BERLIN – The coronavirus crisis first contributed to the collapse of a national government on Wednesday after a majority of lawmakers in Kosovo voted to topple the country's ruling coalition, following a political dispute related in part to the pandemic.
Prime Minister Albin Kurti's administration collapsed after his main coalition partners sided with opposition parties in a distrust vote against his own government, defeating Kurti by 82 votes to 32.
Mr. Kurti remains acting Prime Minister until a new government is formed. But the collapse of his government leaves Kosovo without strong leadership, at a time when most other national governments are seeking to extend their powers to combat the pandemic.
The vote was welcome in advance by the United States, whose diplomats have put Kurti under heavy pressure since his government was sworn in last month due to his opposition to aspects of a US peace deal in the region.
But he was condemned by France and Germany, who issued a joint statement criticizing the recklessness of overthrowing a government during a pandemic.
"Kosovo needs a stable and fully functioning government to deal with this crisis," said the statement said.
The vote was in part the result of a dispute in recent days between Mr. Kurti's party and his junior coalition partners over how to restrict the daily life in the country of approximately 1.8 million in response to the coronavirus outbreak. According to the World Health Organization, more than 60 people in Kosovo have tested positive for the virus and one person has died.
To contain the spread of the virus, Kurti implemented restrictions on citizen movement this week, but without promulgating a state of emergency.
His coalition partners supported the application of a state of emergency that would have given greater power to Mr. Kurti's political rival, President Hashim Thaci, who normally plays a mainly ceremonial role in Kosovar's life.
To show their disdain for political infighting, the Kosovars beaten pots and pans from their windows on several recent days. More than 10,000 also signed a petition condemning the initiators of the distrust vote for a "lack of responsibility for the public interest and civic well-being."
The vote also drew scrutiny from Trump administration diplomacy in the Balkans.
Although the coronavirus was a major factor in its initiation, the vote of no confidence against Kurti was also sparked by much deeper disagreement on how to resolve a decades-long stalemate between Kosovo and Serbia. The debate pitted Kurti, a lifelong activist, against both Thaci, a former guerrilla leader, and the Trump administration.
"This is clearly a consequence of the hardball game that Americans are playing right now," said Wolfgang Petritsch, a former European Union envoy in Kosovo.
A US-led bombing campaign helped Kosovo break free from the Serbian government in 1999, but the Balkan neighbors never signed a final peace treaty.
Serbia has successfully lobbied dozens of countries not to recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state, restricting Kosovo's ability to operate on the world stage. In retaliation, Kosovo imposes large tariffs on Serbian goods; The rights have cost the Serbian economy at least 160 million euros (about $ 175 million), according to the GAP Institute, a research group in Kosovo.
Before Kurti entered office, the Trump administration attempted to end the dispute by negotiating a deal between Thaci and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
As a springboard to a final agreement, the United States pressured Kosovo to rescind the tariffs in a gesture of goodwill to the Serbian government. Hoping to secure prompt treatment, US diplomats even discussed the once-unthinkable idea of Returning parts of Kosovo to Serbia, alarming European leaders who feared the move could reignite the ethnic conflict.
But after forming his coalition in February, Kurti immediately worked to slow down the process, setting him on the path to a showdown with Washington.
Amid fears that Mr. Thaci has already secretly agreed to divide part of Kosovo, Mr. Kurti asserted his constitutional right to lead the negotiations in place of Mr. Thaci and to maintain the tariffs as a means of maintaining pressure on the Serbian government.
"This is not an issue for our President and the President of Serbia, that time is up," Kurti said in an interview with The Times in Kosovo last month. “Our government, with me as prime minister, will preside over the future dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. The President of Kosovo is part of foreign policy, but he cannot create a foreign policy. "
That stance brought Mr. Kurti into direct conflict with Mr. Thaci and Richard Grenell, who serves as the US Special Envoy on the subject, in addition to his roles as the United States Ambassador to Germany and acting director of national intelligence.
To compel Mr. Kurti to eliminate the tariffs, the United States froze millions of dollars in aid to Kosovo. Donald Trump Jr., who does not have an official government role, also agreed publicly with a US senator. USA He suggested withdrawing US peacekeepers from the country. Those comments terrified Kosovars, who see the US military presence as a vital guarantor of the country's security.
US pressure was specifically cited by former Kurti coalition partners as another reason to withdraw from his government this week.
"This is a type of, as I should say, 'Rambo' diplomacy," Petritsch said, comparing the American approach to that of the tough lead in a popular series of American action movies.
"As collateral damage," added Petritsch, "they are going to fire a democratically elected government."