- - Thursday, February 25, 2016

PRISTINA, Kosovo — In the gravest political crisis of Kosovo’s brief life as an independent nation, opposition politicians have set up tent cities in the heart of the capital, organized mass rallies and even set off tear gas canisters to shut down parliamentary floor debates to protest a government plan that they say would give more power to the local Serbian minority and encourage Serbia to recognize Kosovo’s independence.

“We’ve asked the government to withdraw from the agreements, and we’ve asked them to resign,” said Boiken Abazi, secretary of external relations for Vetevendosje, or the Self-Determination Movement, one of three political parties that have been spearheading the anti-government efforts. “If they don’t, the united opposition of Kosovo will continue to call protests.”

The strife — opposition lawmakers set off tear gas in parliament on Wednesday, the eighth time in the last four months — reflects widespread discontent with Prime Minister Isa Mustafa and Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci that has triggered the biggest political crisis here since Kosovo declared its independence in 2008.

The clashes could come to a head Friday. In the face of the mounting chaos inside and outside the parliament, lawmakers ignored opposition protests and set a vote in the hotly contested election to pick a new president.

Opposition leaders say they will again be protesting in the streets as the vote goes forward. “It is necessary to prevent the vote in every way,” Albin Kurti, an opposition deputy and key organizer of the demonstrations, told reporters Thursday.

The government is in no mood to compromise, calling the protesters “paramilitary anarchists” intent on “creating an atmosphere of violence and fear.”

The U.S. played a key role as midwife at the birth of Europe’s newest state, but many of Kosovo’s internal tensions and external threats have hardly eased in the past eight years.

Aided by a U.S.-led air bombing campaign, Kosovo fought a war to secede from Serbia in the late 1990s after the breakup of Yugoslavia. When Pristina finally secured independence, around 75,000 ethnic Serbs, living mostly in northern Kosovo, remained in the new country. Serbs are largely Orthodox Christians who speak Serbian, while Albanian Kosovars are mostly Muslims who speak Albanian.

The U.S., European Union members and most other countries recognize Kosovo’s independence. Belgrade and its ally, Russia, are among the nations that have refused to do so.

Critics of Mr. Mustafa and Mr. Thaci said the two men were giving up too much to the minority Serbs, who have consistently undermined Kosovo’s sovereignty, hoping to win in exchange better relations between the two countries and ethnic groups. The European Union-brokered deal would grant special powers to a group of municipalities in the Serbian enclaves.

“This whole nation is suffering because of two people,” said Hava Kurti, 64, who has participated in a few anti-government demonstrations. “It’s a catastrophe.”

In December Kosovo’s Constitutional Court determined that the deal to give Serb-majority municipalities special powers breached at least 23 articles of the constitution. Opposition political parties, including Vetevendosje, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo and the Initiative for Kosovo, want the government to accept the court’s ruling.

At the same time, the opposition parties are also highly critical of another Eu-brokered plan to clarify Kosovo’s border with neighboring Montenegro — another part of the former Yugoslavia — saying it would cede land that is rightfully part of Kosovo. They also want that deal revisited.

But despite clashes both in the streets of the capital and the aisles of the national legislature, the government refuses to back down. Kosovo, they say, can only become a normal nation with broad acceptance if it deals with its internal and external stresses.

“We have very close relationships with all countries in the region, and now we are in the process of normalization of relations with Serbia through the process of talks in Brussels,” said Mr. Mustafa in a speech at Oxford University in Britain on Tuesday.

U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Greg Delawie has been outspoken in his criticism of the opposition, saying recently that he was “disgusted” by their violent actions.

“Kosovo at this point stands at the brink,” Mr. Delawie told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in a recent interview. “Progress is possible, but it is not assured.”

Mounting frustration

Opposition politicians are taking their cue from Kosovars who are understandably frustrated with their young nation.

Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe — 70 percent of its 1.8 million people are younger than 35, according to the World Bank — but their future remains grim. The country has hemorrhaged talented young workers to other parts of Europe. Those who remain have few opportunities.

Unemployment in Kosovo stands at around 35 percent, according to the World Bank. Nearly 70 percent of the jobless are long-term unemployed, and the unemployment rate among young people aged 15 to 24 hovers just over 55 percent, according to Kosovo’s finance ministry. The prospect of giving Serbs special consideration when they are suffering doesn’t sit well with them.

“I think it is very important that the people want their voice to be heard, and they want to let their government know they are wrong, and therefore they should sign off and let someone else do this job,” said Leon Gojani, a 22-year-old student from the University of Pristina, who has joined the recent protests.

The current stress is a sharp letdown compared to the euphoria Kosovars experienced in 2008 after years of struggling for their freedom, said Besa Shahini, a policy analyst in Pristina. In the years after independence, Kosovars hoped to grow their economy and begin the process of joining the EU. Those goals seem wildly unrealistic today, said Ms. Shahini.

“Back in the day, I think the idea was that with the support of Kosovo’s allies — the United States, a lot of countries in the EU — the project that had started in 1999 would actually produce some results,” Ms. Shahin i said. “Now, eight years later, there is literally no chance for Kosovo to join the EU.”

The tension is becoming more intense in the run-up to Kosovo’s presidential election. Elected by parliament, the vote has become a political football, with an emergency session now on tap for Friday.

The polarizing Mr. Thaci from the ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), a military hero of the fight for independence, is the only declared candidate. If Mr. Thaci doesn’t receive the necessary votes from MPs, and no other candidate emerges, the country will be forced to hold a general election within 45 days.

“It’s a special, historical moment. We promised a transparent process and we’ve kept it,” Kadri Veseli, speaker of the parliament told reporters in Pristina Thursday.

But even if Mr. Thaci garners sufficient votes to become president, Ms. Shahini believes the opposition will still demand the resignation of the current government because of the special benefits granted the Serb minority they claim are unconstitutional. Their constituents are demanding the government go.

“The prime minister has to be discharged. He’s not good — this is the only reason why we’re here,” said Buqe Krasniqi, 43, a nurse from Pristina who protested in front of Kosovo’s parliament recently. “This government has to be discharged and someone else has to come here who does good.”

Despite Friday’s planned presidential vote, the opposition has warned there will be more protests when new elections are called, elections they say will be a referendum on the Eu-brokered Serbian deal.

Mr. Gojani, meanwhile, said he was tired of the politicians debating. He wants results.

“Honestly, for me it doesn’t really matter the relation between Kosovo and Serbia,” the student said. “What I want is a country with prosperity, with a better economy, where young people want to live, want to contribute to their country, and not a country where people just want to leave, just want to find an opportunity somewhere, go somewhere and never come back.”

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