Kosovo Guerrillas’ Stronghold Tense Ahead of Election Showdown

In Skenderaj/Srbica, hometown of several Kosovo Liberation Army commanders including ex-President Hashim Thaci, who is awaiting trial in The Hague for war crimes, tensions have risen amid a strong opposition challenge in the election campaign.

For two decades, voters in the town of Skenderaj/Srbica in Kosovo’s Drenica Valley have been pledging their support to the Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK and its former leader Hashim Thaci, the wartime political chief of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA who went on to dominate politics in the country in the years after the conflict.

Skenderaj/Srbica is Thaci’s hometown and also the birthplace of Adem Jashari, one of the founders of the KLA, who was convicted in absentia of terrorism by a Yugoslav court in 1997 and then killed in a bloody three-day-long siege of his compound by Yugoslav forces in March 1998 together with 57 members of his extended family.

The incident is seen as a turning point in Kosovo’s struggle for independence from Belgrade’s rule, and in the main square in Skenderaj/Srbica, there is a huge statue of Jashari, while a giant banner of him, his father Shaban and his older brother Hamez hangs on a municipal building nearby.

Over the 21 years of post-war pluralism in Kosovo, the PDK has run the political show in Skenderaj/Srbica with an overwhelming majority, although in the 2017 mayoral elections, disagreements within the PDK created the conditions for Adem Jashari’s nephew Bekim Jashari, the son of his brother Hamez, to run as an independent candidate and easily win the race.

With snap general elections approaching on February 14, and after Thaci quit as the country’s president last year to face war crimes charges in The Hague, political tensions have spiked in the town over the past week.

In the country as a whole, the leader of the opposition Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) party, Albin Kurti, is the front-runner to become prime minister after the elections, according to several opinion polls published in recent weeks. The opinion polls have suggested that the PDK is in second or third place, but far behind Vetevendosje.

When Kurti showed up in Skenderaj/Srbica to campaign on the evening of February 1, a group of around 30 protesters threw eggs and jeered at him while he was having a pre-election meeting in a hall with Vetevendosje supporters.

After the incident, the local PDK branch in the town complained that Kurti’s visit was a “provocation” and “unacceptable” because the Vetevendosje leader had a large police escort with him.

‘We are missing Thaci’

Kurti has been a staunch critic of former PDK leader Thaci and his successor Kadri Veseli, who is also in detention in The Hague. They and two other former senior KLA commanders are awaiting trial at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, which was set up to try wartime and post-war crimes by KLA guerrillas. All of them have pleaded not guilty.

In Skenderaj/Srbica, wartime sentiments remain strong and Thaci is a local hero. Osman Koca, 78, said he was upset Thaci had to cut his political career short and go to The Hague.

“People can say whatever they want, but we are missing him,” Koca said.

The PDK in Skenderaj/Srbica also claimed that Kurti made false allegations of corruption against Thaci and Veseli.

“His baseless accusations irritated residents of Drenica,” said Ragip Durmishi, a vice-chairman of the local PDK branch.

The PDK in the town is run by Sami Lushtaku, the KLA’s wartime commander in its so-called Drenica Zone. Lushtaku is a local strongman who in 2015 was sentenced to 12 years in prison for war crimes, but was then acquitted two years later by the Supreme Court.

Days before the Kurti incident, Kosovo media published an audio recording in which Lushtaku was heard asking locals “not to open the door” to the Vetevendosje leader during the election campaign.

But Hysni Mehani, who chairs Vetevendosje’s branch in the town and is running for a seat in parliament, said that Lushtaku’s plea to shun Kurti fell on deaf ears.

“When citizens ignored this appeal, then the PDK incited its structures to create that incident,” said Mehani.

However, Ragip Durmishi, a doctor who is deputy head of the local PDK branch, denied this and said the incident was sparked by an “excessive police presence”.

“The protest was not organised. They were provoked by Albin Kurti’s escort. Barricading the square with police forces got the citizens irritated,” he insisted.

“Days ago, [Vetevendosje’s deputy leader] Glauk Konjufca was in Skenderaj, without any police escort. People saw him walking in the city streets and greeted him,” he added.

Kurti has denied that the police presence during his visit to the town was too heavy.

“There were no police special forces escorting me at all. I went there with [only] one police vehicle, as always,” Kurti told BIRN Kosovo’s pre-election debate show ‘Debat Pernime’ on Thursday.

‘People cannot be intmidated’

With election day coming closer, the PDK’s Durmishi was optimistic that his party will maintain its primacy in Skenderaj/Srbica.

“The pre-election atmosphere speaks in favour of the PDK,” he said.

But Mehani of Vetevendosje insisted that after two decades of PDK political dominance, things have changed in the town.

“[People in the area] have trusted the PDK for a long time, but they cannot be intimidated or blackmailed,” Mehani said, hinting that last week’s protest was staged to scare Vetevendosje supporters into staying away from Kurti’s campaigning activities.

The snap elections were triggered in December 2020, when Kosovo’s Constitutional Court ruled that the coalition government led by Avdullah Hoti’s Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK was illegitimate because it had been voted into office with the help of an invalid vote cast by an MP with a criminal conviction.

Hoti had become prime minister after a government led by Kurti, which had come to power in the wake of Kosovo’s previous snap elections in October 2019, was ousted. The PDK’s share of the national vote dropped to 21.2 per cent in the 2019 polls – its poorest showing since the war – and the party went into opposition.

This week’s general elections will be the fifth time that voters in Kosovo will be casting their ballots since 2010, and in Skenderaj/Srbica, some people are not convinced that the latest pre-term polls will change anything for the better.

“Many governments have changed over the years but life has not improved,” a 20-year-old called Blerim told BIRN.

“I work in a family agriculture business, and no government has supported us,” he added.

Like many young people, Blerim said that his ambitions lie outside Kosovo.

“[I want] to get a working visa and go anywhere in the West to work. I do not see any prospects here,” he explained.

“Before the elections, everyone comes to our houses asking for votes. When the elections are over, nobody cares about you.”

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