Tension in Kosovo ahead of presidential election

Kosovar MP's release tear gas in parliament during debate to elect next president, as opposition protesters demanding government to resign camp outside of building

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Tear gas is released during a session of parliament in Pristina, Kosovo February 26, 2016.

Tension is high in Kosovo as the parliament started the process of electing a new president on Friday, while hundreds of protesters asking the government to resign gathered outside of the parliamentary building.

Parliamentary debate on the election was disrupted when two tear gas canisters were opened on the opposition benches, prompting lawmakers to leave the chamber. 

Security measures were taken outside the building as about 200 anti-riot police officers with shields were stationed at the entrance to parliament.

Foreign Minister and former premier Hashim Thaci is the front-runner to become head of state, but the united opposition bloc and its supporters have vowed to scupper his chances with protests inside and outside parliament.

Critics say Thaci, who led Kosovo's successful separatist war against Serbia in 1998-99, is not a unifying individual, which is what the Kosovo constitution requires. Many leading figures within the opposition are former partners of his during the war.

Rafet Rama, a lawmaker from Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo, is also running for the post.

Protesters have also taken to the streets calling for the government to step down and hold early elections, amid widespread frustration over alleged high-level corruption, unemployment at around 40 percent and a government deal with Serbia.

Hundreds of Kosovars put up tents in Pristina's main square demanding snap elections and the suspension of a parliamentary vote on a president who helped broker a deal giving more powers to the ethnic Serb minority in Pristina, Kosov, February 23, 2016.

"Thaci did nothing for eight years as prime minister to resolve unemployment, nor did he even attempt to improve the economy. It would be a disaster for Kosovo if he is in power for another five years," said Agron Mustafa, a 29-year-old unemployed lawyer.

Police have been trying to prevent possible scuffles between Thaci supporters and opposition protesters because a small group of Thaci's supporters came out despite the controversial candidate’s call to “celebrate at home”.

Kosovo, which broke away from Serbia eight years ago, has faced a political crisis in recent months with opposition parliament members almost paralysing the work of parliament with regular demonstrations. The chamber has been witness to attacks which have involved the usage of tear gas, pepper spray, whistles and water bottles.

Kosovo police officers wearing gas masks inspect the parliament, after tear gas was fired by opposition lawmakers, disrupting the first parliamentary session of the year on February 19, 2016 in Pristina.

Deal with Serbia angers opposition

The opposition is fervent because of a government deal with Belgrade, brokered by the European Union, to create an association giving greater powers to the Serbian minority in Kosovo. The opposition fears that this will increase the influence of Serbia. 

The deal was reached during talks to "normalise" relations between Kosovo and Serbia after the two sides had a war in the late 1990s.

Improved relations are a key requirement for both sides to join the EU, and Thaci has taken a leading role in the dialogue with Serbia, which does not recognise Kosovo's sovereignty.

Thaci and the head parliament’s biggest party, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), has also been accused of nepotism and corruption. His alleged criminal record came under the spotlight after secret western military intelligence leaked reports showing him to be one of the “biggest fish" in organised crime in Kosovo.

In order to become the next president of Kosovo, Thaci needs support from two thirds of the 120 MPs to be elected president, and if there is no winner after three rounds of voting then parliament must dissolve itself and organise snap elections within 45 days.

The final deadline to choose a president is March 7.

TRTWorld and agencies