Kosovo is preparing to hold its first national elections since its 2008 secession from Serbia after a surprise collapse of its coalition government, delaying European Union-sponsored talks between Pristina and Belgrade.
"The elections have come to the forefront," said Kosovar Ambassador to the United States Avni Spahiu in an interview. "Everybody's talking about the elections, not about the talks. This new element makes it hard to say when the talks will start, and the government has issued no deadline."
Kosovo's coalition government — an alliance between Prime Minister Hashim Thaci's center-left Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and recently departed President Fatmir Sejdiu's center-right Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) — unraveled over the weekend, when the LDK announced its departure.
Mr. Sejdiu resigned the presidency late last month after the nation's Constitutional Court ruled that he could not be president and leader of his party at the same time. The party's ministers formally submitted their resignations Monday.
According to Kosovo's constitution, elections must be held within 45 days if Mr. Thaci is unable to form a caretaker administration within a week.
The government's collapse comes just days after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the region and expressed support for Kosovo's independence and for the talks with Serbia, which the U.S. is expected to supervise with the European Union.
Mrs. Clinton's husband was president when NATO launched a 78-day bombing campaign that expelled then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's forces from the long-repressed province.
Daniel Serwer, who served as a senior U.S. diplomat in the Balkans during the 1990s, said that though he thought "the natural thing would be for the talks not to start until after the elections," it was possible there would be "informal contacts" beforehand.
The delay is "a good thing because both Pristina and Belgrade need time to prepare," he said.
Mr. Spahiu reaffirmed his government's insistence that "peace talks will be focused on practical issues, just like any other neighboring countries."
"There will be no talks on status, no talks on changing borders, no talks on granting any kind of special status to the [Serb-majority] north of the country," he said.
He said he does not foresee the talks becoming a major issue in the coming campaign, noting that "there is a general consensus that Kosovo should participate in these talks."
Kosovo has its own domestic problems, ranging from a 45 percent unemployment rate to widespread corruption in the public sector.
"It looks like Prime Minister Thaci is in pretty good position for the elections," Mr. Serwer said, noting the "uncertainty" facing the other major parties.
The LDK is facing a leadership battle. And former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj — leader of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), another center-right party — is facing trial in The Hague before the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for war crimes he is accused of having committed as an officer in the Kosovo Liberation Army.
In Kosovo's 2007 elections, Mr. Thaci's DPK won 37 seats and the LDK won 25, giving the two parties the majority in the 120-member parliament.
An LDK offshoot — the Democratic League of Dardania — won 11, the AAK 10 and the centrist New Kosovo Alliance13. Twenty seats are reserved for Kosovo's ethnic minorities , 10 for Serbs and another 10 for a variety of smaller groups.
"In a way, what's important here is how normal this all is," Mr. Serwer added. "A president has resigned. A government has fallen. They're proceeding in a normal way to elections. It's just like a normal country, which is what it is."
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