Did The US Just Pressure Kosovo To Oust Their Prime Minister?

A no-confidence vote in southeast Europe in the shadow of COVID-19.
Albin Kurti during the first meeting of the Government of the Republic of Kosovo – February 4, 2020 (Office of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Kosovo)

Albin Kurti during the first meeting of the Government of the Republic of Kosovo – February 4, 2020 (Office of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Kosovo)

March 26, the Assembly of the Republic of Kosovo by an 82-34 no-confidence vote dismissed the government of Prime Minister Albin Kurti and his Vetëvendosje party, only 51 days after his coalition government took office. The Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), the junior partner in the ruling coalition, brought the motion. This major disruption of functioning government happened in the midst of the unfolding Coronavirus pandemic from which Kosovo is not exempt.

I worked in Kosovo from immediately after the 1999 Kosovo War until the end of 2015. I’ve known Albin Kurti personally since 2003. Though now at some distance, I follow Kosovo affairs. I believe the US role, if any, should be investigated by Congress when it can resume some normal order of business. This article explores the context of the no confidence vote.

In December 2010, Vetëvendosje, until then a protest movement, contesting national elections for the first time, won seats in the Kosovo Assembly and Kurti became Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Vetëvendosje sought to distinguish itself from other Kosovo parties in:

1) Rejecting political cronyism and corruption, particularly of the parties led by commanders of the 1998-1999 ethnic Albanian revolt against Serbian rule in Kosovo,
2) Seeking to unify Kosovo and neighboring Albania as one state,
3) Opposing privatization of state enterprises surviving from the Yugoslav period,
4) Rejecting international governance or supervisory role in Kosovo, and
5) Demanding that Kosovo negotiate with Serbia from a position of equality and reciprocity.

Some commentators see Vetëvendosje’s embrace of ethnic nationalism a decade ago as a transformation from a left-leaning to a right-wing party, though it seems more accurate to see that as an exception in an otherwise left-populist agenda. Their advocacy of unification of majority Albanian ethnicity Kosovo with Albania stokes regional fears that the party would also seek to create a greater Albania including Albanian-majority regions of neighboring Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. This is a nightmare scenario that could lead to widespread ethnic conflict and civil war – but one that Vetëvendosje has not advocated.

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Meet Albin Kurti

Albin Kurti joined the presidency of the Student Independent Union of the University of Prishtina in August 1997. Students of Albanian ethnicity had been kicked out of the university. Nonviolent protests such as one co-lead by Kurti October 1, 1997, were violently crushed. Serbia imprisoned Kurti, already a Kosovo hero, in April 1999. A 2000 “Free Albin Kurti” flyer shows him with shoulder-length dreadlocks. Though admitted to the University of Prishtina Faculty of Engineering in 1993, he was only able to complete his Telecommunications and Computer Engineering degree in 2003.

Kurti was sentenced in March 2000. <a href="http://www.bndlg.de/~wplarre/Suche-Kurti.htm">Photo from 1990s</a>.

Kurti was sentenced in March 2000. Photo from 1990s.

I first met Albin Kurti when I went to his Kosova Action Network (KAN) offices in 2003 to sit in on training that he was leading on nonviolent action and organization. Albin was trained by, among others, Nonviolence International (NI) in the US. (Transparency alert: NI’s director is a friend.) The KAN training used films of Martin Luther King, the Birmingham lunch counter sit-in, and Gandhi’s salt protests. I was also part of a 2003 KAN bus journey in Kosovo that included Kosovar and international activists that went to major war massacre sites, including Krushës së Madhe, to meet with families and survivors.

Our final stop was in a small ethnic-Serbian village, Gorazdevac, one of the few places where any Serbs at all remained in western Kosovo after the 1999 war. In that early post-war period, dialogue between Serbs and Albanians was rare, and if happening at all, tense. Most Serbs saw Albin as a criminal revolutionary who had defied Serbian authority and upended their lives. That night, though, he engaged in several hours of even friendly discussion with Gorazdevac Serbs over slivovica, a home brew Balkan plum brandy.

Albin’s Serbian language skills are excellent – not only as having grown up and gone to school when Kosovo was an autonomous region of Serbia, a constituent republic of Yugoslavia, but also having been jailed in Serbia from April 1999, during the Kosovo war, until he was released, under international pressure in December 2001, two and a half years after the war and the exit of Serbian military and police from Kosovo. Serbia had tried, convicted and sentenced him to 15 years for terrorism and jeopardizing Yugoslav territorial integrity. During the hours of travel that day I was moved by Albin’s compassion, intelligence and guts. From meetings with survivors to discussion with adversaries he was focused, respectful, and engaged.

Albin Kurti when released from prison in Serbia, 2001.

Albin Kurti when released from prison in Serbia, 2001.

Albin is probably unique in the world. How many Prime Ministers have been imprisoned by three different governments? Serbia was first in line. Then, in 2005, Kurti was arrested by UNMIK, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, at the time Kosovo’s government, for defacing UNMIK buildings. He was arrested again by UNMIK after a 2007 demonstration he led became, or so appeared to police, threatening. Romanian police, part of the UN mission, fired out-of-date rubber and plastic bullets killing two protesters and injuring more than 80 others.

Albin was arrested and held five months in jail and then a further five months under house arrest. No police officers or commanders were ever charged. Kurti was arrested again in 2015 by the government of Kosovo, initially remanded to high security prison for 30 days, convicted and placed on probation, for his participation in setting off tear gas in the chambers of the Assembly of Kosovo. So: arrested and held by three different governments: Serbia, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, and the government of Kosovo.

In 2004, KAN was a partner in a European Voluntary Service (EVS) project the organization I directed ran, in which international EVS volunteers worked with local activists in 10 towns and villages. Our local activists were from 5 different ethnicities. Albin, part of the training team, probably prepared most thoroughly for his role. In training and leisure, his interaction with the young Albanian participants was no different than with the young Serbs or the youth from Kosovo’s three most marginalized ethnicities (Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian). A bit more of picturing him, a mutual friend tells me, he liked grunge music, political philosophy, and art films.

Albin Kurti, leader of Vetevendosje, being arrested by Kosovo police. AlbaniaNews.it

Albin Kurti, leader of Vetevendosje, being arrested by Kosovo police. AlbaniaNews.it

In 2005, the Kosova Action Network transformed into Levizja Vetëvendosje (LVV, Self-Determination Movement). On two occasions, one in 2006 when Vetëvendosje was still a fringe movement, and one when Albin and his movement were in government, I contacted him to critique Vetëvendosje actions. He responded quickly and asked to meet. As on other occasions with Albin, I found him brilliant, engaged, respectful, concerned, focused, as well as sometimes quite light and playful.

Though I don’t find my 2006 letter to Albin, I recall writing him that demonstrators throwing eggs at people was not non-violence, and that a Vetëvendosje poster “Wanted: Dead or Alive” with pictures of prominent Kosovo politicians was a really bad idea in a country where several political figures were assassinated in the months following the end of the 1999 war. I recall telling him, when we met, that such tactics were going to get people killed. Albin assured me that Kosovars did not take Wanted: Dead or Alive literally and that he knew his people and could control his demonstrations, no one was getting killed. I didn’t realize until doing background research for this article that the Wanted poster had raised much broader anger and Vetëvendosje re-messaging.

In 2015, after my friend Bajram Kinolli, stage name Kafu, and his band Gipsy Groove performed in a Tirana concert, a Vetëvendosje activist in the presence of other party members and activists, assaulted Kafu in anger that he had performed a song in Serbian. Kafu is serious in his peace activism and commitment to work across boundaries. Kafu and I met with Albin to ask that he address this hate crime energetically and publicly. Albin was unequivocal in his apology and he guaranteed that this was being addressed within the party. He was also steadfast in saying it would not be useful to make a more public matter of it. As postscript, Kurti has been quite pro-active in his work with Kosovo minority communities during his governance.

A Vetëvendosje-led Government

October 6, 2019, Kosovo Assembly elections were held. Vetëvendosje won 26.27% of the vote, ahead of LDK, the second-place party, by 14,485 votes. By the Constitution, Vetëvendosje was tasked with forming the government. Forming a coalition was challenging; a new Kurti-led government was not finally formed until February 3, 2020. Though the LDK entered government, the post of President went to the incumbent, Hashim Thaçi (2016-date), head of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), political commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (1994-1999), participant in the peace negotiations, Prime Minister (2008-2014) who had declared Kosovo independence in 2008, Foreign Minister (2014-2016). Thaçi though widely accused of multiple crimes has not been tried or convicted of any.

No Confidence!

The no-confidence vote on March 25 was a day after Albin’s 45th birthday. He now acts as caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed either through new elections or some other agreement.

All major opposition parties in the Assembly joined the no-confidence vote. The parties themselves, as well as outside observers, offer many reasons for voting no confidence:

  • It was what the United States wanted:
    • Because of “the US administration’s determination to remove a government unwilling to comply with its demands,”
    • Because Kosovo is so grateful for US support and fearful of losing it, that the parties will go along with anything the US wants – Period;
    • Because the US indicated what it wants, particularly US Ambassador Philip Kosnett’s March 24 tweet, “Pleased to see the Assembly will hold a session on the no-confidence vote tomorrow. As I told the PM today, it is important for the Assembly and all Kosovo institutions to respect the Constitution.”
    • Because the Trump administration would claim a Kosovo-Serbia peace deal is proof it solves intractable problems – a position so far not supported by results in its engagements with North Korea, China, Japan, Israel-Palestine, Venezuela and Mexico;
    • Because Kurti opposed ending 100% tariffs on Serbian goods without some Serbian reciprocity. The US demands complete removal of the tariffs citing the need for a freer flow of goods during the COVID-19 crisis;
    • Because the US has an interest in oil pipelines, Kosovo is strategically located, and the US wants people in charge who won’t get in the way;
    • Because the US administration is courting Serbia, Russia’s ally – whether to strengthen US-Serbia relations, or to do Russia’s bidding depends for now on the observer’s politics;
  • It was a good time to do it:
    • Because of the pandemic, people cannot come out to demonstrate for Kurti and against the no-confidence vote – and in normal times they would be out in masse;
  • It serves President Thaçi’s interests:
    • Because Thaçi is ready to sign a territory swap peace deal with Serbia, strongly opposed by Kurti;
    • Because Thaçi-aligned Kosovo war veterans feared war crimes indictments were coming from the Kosovo Specialist Chamber at the Hague;
    • Because Kurti would not declare a state of emergency to fight COVID-19 – which would have increased Thaçi’s power;
  • Other parties seek to improve their positions:
    • Because party stalwarts are profiteering;
    • Because Kurti sacked Interior Minister Agim Veliu for publicly supporting calling a state of emergency; LDK, Veliu’s party, was outraged;
    • Because the parties in the Assembly all hope to improve their position after new elections.
    • Because this was a chance to reject the party, Vetëvendosje, and its leader Albin Kurti that had three separate times lobbed tear gas canisters into the packed chamber of the Assembly, most recently only two years earlier, sending the coughing choking members of the Assembly to the exits to prevent a vote that ultimately passed 80-11, to settle a border dispute by ceding about 30 square miles of Kosovo land to neighboring Montenegro.

Perhaps No Confidence was revenge, a response finally to being gassed, payback to the holier than thou party and leader who really did curtail corruption, cut ministers’ salaries including his own, and aim to reduce the crony patronage system that Kosovo government had become.

Overwhelmingly the parties fell into line and voted against the Kurti government.

At first glance, what happened in Kosovo smells like a US-organized coup. It did to me. It did as well to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, to analysts published in Frankfurt Allgemeigne, the Economist, the Conversation. Der Standard ran this headline: “Trump’s Balkan Policy: Kosovar government overthrown”.

A parliamentary vote is not a coup – or is it?

The Kuvendi i Republikës së Kosovës (Assembly of the Republic of Kosovo – the “Assembly”) is the country’s parliament. A vote of no confidence is provided for in the country’s Constitution. It does not require illegal action or even its allegation, but only that a simple majority of members of the Assembly, have become so dissatisfied with the ruling government as to want it thrown out. Presto, done. If a party with a parliamentary majority forms a government, a no-confidence vote is unlikely. Though Kurti’s party had the most votes (26%) in the last election, it needed coalition partners. It was inherently unstable. A no-confidence vote by a majority is part of that democracy’s constitutional practice. From that perspective, it was a constitutional action, not a coup.

Kosovo’s parliamentary system has a number of power centers. The Assembly makes the laws, selects the Prime Minister who is the head of government, selects the President who is the head of State, approves appointments, judges, etc. The Supreme Court, whose judges may serve one seven-year term, can rule acts of the Assembly and other laws or edicts unconstitutional. The work of the government – its ministries and agencies – is led by the Prime Minister, Albin Kurti. The representation of the State is led by the President, Hashim Thaçi. There is no love lost between Kurti and Thaçi.

The Influence of the United States and its Ambassador

When I used to lecture on our work in Kosovo, I compared it to Nebraska where I grew up. Same latitude, roughly the same population. Kosovo’s land area is about one-third smaller than Nebraska. Tied for poorest country in Europe, its gross domestic product was about 1/30th of Nebraska’s. Why, I’d ask, is Nebraska 30 times richer? In part, it’s a peace dividend. The last “battle” on Nebraska soil was a skirmish in 1876 with one fatality. Since that same time, Kosovo soil has seen six wars, multiple mass expulsions of Albanians or Serbs, several foreign power occupations, and ethnic massacres. It’s an explanation and a warning. That peace dividend also includes such advantages as a vast trade area of open borders, common language, and educational exchange.

In any case, if the government of the United States, the indispensable ally, the protector, sneezes everyone says, “Gesundheit, should I close the window, what I can I bring you” – and Kosovo gets the cold. The United States sneezed. Ambassador Kosnett tweeted. Donald Trump Jr. tweeted it was time to cut aid and bring home remaining US troops in Kosovo. (And why would Jr. be tweeting about Kosovo, undermining the activist populist leader?)

Kurti himself, quite publicly, has called President Trump’s envoy Richard Grenell directly responsible for his government being “overthrown”. Congressman Eliot Engel (no relation) and Senator Bob Menendez in a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo echoed Kurti’s sentiments calling on State to take an even-handed approach to Serbia-Kosovo negotiations and stop its “heavy-handed approach toward the elected government in Kosovo.” The most prominent advocate for Kosovo in the US, the Albanian American Civic League, wrote the Administration, “Since Ambassador Grenell has lost the credibility of an impartial mediator, the Civic League calls on President Trump to remove Ambassador Grenell from his duties as Special Envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.”

Prominent Kosovo publisher Veton Surroi tells us that Kosovars will proactively seek America’s “advice” which will then be taken as an order on virtually anything. This is not new. In 2011 during the Obama administration, Ambassador Christopher Dell essentially chose Kosovo’s President, Atifete Jahjaga. This might be a caution to see the no-confidence vote more as sanctioned or permitted by the US Embassy than as a US-orchestrated coup. One knowledgeable Kosovo friend told me, “our politicians… we did it to ourselves.”

At the same time, the State Department knows, and Ambassador Kosnett, a veteran diplomat knows, that over the last twenty years there has been no space between what the United States wants and what Kosovo would deliver. Ambassador Kosnett’s tweet that the no-confidence vote should be held did not need to tell Assembly members how to vote. They knew.

The US has always been uneasy with Kurti. (One could imagine him getting along famously with Bernie Sanders.) Then Ambassador Dell wouldn’t even meet with him. Kurti comes from a student activist background. He never backed down to Serbia: not when leading unarmed students facing tanks, not when he was before a judge deciding on just how many years to keep him in prison, not when he turned his back on a Serbian minister who came to visit him in prison. He was attempting to compromise with the US without backing down. If Kurti’s advisors were warning him, he wasn’t listening.

The German and French Ambassadors called for delaying a no-confidence vote and that all parties in the government must work together to deal with the COVID-19 threat. A less self-interested US would have taken a similar position. Daniel Serwer, Director of American Foreign Policy, Director of Conflict Management, at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies saying they have never been as divided as on this no-confidence vote, calls this one of the most serious breaches ever between the US and European Union countries in a joint endeavor.

When Albin was elected, I had mixed feelings. I like him very much, respect his intelligence, admire his commitment, and am awed by his courage. There seemed a chance he would do a great job. But could he govern, compromise, reach accords with other parties? Considering the recent experience of Ukraine’s President Zelensky, how would a Prime Minister Kurti deal with the US Embassy when they put their foot on him? “When” seemed much more likely than “if”. How would he deal with US pressure?

They did put pressure on him to completely eliminate the 100% tariff on imports from Serbia, imposed by the previous government in 2018. (Kurti reduced tariffs to try to meet them partway, but also insisted that Serbia must reciprocate. After the no-confidence vote, at the end of March, Kurti did eliminate the tariffs.) Serbia is campaigning around the world to get nations that recognized Kosovo as a state to rescind recognition. Kurti wanted that campaign stopped. But it’s not clear that the US accepts compromise as an answer from small states. Albin Kurti attempted to act as if Kosovo was a normal state and the US would treat it as an ally. Unfortunately for Kurti, for Kosovo, for Ukraine, for the US, for Puerto Rico… US treatment of territories, dependencies, client states, and indeed allies, has fallen to poisonous levels.

Thaçi, on the other hand, never had any illusions about the US role and Kosovo’s position. Thaçi is smart and hard-working. He seems to have had a better hand than Kurti (US support) and played it. His popular nickname in Kosovo is not for nothing: gjarpri, the snake.

Even many years after the 1999 Kosovo war, Kosovo people thanked me for the US role in saving their lives, in protecting them, for having freedom. I would have thought it almost impossible – but this overwhelming pro-US feeling seems to be changing. US leadership may be accomplishing the impossible – making even Kosovars lose their loyalty to the US. The younger generation wants to end the corruption, and the US is seen as protecting it. Opinion polls since the no-confidence vote show a massive move in public opinion with 52.8% saying if the vote were today they would vote for Kurti’s Vetëvendosje party.

Perhaps Kurti made a sacrifice move, firing the Interior Minister, thus ensuring a no-confidence vote, and in doing so avoiding responsibility for a direct confrontation with the US, avoiding giving in to Serbia without some form of reciprocity, and setting the stage for new elections which he believes would win him more seats in the Assembly. We may yet find that Kurti was playing chess while Thaçi was playing checkers.

The downside: the government should be focused on fighting the pandemic.

Conclusion

Robert Osgood’s 1954 classic Ideals and Self-interest in America’s Foreign Relations made the case that ideals and self-interest are virtually always in play in US foreign relations. Whether ally or client state, at whatever time, and with changes of administrations, economies, and external pressures, the balance might swing widely but both ideals and self-interest were present. With the Trump Administration, however, “ideals” are on life support. Wherever the current White House turns its gaze, it is unlikely that ideals are involved. A White House that has not succeeded in any of its ballyhooed initiatives, it’s reported, believes it can get – and ballyhoo – a Serbia-Kosovo agreement. In that context, Kurti is an obstacle.

The Kosovo Assembly exercised its constitutional prerogative to vote no confidence in the Kurti government. It was not a coup – but the US was pulling the leash. With COVID-19 already a world pandemic affecting their country, Kosovo political leaders and parties should have deferred the vote. The United States should have supported stability in Kosovo during the crisis.

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Opinion // Government / Kosovo / US / World