Few should envy Kosovo’s next prime minister, most likely Albin Kurti of the Self-Determination Movement. He will face a complex dialogue with Serbia, denied statehood by almost half of the UN and five EU members, about ten percent of the northern territory outside the de-facto state control, a special court on war crimes, a weak economy, monopolized market, incompetent and controlled judiciary, and widespread corruption. The next prime minister will run the poorest country in Europe. Kosovo’s GDP per capita of $3,500 is considerably behind Serbia’s $6,500, Macedonia’s $5,500, and Albania’s $4,500, and is only about 10 percent of EU’s $35,000 and 5 percent of Switzerland’s $75,000. With an unemployment rate over 30 percent, Kosovo’s is significantly worse than Serbia’s and Albania’s 14 percent, and Macedonia’s 22 percent. With the lowest per capita GDP in the region and the worst trade deficit in the world with exports covering less than 10 percent of imports, Kosovo’s future prospects look poor. Fundamental changes promised by Kurti are almost impossible during a four-year mandate.
Though the negotiations between VV and LDK have stalled, it is almost certain that Kurti will become the next prime minister. A governing coalition between VV and LDK is inevitable. Neither party has another viable partner. A new election is not an option either, as neither LDK nor VV will win enough seats to form the government alone. A new election would simply prolong the inevitable. The two parties do have different and often conflicting interests though. With a younger and more ambitious leadership, VV wants fast and fundamental changes and a bold departure from the past 20 years of governance characterized by corruption, nepotism, and shady privatization. LDK, on the other hand, seems interested in preserving some level of the existing status quo. Having been in power for over 15 years since after the war, LDK does not have a good governance record and effective law enforcement could target some of its senior officials. VV has a clear advantage over LDK. It is not corrupt, at lest not yet.
Unlike in opposition when he picked fights with almost everyone, Kurti as prime minister will be more careful in choosing his battles, focusing on those he has better chances to win and that bring visible benefits to the public and political dividends to his party. These are fights against corruption and organized crime, but not dialogue with Serbia. If the voters wanted more ‘patriotic’ fights with Belgrade, they would have voted for Haradinaj.
However, Kurti will not shy away from the dialogue. He needs to demonstrate to the international community that he is a reliable partner and favors peace with Serbia and to domestic public that he can successfully confront Belgrade. He will be at the negotiating table but will make slow, cautious and calculated moves. The international community will inevitably facilitate a new process to help Belgrade and Pristina figure out a way to resolve their disputes, ideally a settlement that satisfies both sides. Unlike the Brussels dialogue, the new process will address the status dispute head-on. Though Pristina and Belgrade do not agree on a solution, they do recognize the cost the conflict prolongation would have for both. Serbian President Vucic said an easy fix will be Kosovo’s recognition but added that he will not do it. If an easy fix is not on the table, the parties will have to explore a non-easy one.
The negotiations process will be difficult. Serbs and Albanians have little experience in give-and-take and bargaining with each other. For the first time in the history of their relations, they negotiated and signed an agreement in 2013, known as the Brussels Agreement. In Rambouillet in 1999 and Vienna in 2007, there were negotiations but no agreements. Few expect Kosovo and Serbian officials to take the risks required to bring the conflict to a conclusion anytime soon. Also, the voters in Serbia and Kosovo are not quite in the mood for fundamental and adventurous changes in their relations. They seem to have grown quite comfortable with the status quo. But the conclusion of the conflict through some peace treaty, unthinkable just a few years ago, is becoming inevitable. And since the status quo is not favorable to neither side, it is rational to expect Kosovo and Serbian political leaders to take some political risk in the near future by accepting terms that might not be popular now, but once the benefits of the solution start to become visible the public sentiment could change.
In relation with Kosovo Serbs, Kurti will be fair, at least by Balkan standards, no longer telling them whom not to vote for or deciding himself who should represent them. The Serb List may be undiplomatic sometimes, but it does reflect the sentiment of the Kosovo Serbs towards Kosovo’s institutions. The Serb List’s symbolic actions in challenging Kosovo’s statehood should not be used to vilify an entire community. Instead, Kosovo Serbs should be offered better opportunities to integrate and more flexibility in how they perceive Kosovo. Serbs and Albanians have different narratives about how Kosovo got to where it is today and they should learn to coexist with these differences. The majority community’s insistence to impose its own narrative on the minority community is unnecessary and unproductive. The new government should also stop comparing the rights of the Kosovo Serbs with the rights of the Albanian minority in Serbia. Kosovo Serbs are Kosovo’s citizens and their rights should not be subject to how other countries treat their own communities. Kurti’s idea for an internal dialogue is a good step in a good direction. The dialogue’s ultimate goal should be to make the Kosovo Serbs genuine shareholders and co-owners of the Kosovo state.
The new government’s major challenges will be domestic, non-ethnic issues though. Corruption and organized crime top the list. Corrupt politicians and oligarchs have controlled Kosovo’s political and economic spheres in the past two decades. A few politicians and the Devolli Company have more policymaking influence than the entire state. Effectively, Kosovo has had an informal power sharing between the state institutions and non-state actors. This collusion is keeping Kosovo’s economic and political development hostage while providing hefty benefits for the colluders. While Kosovo’s first post-war decade was a decade of conflict, the second decade, or the decade of independence, will be remembered as a decade of corruption. The allocation of favors and economic benefits rather than public interest constituted the core of the system.
VV has raised hopes that Kosovo could become a rule of law country with solid economic prospects. Reforming a system embedded in corruption will not be easy, but gradually putting Kosovo on the democratic track, though difficult, is not an impossible task.