconomic transformation. The LVV has what it takes to choose the second option and lay the groundwork for a new political and economic reality in Kosovo. Whether it will succeed remains to be seen.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.