Ever since Kosovo ended its war with Serbia two decades ago, its dominant political figures have all been men who rose to prominence as fighters and held onto power despite failing to secure a lasting peace and presiding over a floundering economy.
But in national elections on Sunday, a new generation of politicians is challenging the old guard for the first time.
While the bitter division with Serbia remains — with the government in Belgrade refusing to recognize Kosovo as an independent nation — and hope for a rapprochement still far off, observers hope that the vote might provide an opportunity for the country to shake off the corruption and mismanagement of the postwar years and focus on better governance.
“This is an opportunity for the new generation of politicians to break the cycle of using Serbia as an excuse for the mistakes of Kosovo’s governments,” said Lulzim Peci, the director of the Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development in Pristina.
At the vanguard of those challenging the entrenched leadership is Vjosa Osmani, 38, who grew up among the rubble-strewn ruins of her country, studied international law in the United States, then was elected to Parliament in 2011. As of Sunday night, it seemed unlikely that there would be on outright winner in the elections. If her center-right Democratic League performs well, Ms. Osmani is a leading contender to become the country’s first female prime minister.
“It’s important that Kosovo is represented by leaders who have risen in politics through merit, hard work and a resolve to do better,” Ms. Osmani said in an interview on the eve of the election. She said that some politicians of the war generation had “failed Kosovo citizens badly.”
While much of Eastern and Central Europe has undergone an economic boom in recent years, Kosovo has lagged far behind. Roughly one in four people in Kosovo are unemployed, wages remain among the lowest in Europe, corruption is rampant and organized crime is endemic.
The early elections were called after Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj resigned in July after being summoned to a court in The Hague for questioning about crimes against ethnic Serbs during and after the 1998-99 war. He served as an officer in the Kosovo Liberation Army at the time.
Despite having resigned, Mr. Haradinaj is competing in Sunday’s election. In addition to Ms. Osmani, his main challengers are Albin Kurti, of the nationalist and left-leaning Vetevendosje party, whose members once deployed tear gas in Parliament to protest any reconciliation with Serbia, and the former speaker of Parliament, Kadri Veseli, of the Democratic Party of Kosovo. All but Ms. Osmani fought in the war.
Despite their differences, all the candidates know the public is angry, and all have vowed to root out corruption, to fight organized crime and nepotism and to lower unemployment. They have promised to prioritize issues at home before yielding to pressure from the international community to negotiate with Serbia a final settlement on Kosovo’s status.
Serbia has so far blocked Kosovo from joining the United Nations and other international bodies, and five European Union states still decline to recognize it. A final settlement might also remove a barrier to Serbia one day becoming a member of the European Union.
Shpend Ahmeti, the mayor of Pristina and leader of the Social Democratic Party of Kosovo, which is allied with Mr. Haradinaj, said prioritizing domestic issues will be hard.
“Sure, you can campaign on fighting corruption and improving education,” he said. “But when you are elected to lead, you better be prepared to perform under pressure of the international community to talk to Serbia.”
The talks with Serbia have stalled for nearly a year since Mr. Haradinaj’s government imposed 100 percent tariffs on Serbian exports to Kosovo and pushed the Parliament to pass legislation to form an army. The moves angered European Union officials, who had been mediating the difficult dialogue to normalize relations between Serbia and Kosovo since 2011, and prompted criticism from NATO, which has been keeping a tense peace in the area since 2000.
But the United States State Department is hoping to get talks back on track, appointing Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Palmer as a special representative for the Western Balkans. And on Thursday, the White House announced that the United States ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, will be its new special envoy for the Serbia-Kosovo talks.
Ms. Osmani, who grew up in the small ethnically divided town of Mitrovica, said the impatience of the international community with both parties had not been lost on politicians like herself.
“It’s time for politicians with clean hands, no links to crime and corruption, to lead this country,” she said.