In Kosovo, the speech came as a shock. At a party rally before local elections last October, the forceful leader of the opposition Vetëvendosje party, Albin Kurti, swore on the Koran that victory would be theirs. Once in power, he told supporters, the party would work to end Islamophobia.
At first glance, the speech makes sense – 90% of Kosovars are Muslim, who have historically practiced a very moderate, liberal form of Islam. But the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, who comprise 92% of the population, have been fiercely pro-Western as thanks for the U.S.-led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 that ended decades of Serbian repression and set Kosovo on the path towards independence. Bill Clinton Boulevard runs through the center of the capital, Prishtina.
Eighteen years after the war, Kosovars are increasingly taking other roads. They are frustrated by high unemployment, pervasive corruption, and Europe’s continued efforts to keep them at bay. Focused on America First, the U.S. has disengaged.
As a result, Kosovo’s next generation of leaders is marching into power with nationalist populist slogans and, most recently, have begun testing the Islamic card to expand their support base. Kurti’s Vetëvendosje party (Self-Determination) won 27% of the vote in national elections in June, making it the most popular party in Kosovo.
Vetëvendosje is also getting help. As the EU and U.S. stall or retreat, Turkey, Qatar and others are eagerly filling the void. Under questionable conditions, in recent years Kosovo’s government awarded Turkey billion-dollar contracts, from the construction of the airport to the sale of Kosovo’s energy distribution service, at a fraction of their value. In return, Turkey has invested in the construction of mosques and the restoration of Turkish cultural sites, and heavily promoted Erdogan’s Neo-Ottoman aspirations. Qatar, an early supporter of Erdogan’s rise to power, is believed to be one of the major funders of the Kosovar political parties that tow Erdogan’s Islamist-oriented political line.
Albin Kurti, a former non-violent student activist turned Kosova Liberation Army spokesperson during the war, launched Vetëvendosje in 2004 with verbal and physical attacks against both internationals and ethnic Albanian Kosovar authorities for the young country’s social and political failures. His early campaign targeted the United Nations and European Union missions in Kosovo for failing to stop Kosovar leaders from plundering the state coffers. Although the EU mission had the exclusive power to investigate, prosecute and try people for war crimes, organized crime and corruption, it failed to net any “big fish.”
Over time, Kosovars lost confidence in the international and local leadership while Vetëvendosje’s popularity grew. Taking a page from Erdogan’s rise to power, Kurti stepped up his campaign by portraying Europe as cruel, and anti-Kosovar.
The EU has hurt its case by refusing to grant Kosovars visa-free travel to Europe, making Kosovo the only country in the region not to enjoy this right. Young Kosovars see the rejection as Europe’s push against accepting more Muslims and the West’s declining interest in the Balkans.
To date, the EU has linked visa-free travel to Kosovo’s efforts against corruption and, more directly, to settling an ongoing border dispute with Montenegro. The beneficiaries of this are anti-Western parties in Kosovo.
It’s no surprise that Vetëvendosje has taken an aggressive stance to prevent a border solution. They have disrupted parliamentary discussions on the issue by launching attacks on parliament, firing tear gas in the assembly hall and accusing pro-agreement supporters of national betrayal. Just last week Kosovo sentenced four Vetëvendosje members, including a member parliament, for firing a rocket-propelled grenade at parliament last year to stop a vote on the border issue. And most recently Kurti along with two of his party members were arrested for failing to appear at hearings in their trials for throwing tear gas in parliament last year.
In the October local elections, Kosovo’s citizens pushed back against Kurti’s anti-Western and Koran references by denying Vetëvendosje a complete sweep. But unless Europe and the Kosovo ruling parties make changes, Vetëvendosje is likely one election away from a majority in parliament.
The EU should recognize what’s at stake. It should lift the visa ban and help Kosovars to make choices based on their needs and aspirations rather than their frustration and fear.
The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the views of The McCain Institute for International Leadership.