Why are Rama and Kurti like two cats in a sack?

Kurti, Rama
Source: Kosovo Online/Ilustracija

"Kosovo and Albania, together in both hard and good times," Kosovo's President Vjosa Osmani declared today while welcoming Albanian President Bajram Begaj on the red carpet in Pristina. In contrast, Kosovo's Prime Minister Albin Kurti neither greeted Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama with honors nor even met with him during his visit to Pristina on Monday.

If Rama's cancellation of a joint government meeting almost a year ago on June 14, 2023, was interpreted as an 'alarm,' the mutual avoidance of the two prime ministers 12 months later indicates that their relations have not improved in the meantime.

Two days ago in Pristina, Rama met with Osmani and the mayor of Pristina but did not attend the anniversary celebration of the League of Prizren, even though he received an invitation from Kurti's office for the event.

However, during his stay in Pristina, Rama took the opportunity to criticize Kurti's government, stating that Kosovo's foreign policy had become domestic and that, while it might win votes from citizens, it harms Kosovo internationally. He also emphasized that passion should be kept out of politics and that national interest should be separated from party interest.

Last month, at the Western Balkans and EU Leaders Summit on the Growth Plan in Kotor, cameras captured Rama ignoring Kurti and reluctantly shaking his hand when Kurti entered the room where Rama was talking with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James O'Brien and French Special Envoy for the Western Balkans René Troccaz. While O'Brien and Troccaz stood up to shake hands with Kurti, Rama did so while seated.

According to Mazllum Baraliu, a professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Pristina, the avoidance of the two prime ministers on Monday in Pristina does not signify a conflict between Rama and Kurti. He believes it is more about different political views on issues, despite both belonging to leftist parties.

"It is a matter of personal views and party ideologies on certain issues. Realistically, there is no radical difference between them, nor any serious disagreements or animosity," Baraliu told Kosovo Online.

Nevertheless, Baraliu notes that although details are unknown, from what can be seen publicly or behind the scenes, it appears that personal relations are not the best. However, he emphasizes that institutional relations are what truly matter.

"State relations are at a certain good level, and relations between citizens are very good, as befits the 21st century and democracy in this era. However, it is obvious that it is time for Balkan leaders, who sometimes play the role of great statesmen and believe they represent great countries and powers—which none of the countries in the Balkans are—to understand that they have received the trust of citizens to improve relations, the lives of citizens, and economic relations, not to be driven by Balkan stubbornness because that leads nowhere. They need to get serious, not just these two but others as well, as there are occasional disagreements within certain elites in some Balkan countries, and personal relationships sometimes or for some time reflect on the state and political relations between representatives of the two countries," Baraliu says.

Political scientist Ognjen Gogic, however, assesses that the conflicts between Kurti and Rama are very deep and both personal and political by nature. He states that fundamentally, it is a struggle for supremacy, or who will be the Albanian leader, as these roles are not defined within the Albanian corpus, and both Rama and Kurti see themselves as the main pan-Albanian leader.

"Until the hierarchical relations between them are crystallized, we probably cannot expect mutual meetings and different messages," Gogic tells Kosovo Online.

Rama's absence from the event marking the anniversary of the League of Prizren, according to Gogic, among other things, shows that he did not want to attend 'Kurti's triumph' because Kurti 'took the stage' at this event and sent pan-Albanian messages.

"Rama would probably only be in the audience, which would actually suggest that he is subordinate and has a secondary role in that pan-Albanian movement. Rama assessed that it was not politically wise for him to be there. In Pristina, he met with Vjosa Osmani, showing that he recognizes the difference in Kosovo's leadership and acknowledges the difference among them. He also met with the mayor of Pristina and then sent critical messages about the government in Pristina. When you look at all this together, it shows the extent of the conflict between him and Kurti, and that both use every opportunity to emphasize it," Gogic assesses.

He lists several things that divide Rama and Kurti, one of which is that Rama wanted to have a certain role in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, as he did when Hashim Thaçi led the negotiations from the Kosovo side, which Kurti does not want.

"Kurti does not want Rama to be involved; he wants only Pristina to define the conditions of the dialogue with Belgrade without Rama's significant role. Rama responded in his own way, trying to marginalize Kurti by at one time drafting a statute for the Association of Serb Municipalities, expressing opinions on the issue of the ASM, but also on agreements like the French-German one, and generally criticizing Kurti's policy and approach in the dialogue. Even now in Pristina, he criticized the government of Kosovo, which is an undiplomatic thing in terms of coming to a capital and criticizing that government's actions," Gogic says.

Kurti, he adds, is not without responsibility for the existing relationship, as he once campaigned against Rama in the parliamentary elections in Albania, where he had his candidates, and there were differences between them regarding the Open Balkan initiative, which Rama was a main proponent of, while Kurti opposed it and saw it as a betrayal by Albania. In their relations, he adds, the relationships between Prime Minister Rama and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic are also contentious, as they have a kind of partnership that Kosovo has never viewed favorably and always feared would marginalize it.

"Additionally, Rama had very good relations with Hashim Thaçi, whom he supported while leading the negotiations with Belgrade, and he even visited Thaçi in detention in The Hague, which Kurti perceived as an attack on himself, given that Thaçi has been Kurti's main political rival all along," Gogic notes.

He finds it interesting that Rama met with Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani on Monday because, as he notes, they did not have good relations in the past.

"Rama's relations with Thaçi and Vucic once burdened his relations with Osmani. However, there has been a rift in relations within Kosovo itself, between President Osmani and Prime Minister Kurti, and it seems that Osmani is countering Kurti by aligning with Rama. This actually indicates that relations among Albanian leaders are much more complicated and complex than we might assume here, and that they even diverge on some key issues of their national interest," Gogic concludes.

The rivalry between Kurti and Rama, according to international relations expert from Tirana, Dritan Hoti, is based on who will be the main protagonist of the Albanian question within the 'Albanian world,' but he believes that there are no ideological differences between them that would be harmful to the interests of Albanians in the Balkans.

"Rama seeks almost complete alignment of the Albanian stance with the views of the international community, while Kurti, as the prime minister of a new state, bases his views on what he calls acute existential concerns, such as internal identity, political, and geopolitical issues. According to him, these Kosovo stances should prevail over the flexibility that Pristina should have towards the schemes of great powers for our region, mainly referring to American plans," says Hoti, a lecturer at the Mediterranean University in Tirana and the University of "Karl-Franzens" in Graz.

Hoti believes that the rivalry between Rama and Kurti sometimes creates a bad taste and impression that there is no common stance on issues of capital importance for Albanians.

"It reminds one of the old historical disputes between different exponents of the Albanian political elite. However, Albanians have easily moved from conflict to consensus through national assemblies," Hoti emphasizes.

He also assesses that Kurti's often dogmatic stances create nervousness and a bad taste among Americans, which diminishes Kosovo's advantage in regional relations.

"The USA has a long-term policy and wants to gradually bring Serbia into the Euro-Atlantic camp and shows patience in this process. I see that Kurti does not send the right message on very important issues, and I think Rama has only made mistakes by being provocative, such as in the case of the Open Balkan initiative, when he arrogantly demanded that Kosovo be part of this initiative, which he called important for peace in the Western Balkans. Peace in the region will depend on several other factors, such as the development of the war between Russia and Ukraine, which directly affects Southeastern Europe due to ethnic and religious elements. Peace also depends on changes that need to happen in our countries. Serbian elites must go through a process of de-ideologization, and Albanian elites through a process of pragmatism and flexibility, because we must be aware that we cannot have maximalist demands and achievements in our national question," Hoti notes.

Regarding the relationship between Rama and Kurti, historian Stefan Radojkovic sees another dimension: Rama, as an Albanian national, is likely tasked with making Albin Kurti act more constructively.

"Albanian Prime Minister Rama is well aware that the Pristina administration depends on Western aid and support. Kurti's behavior within the Brussels dialogue and his attitude towards Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija suggests that he does not follow the instructions and directives of Western sponsors and supporters, which has been very poorly rated, as seen in countless statements by foreign officials. This channel through Edi Rama is thought to have the greatest influence and will know how to positively affect Albin Kurti," Radojkovic tells our portal.

Commenting on Rama not meeting with Kurti during his visit to Pristina on Monday, but meeting with President Vjosa Osmani and the mayor of Pristina, our interlocutor says that Rama's choice is a clear signal that the Self-Determination Movement has limits on autonomous action up to a certain extent, and that their Western supporters, who speak with the voice of Edi Rama, have a say to a certain extent.

"Rama is a representative of a NATO member state and one of the most influential representatives of the Albanian people in the Western Balkans. Tirana is not only a center of ethnic gathering for the Albanian people but Albania is a key actor in intra-Albanian relations. We have seen that Kurti and the Pristina administration's attempts to assert themselves as key actors in intra-Albanian relations have led to very poor results, especially in elections in North Macedonia and among the Albanian community in the southern parts of Serbia, which undermines Tirana's position," says Radojkovic, who also assesses that all this is high politics, which does not concern ordinary people much.