In Kosovo, coronavirus breeds political maladies

Pristina (AFP) –


As Europeans take to their balconies to cheer on health workers every evening, Kosovars have joined the chorus for a different reason: to protest a political debacle threatening to bring down the government in the middle of the coronavirus crisis.

Unable to gather en masse on the streets, Pristina residents have been banging pots and pans from their terraces to express anger at politicians accused of exploiting the health emergency for personal gain.

"I could not imagine such misfortune in my worst dreams," 30-year-old economist Azra Marmullaku, who has been joining the nightly noise-making, told AFP by phone.

Kosovo has "very modest resources to cope with a pandemic that has brought world powers to their feet," she lamented.

"And now, instead of mobilising all of our potential in the fight for survival, we are wasting our time and energy with a power struggle.

"What a shame!"

Across the globe, governments have been clicking into crisis-mode to protect citizens from the rapid spread of the virus, which has already claimed more than 11,000 lives.

But in Kosovo, a young and unstable European democracy, the new governing coalition is on the cusp of collapse, mired in squabbling, and with the junior partner threatening to leave.

While only some 22 cases of the new coronavirus have been detected among the population of 1.8 million, testing has been limited and many fear a major outbreak could easily cripple impoverished Kosovo's already weak healthcare system.

- 'The Snake' -

The government only took office two months ago, marking a historic defeat of former rebel fighters who have dominated Kosovo since it broke away from Serbia 20 years ago.

Yet the alliance of the left-wing Vetevendosje party, whose leader Albin Kurti is prime minister, and its centre-right partner, the LDK, has been shaky from the start.

Weeks of tension boiled over on Wednesday when Kurti sacked an LDK minister for breaking rank by supporting calls for a state of emergency because of the new coronavirus.

LDK called it the final straw and has submitted a no-confidence motion to parliament.

Analysts say the turmoil is playing straight into the hands of President Hashim Thaci, the former guerilla leader whose nom de guerre was "The Snake", who has been at the centre of Kosovo politics for over a decade.

Critics accuse him of miring Kosovo in corruption and poverty and the new prime minister has made it clear that he wants Thaci unseated at the next presidential poll in 2021.

But the coronavirus appears to have handed Thaci an opportunity, according to Belul Beqaj, a political science lecturer at Pristina's UBT college.

He said that Thaci was now trying to claw back power by dividing the governing coalition and pushing for the state of emergency -- a measure that would put him back in charge.

He "is trying to exploit the difficult health situation to restore his dominant role in the political scene", Beqaj said.

"The initiative to declare a state of emergency is the main evidence for this."

- The American card -

Analysts say Thaci wants in particular to keep his role as chief negotiator with Serbia, which still views Kosovo as a renegade province and rejects its independence, declared after their war.

EU-led talks between the neighbours broke down in late 2018 after Kosovo slapped a 100-percent tariff on Serbian goods, inflaming tensions.

Since then, US President Donald Trump's administration has tried to get the two sides talking again, with Thaci as their interlocutor.

To that end, Washington has put pressure on the prime minister to scrap the tariff in order to bring Belgrade back to the negotiating table.

But Kurti has agreed only to partially lift the measure in return for signs of goodwill from Belgrade, outraging Washington.

The reaction by the US, Kosovo's most important ally, has spooked the LDK, which also demands Kurti drop the tariff as part of its threat to quit the coalition.

Kosovars are no stranger to political turmoil -- not a single government since independence has finished its full term.

But many are especially outraged to see such drama at a time when lives are on the line.

"We do not have the luxury of wasting our modest capacities with this power struggle as the coronavirus crisis is approaching Kosovo," said Agim Behrami, a 42-year-old pharmacist, who has also joined the pot and pan protests.

"We cannot protest in the street and this is the only way we could demonstrate our huge disappointment."