Coronavirus sends Kosovo back to square one as government falls

Kosovo’s fragile ruling coalition collapsed late on March 25, after a 12-hour session of parliament that ended with the government losing a vote of no confidence. Tensions over the lifting of controversial import tariffs on Serbian goods, as well as the response to the coronavirus pandemic, led to the government – in office for less than two months – falling.

The Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) – the junior partner in erstwhile coalition – submitted the proposal for a vote of no confidence on the evening of March 20.

The move came after Interior Minister Agim Veliu, an LDK member, was dismissed, purportedly for “spreading panic” after backing a call from Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaçi, to declare a state of emergency.

Ironically, the virus pandemic nearly put the brakes on a no-confidence vote. Because of the measures in place to combat the spread of the virus, most analysts believed that it would be impossible for parliament to convene. According to Kosovo’s constitution, any vote of no-confidence must take place no later than five days after the motion is submitted.

Parliamentary speaker Vjosa Osmani was against the vote taking place.

“We can’t let the virus of division triumph in these horrific times. We need the force of unity against evil,” she said.

The European Union was also against the vote.

“This is not the time for political or institutional antagonisms, but for political unity,” the EU said in a statement.

Despite such calls, the vote went ahead and the government of Albin Kurti (pictured above) was subsequently dismissed by a large majority: 82 MPs voted in favour of the no-confidence motion, and just 32 against. There was one abstention.

The majority of those voting to remove the government came from within its coalition, from both the LDK and the Serb List.

Analysts have already called this vote a pyrrhic victory.

“An irresponsible move,” Florian Bieber, professor of Southeastern Europe Studies at the University of Graz, said in a Tweet.

The Kurti-led government will now go down in history as the shortest government in the history of Kosovo, having been established on February 5 and fallen on March 25.

President Thaçi is now likely to ask Mr Kurti’s Vetëvendosje (Self-Determination, the largest party in parliament) to nominate another candidate to try to form a government: Vetëvendosje could simply nominate Kurti again.

Once a candidate is selected he or she will get a 15 day mandate from the president to try and form a new coalition. If this fails, Mr Thaçi can turn to candidates from other parties.

It could be quite some time before Kosovo gets a new government.

In the meantime, Mr Kurti will continue as a caretaker prime minister. Last night, he dismissed the deputy speaker of parliament, Avdulah Hoti, a member of the LDK.

The reasons behind the no-confidence vote are two-fold, encompassing both the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and the removal of tariffs on Serbian imports.

Last week, Mr Kurti removed tariffs on raw materials from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The first truck from Serbia bound for Kosovo entered the country on March 21. Import taxes on other products currently remain in place.

The removal of part of the tariffs – imposed at the end of 2018 – is part of Mr Kurti’s plan to eventually lift them all in phases, on condition that Serbia cease its campaign to persuade third countries to remove their recognition of Kosovo.

The plan stalled after both Serbia and parts of the Kosovan coalition government rejected it.

At the time, Richard Grenell, the US envoy for Serbia and Kosovo, said the plan was a “half measure” and did not support it.

Pressure has since mounted on Kosovo to unilaterally lift all of the tariffs. The Millennium Challenge Corporation, a US foreign aid agency, paused the implementation of its programmes in Kosovo until the tariff row is settled.

US Senator David Purdue, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has also warned Kosovo about the consequences of not lifting the duties.

“For over two decades, US forces have helped keep the peace between Kosovo and Serbia. Now, with historic progress in sight, Kosovo must do its part and abolish all duties imposed on Serbia. If Kosovo is not fully committed to peace, then the US should reconsider its presence there,” he wrote in a tweet.

Mr Kurti is now calling on Serbia to respect what he calls “an act of good will” or Kosovo will begin implementing “reciprocity measures” both in trade and politically.

The exact content of these measures remains unknown.

Kosovo’s government decided on March 23 to institute certain lockdown measures similar to those in place in Albania to halt the spread of the virus. Citizens will not be able to leave their homes between 10am and 4pm and from 8pm to 6am.

However, President Thaçi has called into question the constitutionality of the new rules, saying that they would only be legal during a state of emergency: something PM Kurti is currently reluctant to declare as it would hand the president most executive power.

There are currently 70 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Kosovo. The country recorded its first death on March 22.

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