Tear Gas Let Off in Kosovo Parliament Building as Nationalist Politicians Try to Stop Border Agreement

Members of Kosovo's political opposition released tear gas into a parliamentary session on Wednesday in order to prevent lawmakers from voting on a border agreement they oppose.

Kosovo, a tiny nation that unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, must ratify a 2015 border agreement with its neighbor Montenegro in order to obtain visa-free travel to members of the European Union. The United States and 23 of the EU's 28 member states currently recognize Kosovo as an independent country. Kosovo is currently the only country in Europe that cannot travel visa-free to the EU.

But members of the staunchly nationalist political party Vetevendosje argue that the border agreement shouldn't be signed because it cedes 30 square miles of Kosovo's land to Montenegro. Rather than allow a discussion and a vote on the issue to proceed in parliament, the group threw tear gas canisters and parliament was evacuated. As soon as the parliamentary chamber had ventilated and the lawmakers began to file back in, the party did it again.

The group has used the same trick to halt votes on multiple occasions over the past several years. Analysts estimate the party has used tear gas in parliament more than 15 times, always over the issue of border demarcation.

Two members of the governing coalition were injured on Wednesday, but lawmakers nonetheless pledged that the vote would go forward. The move was also condemned by the EU's commissioner for enlargement Johannes Hahn, who said that "such behavior has no place in a democracy."

Some experts said the argument over the border agreement highlights the deep divisions between mainstream politicians and nationalists in Kosovo.

"The border demarcation between Kosovo and Montenegro is not a bilateral problem. Two countries have deep and good neighborly relations. Demarcation is an internal Kosovar issue that pits the majority of political parties on the mainstream versus the minority nationalists who consider the deal is a betrayal of national interests," Petrit Selimi, a former minister of foreign affairs in Kosovo, told Newsweek.

"Today's events in Kosovo's parliament show that [the] extremist wing of the party will use violence to defend their ideology. This being said, local and Western reactions to the tear gas have been strong and are creating a popular backlash against such bizarre forms of opposition like throwing tear gas inside parliament," Selimi continued.

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Kosovo's opposition lawmakers release a tear gas canister inside the country's parliament in Pristina on March 21, 2018. Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images

The Vetevendosje party is also experiencing its own internal divisions. Almost half of its lawmakers recently chose to leave the party and form their own parliamentary group to focus on more practical issues such as social welfare. Some experts said the border vote has given the party a chance to reassert its relevance.

"The decision to throw tear gas is probably also motivated by the recent split within Vetevendosje, which lost more than a third of its MPs," Agon Maliqi, a policy analyst in Kosovo, told Newsweek.

"The gesture is an attempt by a party in crisis to remobilize its radical base through a nationalist cause," Maliqi added.

Kosovo's parliament needs a super-majority of two-thirds to pass the border agreement, and the tear gas stunt might actually encourage the country's lawmakers to get on board, Selimi said. Some analysts said the parliament will likely pass the border agreement soon.

"It looks like the votes have been secured. Now it is just a matter of how the parliament chairmanship will make it possible for the session to take place having in mind the tear gas and other acts of sabotage," Maliqi said. "Some [members of the parlament] have been detained by police. So I expect the law to pass within the day."

Tear Gas Let Off in Kosovo Parliament Building as Nationalist Politicians Try to Stop Border Agreement | World