Kosovo dissident Albin Kurti reaches halls of power

Albin Kurti, parliamentary elections Prime Ministerial candidate and founder of the opposition party Selfdetermination (Vetevendosje) addresses to the journalists after voting during the early parliamentary elections in Pristina, Kosovo, 6 October 2019. [Georgi Licovski/EPA/EFE]

Political prisoner turned parliamentary troublemaker Albin Kurti is within reach of becoming Kosovo’s next prime minister after an electoral triumph that could reshape the political scene in Europe’s youngest democracy.

“The day has come! The day has come!” the charismatic 44-year-old chanted with thousands of supporters who swarmed Pristina’s central square late Sunday night (6 October) after the election, setting off fireworks.

They were celebrating the victory of Kurti’s left-wing and Albanian-nationalist Vetevendosje party in a poll that captured the hunger for change in one of Europe’s poorest areas.

“Revolution,” ran a headline in Monday’s local Zeri newspaper.

Kurti has long been an insurgent force in Kosovo politics, railing against the ex-guerillas who have dominated the former Serbian province since independence in 2008.

He and other critics accuse them of having swindled the people with a decade of corruption and nepotism.

On Sunday, voters handed that political class a bitter defeat, with President Hashim Thaci’s PDK party set to go into the opposition for the first time in 12 years.

According to preliminary results, Vetevendosje came first with nearly 26%, just ahead of another opposition party, the centre-right LDK.

The pair say they are open to talks on a coalition to secure a ruling majority.

“I will contact them today and I look forward to cooperating with LDK,” Kurti told AFP from his party’s headquarters in Pristina on Monday.

Riots, tear gas

The former student activist first gained fame on the streets, organising protests in the 1990s against former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s repression of Kosovo’s Albanian majority.

Kurti spent two years in a Serbian jail for his activism.

After the province broke away from Serbia in the 1998-99 war, Kurti becamea leading critic of both local leaders and the international community’s heavy influence in Kosovo.

Now he needs to convince Western diplomats he is no longer the radical whose supporters were rioting in the streets not so long ago.

The international community is “going to accept the results of these elections”, he said Monday.

“They perhaps see change in me, (and) I see a lot of change in them,” he added.

Vetevendosje, which means “self-determination”, has flexed its muscles over the years with massive rallies that have sometimes veered into violence.

Some of the worst incidents around a decade ago saw supporters flip vehicles belonging to the EULEX, the European Union’s rule of law mission there.

As recently as last year, Kurti’s lawmakers made a habit of protesting votes by unleashing tear gas inside the parliamentary assembly.

But in an interview with AFP in October 2018, he rejected the “radical” and “nationalist” labels, saying his group has moved to a Social Democrat outlook since 2013.

“One could say that I am a romantic person but I am not a chauvinist,” he added.

Reaching out to Serbs

If he becomes prime minister, Kurti will be under heavy pressure from the West to revive a dialogue with Belgrade aimed at resolving their “frozen conflict”.

Serbia still rejects Kosovo’s independence and has blocked its efforts to secure full global recognition. Their lingering hostility is a source of frequent tension in the
war-scarred region.

An ardent Albanian nationalist, Kurti said he plans to take charge of the EU-led talks previously run by President Thaci, his main political enemy.

He would start by reaching out to Serbs in Kosovo, and then consult the EU about how to prepare for a new dialogue with Belgrade, he told AFP.

“We have to prepare it well. We cannot afford to have another failure,” he said.

Controversially, Kurti was once a vocal advocate of merging Kosovo and Albania, though he said recently that now was not the right time.

His party rallies however, are still flooded with Albania’s red-and-black flag, while Kosovo’s blue-and-yellow one barely makes an appearance.

Supporters also sing Albania’s national anthem instead of their own.

“We expect big reforms, economic development… better education and a more developed health system,” said Ardi, a young supporter of the party.

“We have big expectations because we have been very disappointed,” he added.

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