Kosovo votes with war crimes court, corruption in mind


Pristina (AFP)

Kosovo votes Sunday for a new parliament that will have to navigate tense relations with Serbia, endemic corruption and possible war crimes indictments for some of its leaders.

The early election is only the third since Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008. But it "might be the hardest to predict," according to Florian Bieber, professor of Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria.

A month after the last government lost a confidence vote, the battle for a new prime minister pitches an ex-guerrilla commander against a former student protest leader and an economist likened to French President Emmanuel Macron.

But overshadowing the election is a new special court set up to try war crimes allegedly committed by members of the pro-independence Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which fought Serbian forces in the late 1990s.

Among those some speculate could be on the list of indictees -- which may be announced later this year -- are President Hashim Thaci and outgoing speaker Kadri Veseli, who both hail from the powerful Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK).

The European Centre for Minority Issues, a Germany-based research institute, said the court's arrest warrants could pose a threat to stability.

Such arrests, "compounded with the political agenda, may severely hamper or even bring about the fall of the future government," it said.

The new court was largely absent from the debate during the short election campaign.

But the threat it poses could explain why the PDK decided to end its ruling coalition with the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), said political scientist Loic Tregoures, a Balkans specialist.

The party may have pushed for a snap election to consolidate its position before the court begins work, he said.

- Rival coalitions -

The PDK's new alliance is the favourite to win and has been dubbed the "war wing coalition" owing to the prominence of former KLA fighters.

The coalition's candidate for prime minister is Ramush Haradinaj, known as "Rambo", whom Serbia wants to try for war crimes.

Haradinaj has criticised EU-brokered talks between Belgrade and Pristina aimed at "normalising" relations. He says they should only move forward if Serbia recognises Kosovo -- an unlikely prospect.

Another coalition has emerged around the centre-right LDK party, closer to civil society groups.

Its candidate for premier is outgoing finance minister Avdullah Hoti. He has pushed a strongly pro-European platform and earned the nickname "Kosovo's Macron", promising to take on corruption.

Nearly 20 years after the war, political elites in Kosovo are "characterised by crime, corruption and nepotism," according to an assessment by the Slovenia-based International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies.

Citizens are also "waiting in vain" for the abolition of its visa requirement for EU states, it added.

The issue is crucial in a country where unemployment is officially at 27.5 percent, half the population is aged under 30 and young people are leaving in droves in search of a better life elsewhere.

"I love my country but could not see any long-term future for me," said software engineer Daut Shala, 23, who just left for Germany after being hired by a company in Berlin.

- Tear gas protests -

To deny the "war wing" alliance power, Hoti would have to turn to the Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) party of former student leader Albin Kurti, which has adopted radical methods.

Kurti and fellow party members have repeatedly thrown tear gas in parliament to prevent a law passing on a border demarcation deal with Montenegro.

The EU has made the deal a prerequisite for visa liberalisation, but its opponents say it deprives Kosovo of land.

The protesters are also opposed to an association -- agreed on in the talks with Belgrade -- that would grant Kosovo's Serb minority greater autonomy.

Progress on this issue has stalled and tensions remain palpable in the ethnically divided northern city of Mitrovica.

For although Kosovo's independence has been recognised by more than 110 countries, Serbia still refuses to acknowledge it.

Kosovo's Serbs, who number between 100,000 and 150,000, will on Sunday elect 10 of the 120 deputies in parliament.

The embassies of Germany, Italy, Britain and the United States recently issued a joint statement denouncing "deeply concerning reports" of "threats and intimidation" -- particularly targeting Serbs -- during the campaign.

Some 1.8 million people will be eligible to vote, most of them ethnic Albanian. Polls are open from 0500 GMT to 1700 GMT.