Kosovo voters focus on graft, relations with Serbia

Italian Carabinieri, members of the NATO Kosovo Force (KFOR), stand guard at the main bridge in Mitrovica, Kosovo, October 5, 2019. REUTERS/Florion Goga

National elections are underway in Kosovo where the main issues for the country’s 1.9 million eligible voters are tackling corruption and normalising relations with Serbia which would pave the way for United Nations membership.

The elections, the fourth since Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, were called after Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj resigned in July when he was summoned to appear before a war crimes court.

Haradinaj has been questioned over his role in the 1998-99 war as one of the commanders of the former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) who fought for independence from Serbia.

With no clear front runner, the outcome of the vote is the most unpredictable in the country’s short history. Kosovo’s election commission said turnout by 3 p.m. (1300 GMT) was 30 percent.

“Voting was very easy but let’s see what our votes will bring,” said taxi driver Avdi Morina, 46, after voting in a sports hall in the capital Pristina.

“We want well-being and jobs for young people,” retired doctor Muharrem Bajrami said after casting his vote in the capital.

Opinion polls have pointed to public dissatisfaction with Haradinaj’s record at the head of a three-party governing coalition which has boosted support for opposition parties.

Two of those parties, the Democratic League for Kosovo (LDK) and the nationalist, left-leaning Vetevendosje, are seen as front runners in Sunday’s vote, along with the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), the largest party in the current coalition.

The election is being overseen by more than 34,000 independent monitors, including 100 from the European Union.

“We have had only some minor incidents but the whole procedure that we could observe until now is without any problems,” said Viola Von Cramon, a monitor from the European Union.

Monitors from the NGO Democracy in Action said they had registered more than 80 cases of people photographing their votes.

Negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia abruptly stopped a year ago when the outgoing government imposed 100% import tariffs on goods produced in Serbia. Most, but not all, of the parties contesting the polls have said that they will abolish the tariffs but will introduce other retaliatory measures against Serbia.

SPECIAL ENVOY

The United States and the European Union see tensions between Belgrade and Pristina as a major threat to regional stability and are pushing for a normalisation of relations.

On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump appointed Richard Grenell, the straight-talking U.S. ambassador to Germany, as special envoy to try to inject new energy into the talks between Belgrade and Pristina.

Twenty years after NATO bombing expelled Serbian forces, Belgrade refuses to recognise Kosovo as independent and, in concert with its ally Russia, has blocked Pristina’s membership of international organisations including the United Nations.

In 2013, Pristina and Belgrade agreed to an EU-mediated dialogue to normalise ties but little progress has been made.

Last year, Kosovan President Hashim Thaci and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic signalled that they might agree to a land swap as part of a resolution but they faced strong opposition to the idea domestically and abroad.

In Kosovo, all three parties LDK, Vetevendosje and PDK said the land swap was not acceptable.

“Today we are equal and people should use this opportunity which is unique in its character and historical in its weight,” Albin Kurti the leader of Vetevendosje said after casting his ballot.

There are 1.93 million eligible voters listed in Kosovo, which has 1.8 million residents.

According to the state Election Commission, the voters include some of the 700,000-800,000 Kosovars who live abroad, mainly in Germany and Switzerland, who still have the right to vote. But some locals have complained that relatives who died many years ago are still on voting lists.

Kosovo has Europe’s youngest population, with an average age of 29, and has seen annual economic growth averaging 4% over the past decade, but it remains poor. Since Pristina won independence from Belgrade in 2008, more than 200,000 Kosovars have emigrated and applied for asylum in the European Union.

The public sector is the biggest employer in the country but job applicants typically need political connections or to pay a bribe to find a job.

The European Union says corruption is “widespread” and Transparency International ranks Kosovo as a very corrupt country.

“If you have money you can buy justice here, if you have money you can buy health because you go to a private clinic. I don’t have money. My vote is the only thing I have,” said Qendrim Agushi, 32, a construction worker who earns 13 euros a day.

Polls will close at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT). Preliminary official results are expected by midnight (2200 GMT).