Kosovo votes with war crimes court, corruption in mind

Ramush Haradinaj, prime minister candidate and leader of the Alliance for Future of Kosovo (AAK), speaks to the press next to his wife Anita after voting at a polling station in Pristina on Sunday. (AFP)
Updated 11 June 2017
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Kosovo votes with war crimes court, corruption in mind

PRISTINA: Kosovo began voting Sunday for a new Parliament that will have to navigate tense relations with Serbia, endemic corruption and possible war crimes indictments for some of its leaders.
The early general election is only the third since Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008. But it “might be the hardest to predict,” according to Florian Bieber, professor of Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria.
A month after the last government lost a confidence vote, the battle for a new prime minister pitches an ex-guerrilla commander against a former student protest leader and an economist likened to French President Emmanuel Macron.
Polls opened at 0500 GMT across the country of about 1.8 million people, most of whom are ethnic Albanian.
“This election has to open a new chapter,” said 66-year-old Ekrem Haziri, one of dozens of pensioners queueing in the early morning rain in the capital Pristina.
“It is time to end the huge abuse of tax-payers’ money. We need a government that will take care of its own people.”
Officials said 8.45 percent of the electorate had voted four hours after polls opened, down on the last election in 2014.
Overshadowing the vote is a new special court set up to try war crimes allegedly committed by members of the pro-independence Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which fought Serbian forces in the late 1990s.
Among those some speculate could be on the list of indictees — which may be announced later this year — are President Hashim Thaci and outgoing speaker Kadri Veseli, who both hail from the powerful Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK).
The European Center for Minority Issues, a Germany-based research institute, said the court’s arrest warrants “compounded with the political agenda, may severely hamper or even bring about the fall of the future government.”
The new court was largely absent from the debate during the short election campaign.
But the threat it poses could explain why the PDK decided to end its ruling coalition with the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), said political scientist Loic Tregoures, a Balkans specialist.
The party may have pushed for a snap election to consolidate its position before the court begins work, he said.
The PDK’s new alliance is the favorite to win and has been dubbed the “war wing” coalition owing to the prominence of former KLA fighters.
The coalition’s candidate for prime minister is Ramush Haradinaj, known as “Rambo,” whom Serbia wants to try for war crimes.
Haradinaj has criticized EU-brokered talks between Belgrade and Pristina aimed at “normalizing” relations. He says they should only move forward if Serbia recognizes Kosovo — an unlikely prospect.
Another coalition has emerged around the center-right LDK party, closer to civil society groups.
Its candidate for premier is outgoing finance minister Avdullah Hoti. He has pushed a strongly pro-European platform and earned the nickname “Kosovo’s Macron,” promising to take on corruption.
Nearly 20 years after the war, political elites in Kosovo are “characterised by crime, corruption and nepotism,” according to an assessment by the Slovenia-based International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies.
After voting with his wife, Hoti called on voters to decide “the future of their families.”
In a country where half of the population is aged under 30, the unemployment rate is officially at 27.5 percent and young people are leaving in droves in search of a better life elsewhere.
To deny the “war wing” alliance power, Hoti would have to turn to the Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) party of former student leader Albin Kurti, which has adopted radical methods.
Kurti and fellow party members repeatedly threw tear gas in Parliament to prevent a law passing on a border demarcation deal with Montenegro.
The EU has made the deal a prerequisite to liberalising Kosovo’s visa regime, but its opponents say it deprives Kosovo of land.
The protesters are also opposed to an association — agreed on in the talks with Belgrade — that would grant Kosovo’s Serb minority greater autonomy.
Progress on this issue has stalled and tensions remain palpable in the ethnically divided northern city of Mitrovica.
For although Kosovo’s independence has been recognized by more than 110 countries, Serbia still refuses to acknowledge it.
Kosovo’s Serbs, who number between 100,000 and 150,000, will on Sunday elect 10 of the 120 deputies in Parliament.
The embassies of Germany, Italy, Britain and the United States recently issued a joint statement denouncing “deeply concerning reports” of “threats and intimidation” — particularly targeting Serbs — during the campaign.
An EU mission is monitoring the polls, which close at 1700 GMT, and the first results are expected later Sunday.


White House threatens to veto aid bill for migrant families

Updated 17 min 30 sec ago
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White House threatens to veto aid bill for migrant families

  • Hispanic and liberal Democrats press House leaders to add provisions to the legislation strengthening protections for migrant children
  • Many House Democrats say the Senate version’s provisions aimed at helping migrant children are not strong enough

WASHINGTON: The White House is threatening to veto a $4.5 billion House bill aimed at improving the treatment of migrant families detained after crossing the US southern border, saying the measure would hamstring the administration’s border security efforts and raising fresh questions about the legislation’s fate.
The warning came as Hispanic and liberal Democrats press House leaders to add provisions to the legislation strengthening protections for migrant children, changes that might make the measure even less palatable to President Donald Trump. Though revisions are possible, House leaders are still hoping for approval as early as Tuesday.
The Senate planned to vote this week on similar legislation that has bipartisan backing, but many House Democrats say the Senate version’s provisions aimed at helping migrant children are not strong enough. House Democrats seeking changes met late Monday with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“Right now, the goal is really to stop — one death is just too much,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., as he left that meeting.
Many children detained entering the US from Mexico have been held under harsh conditions, and Customs and Border Protection Chief Operating Officer John Sanders told The Associated Press last week that children have died after being in the agency’s care. He said Border Patrol stations are holding 15,000 people — more than triple their maximum capacity of 4,000.
Congress plans to leave Washington in a few days for a weeklong July 4 recess. While lawmakers don’t want to depart without acting on the legislation for fear of being accused of not responding to humanitarian problems at the border, it seems unlikely that Congress would have time to send a House-Senate compromise to Trump by week’s end.
In a letter Monday threatening the veto, White House officials told lawmakers they objected that the House package lacked money for beds the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency needs to let it detain more migrants. Officials also complained in the letter that the bill had no money to toughen border security, including funds for building Trump’s proposed border wall.
“Because this bill does not provide adequate funding to meet the current crisis, and because it contains partisan provisions designed to hamstring the Administration’s border enforcement efforts, the Administration opposes its passage,” the letter said.
Several Democrats said some language they were seeking could end up in separate legislation. Several said changes might include provisions aimed at ensuring that detained children are treated humanely.
“We’ve got lives at stake,” said Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif. He said the US has been “the gold standard” for treating refugees fleeing dangerous countries, “and I don’t think we should compromise that at all.”
The meeting may have helped ease Democratic complaints. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., told reporters before the meeting that she would oppose the bill but left the door open afterward, saying, “I oppose the situation we’re in, but my main goal is to keep kids from dying.”
Much of the legislation’s money would help care for migrants at a time when federal officials say their agencies have been overwhelmed by the influx of migrants and are running out of funds.
The back-and-forth on the spending measure came as Congress’ top Democrats criticized Trump for threatening coast-to-coast deportations of migrants.
Over the weekend, Trump tweeted that he would give Congress two weeks to solve “the Asylum and Loopholes problems” along the border with Mexico. “If not, Deportations start!” he tweeted.
The president had earlier warned that there would soon be a nationwide sweep aimed at “millions” of people living illegally in the US, including families. The sweeps were supposed to begin Sunday, but Trump said he postponed them.
Pelosi, D-Calif., said the threatened raids were “appalling” when she was asked about them at an immigration event Monday in Queens, New York.
“It is outside the circle of civilized human behavior, just kicking down doors, splitting up families and the rest of that in addition to the injustices that are happening at the border,” she said.
On the Senate floor, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., described Trump’s “chilling, nasty, obnoxious threats” and said the president “seems far more comfortable terrorizing immigrant families” than addressing immigration problems.
“I mean, my God, to threaten separating children from their parents as a bargaining chip? That’s the very definition of callousness,” Schumer said.
It is not clear exactly what Trump, who has started his 2020 re-election bid, means regarding asylum and loophole changes. He’s long been trying to restrict the numbers of people being allowed to enter the US after claiming asylum and impose other restrictions, a path he’s followed since he began his quest for president years ago. His threatened deportations came as authorities have been overwhelmed by a huge increase of migrants crossing the border into the US in recent months.
For years, Democrats and Republicans have unable to find middle ground on immigration that can pass Congress. It seems unlikely they will suddenly find a solution within two weeks.