PRISTINA, Kosovo — Kosovo’s Movement for Self-Determination built a reputation on opposing the political establishment, staging demonstrations in the streets and setting off tear gas in parliament.
After making big gains in a parliamentary election, its leaders now have a chance of going from protesters to ministers.
The movement — called Vetëvendosje (VV) in Albanian, the language spoken by most people in Kosovo — was founded in 2005 by activists opposed to the outsize role played by international powers here since the 1999 NATO bombing campaign that ended Serb rule. It has also campaigned fiercely against corruption among Kosovo’s political elite.
Both of Kosovo’s traditional major parties ran as part of larger coalitions in last Sunday’s election but neither bloc came close to securing a majority in parliament, leaving VV as the potential kingmaker in the Balkan state of 1.8 million people. The party won 27 percent of the vote — more than double its score in the last general election in 2014.
A coalition led by the long-ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), which grew out of the guerrilla movement that fought Serb rule, came first with 34.2 percent of the vote. But it has no obvious partners with which to form a government. Its junior partner in the last administration, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), has said it will not renew that alliance and VV has long been highly critical of the PDK.
“The election results scream one thing: we don’t want the PDK in power anymore,” said Krenar Gashi, a political scientist at Belgium’s Ghent University. “Every party that has joined their coalitions lost votes whereas Vetëvendosje, the only one that did not, more than doubled them. The people have spoken and there shall be a Vetëvendosje government, even if it will take another cycle of elections for that to happen.”
At first glance, at least, the most likely government to emerge from the election would include both VV and the LDK, which sank to a historic low in Sunday’s poll. Its bloc won 25.7 percent of the vote — less than it received when it ran on its own in 2014.
Albin Kurti, Vetëvendosje’s candidate for prime minister, has called on the LDK to join his party in a governing alliance. However, LDK leaders have so far refused to say whether they are open to a deal and analysts foresee a prolonged period of uncertainty. It is also unclear whether President Hashim Thaçi, a former PDK leader, would invite VV to form a government. If a new administration cannot be established, a new election is on the cards.
Tear gas protests
In the last three years, Vetëvendosje has staged sometimes violent rallies protesting EU-brokered agreements that would give Kosovo’s small Serb minority more autonomy. It has also opposed a border demarcation agreement with Montenegro that the party says would mean Kosovo losing 8,000 hectares of land. The EU has made the border deal a key condition for granting Kosovo citizens visa-free travel to the Schengen zone.
To try to prevent measures it opposes, Vetëvendosje MPs have set off tear gas canisters in the parliament on more than 10 occasions.
Vetëvendosje, which campaigned on a platform of rooting out corruption and boosting social welfare, is also known for advocating union with Albania and opposing EU-mediated negotiations with Belgrade, which has made Brussels and Washington view the party as politically beyond the pale.
However, the party toned down its nationalist and anti-Western rhetoric during the election campaign, recognizing that the vast majority of Kosovars want the closest possible ties with the EU and NATO. Its traditional cry of “No negotiation, self-determination!” was replaced by a softer social media-friendly slogan: #WithHeart.
“Kurti seems to have learned the lesson that if he … is asking Kosovo Albanians for votes to support him, then he is not going to get them without clearly supporting the EU and NATO,” said Shpend Kursani, a researcher with the European University Institute.
Kosovo, where 90 percent of the population is ethnic Albanian, declared independence from Serbia in 2008. It has been recognized by more than 100 countries, including the United States and most EU members. However, Belgrade regards Kosovo as a rebel province and Serbia’s traditional ally Russia has blocked its entry to the United Nations and other international organizations.