Kosovo’s parliament has endorsed Avdullah Hoti to lead as prime minister of a fragile coalition government set to inherit the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic and stalled normalisation talks with neighbouring Serbia.
The new coalition was approved by a razor-thin majority on Wednesday, gaining the backing of 61 legislators in the 120-seat assembly.
Hoti, 44, rose to power after his centre-right Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) party quit an alliance with left-wing politician Albin Kurti, of the Self-determination Movement, also known as the Vetevendosje! party, who lasted less than two months in power.
The LDK went on to cobble together a new coalition despite criticism over its move to team up with politicians from Kosovo’s “old guard” after breaking ties with Kurti.
The coalition includes the party led by former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, one of several ex-rebel leaders who have been dominating Kosovo politics for more than 10 years.
Members from the Self-Determination Movement did not attend the vote, although some supporters protested outside of the parliament building.
“We are a nation that needs a government that serves (the people),” Hoti, a former finance minister, told members of parliament before Wednesday’s vote.
Who is the new PM?
Hoti, an economics professor, has for years followed in the footsteps of Isa Mustafa, the powerful leader of the LDK, one of Kosovo’s oldest parties.
When Mustafa was mayor of the capital, Pristina, Hoti served as his adviser and then as his deputy.
As Mustafa rose up the political ranks to take the premiership in 2014, Hoti followed, becoming his finance minister.
Local media have sometimes referred to Hoti as “Mustafa’s shadow”.
With a calm, low-pitched voice and academic demeanour, Hoti has been direct about his willingness to take on Kosovo’s most sensitive issues, such as talks with former war foe Serbia that have dragged on for years.
He also pledged to tackle corruption, crime and soaring poverty in Kosovo, one of Europe’s least developed economies and its youngest democracy after declaring independence from Serbia in 2008.
Serbia and the pandemic
Resuming the internationally-facilitated dialogue over ties with Serbia will remain a top challenge for the new government.
Both countries aspire to join the European Union, and the talks were launched in 2011 to normalise relations as a condition for bloc membership.
Little progress has been made since and the situation deteriorated in November 2018 when Kosovo introduced a 100 percent tax on imports of Serbian products, saying it would only cancel the tax after Serbia recognised Kosovo’s independence.
More than 100 countries including the United States and the United Kingdom have recognised Kosovo, but Serbia and its allies Russia and China refuse to do so, leaving the country in a state of limbo.
Hoti did not say on Wednesday whether he would reverse a controversial “reciprocity” standard introduced by Kurti that, as of Sunday, required Serbian authorities to apply the same documentation standards for their exported goods to Kosovo as they require for Kosovar goods entering Serbia.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has described the rules as “insane”, adding that his country was losing $1.12m a day, according to state broadcaster RTS.
Hoti said the US and the EU should both be involved in the normalisation talks and help guarantee the implementation of any deal that comes out of them.
“We believe the dialogue with Serbia to achieve the overall agreement, based on the reciprocal recognition of the two countries, is of vital interest for Kosovo,” Hoti said.
Both EU leaders and the US embassy in Pristina welcomed the new government.
“The EU-facilitated dialogue is the only way to turn Kosovo’s European future into a reality for its citizens,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi said in a statement.
Hoti on Wednesday also said his government aimed to collect $1.4bn from the national budget and international resources to counter the negative effects of the coronavirus pandemic on Kosovo’s economy.
Al Jazeera and news agencies