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Ready Or Not, Albin Kurti Is Kosovo's Man Of The Moment


Newly elected Prime Minister Albin Kurti reviews Kosovo's honor guard during the handover ceremony in Pristina on February 4.

Kosovo's prime minister, 44-year-old Albin Kurti, is a former student leader who made his name taking the political battle to those in power.

His rise marks a rare transition of power that could dramatically alter the path of Europe's newest -- and still not fully recognized -- democracy, whose government has been dominated by ex-guerrilla fighters since before independence was declared from Serbia in 2008.

But a four-month coalition stalemate that risked squandering some of Kurti's political momentum before this week's successful parliament vote highlighted the hard-driving politician's lack of fear at challenging potential allies, too.

Kurti's perceived intransigence brought pressure from the ex-guerrilla faction represented by President Hashim Thaci, who warned that the coalition impasse would spark a "constitutional crisis." Meanwhile, Kurti's Self-Determination (Vetevendosje, or VV) party's preferred coalition partner, the center-right Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), threatened repeatedly to walk away from talks on forming a government.

But in the end, Kurti's VV-LDK governing coalition was backed by a six-seat majority in Kosovo's 120-member parliament in a vote of confidence on February 3.

How he will govern, however, is still not entirely clear.

Dogged Idealist

There are clues in his past, say some of those who have known or covered Kurti since his early days of political organizing. "I knew that Albin's hour would come," says Patrick Moore, RFE/RL's chief Balkan analyst from 1977 to 2008. He met Kurti on numerous occasions in the 1990s and regards Kurti as an "old and honest friend."

"The established parties portrayed him as a hothead and gadfly, but his dedication to principle impressed many, as had been the case earlier with [Adem] Demaci," Moore says.

Demaci was a staunch, Pristina-born supporter of Albanian rights within the former Yugoslavia and Serbia who spent nearly 30 years in prison for his writings and political activism.

He also famously declined to demonize all Serbs, as many Kosovars and Albanian nationalists urged him to do, and insisted on a policy of nonviolent resistance that targeted the Serbian state even as many opponents of Belgrade's rule in Kosovo -- including his allies within the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) -- took up arms.

Self-Determination leader Albin Kurti leads a protest in front of Kosovo's government building in May 2011.
Self-Determination leader Albin Kurti leads a protest in front of Kosovo's government building in May 2011.

Kurti's dogged idealism fueled his student activism for ethnic Albanians' rights and Kosovar independence, landing him in Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's jail cells in the weeks after NATO began its bombing campaign against Serbian forces in 1999.

He served more than two years in prison before a deal secured his freedom and sent him in 2001 into a Kosovo that had been freed from Belgrade's control.

But that idealism also led Kurti to criticize the same international community that was behind the UN's interim administration (UNMIK) and EU mission (EULEX) in Kosovo as apologists for Belgrade and of making unwelcome intrusions on Kosovars' efforts at self-determination.

'Self-Determination!'

Two years after Kurti's release from prison, he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Pristina.

By 2005, he had helped found Self-Determination to succeed the Kosova Action Network (KAN), a group that promoted civic activism and political participation and backed a referendum on union with neighboring Albania.

Its name -- "Vetevendosje!" or "Self-determination!" -- derived from the hopes for greater rights and independence for the Yugoslav autonomous province of Kosovo and its majority ethnic Albanians.

Kurti was voted into parliament along with his party of perceived young revolutionaries for the first time in 2010.

Albin Kurti speaks during an interview in Pristina in 2016.
Albin Kurti speaks during an interview in Pristina in 2016.

His profile suddenly rose in 2018, when a crisis within the party thrust him into Self-Determination's top spot.

Many of Kosovo's nearly 2 million people at the time were aching for a break with two decades of leadership by former guerrillas whom they blamed for runaway cronyism, economic stagnation, and corruption that had prompted tens of thousands of Kosovars to flee abroad.

Then-Thaci ally and Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj was forced yet again by war crimes investigators in The Hague to answer to questions over his wartime past, prompting his resignation in July 2019 and snap elections in October.

It was the latest blow to the ex-guerrillas who had long controlled the government, and came amid a break in internationally mediated talks to normalize relations with Kosovo's neighbors. It also coincided with a Kosovar public increasingly willing to stray from two decades of loyalty to the former fighters.

Can He Play By The Rules?

Some have since questioned whether a history of the kind of tactics once employed by a bushy-haired student protesting for ethnic Albanians' independence -- albeit with an early and loud rejection of violence -- could color Kurti's willingness to compromise now that he is in power.

There have been notable signs that Kurti has not given up completely on the tactics of disruption and stunt as political tools, including as recently as 2015, when he released tear gas during a debate in parliament. (The stunt has since been repeated several times.)

Disrupting parliament is not something ruling parties generally do.
Disrupting parliament is not something ruling parties generally do.

Agron Bajrami, editor in chief of the Koha Ditore daily, acknowledges that the Albanian nationalist-leftist has been "a leader of a very rebellious movement so far, and we'll probably see a lot of energy in his leadership."

But particularly in light of Kurti's coalition with the center-right Democratic League, he says, the new prime minister "is in a coalition with a party that is a different nature when it comes to ideological leanings, especially regarding the economy."

"I think that we've seen constant changes in [Kurti's] behavior and political attitudes in recent years, and I think this will continue," Bajrami says.

Conditions will "inevitably" test the ability of the former revolutionary to adapt to life in government and Kosovo's new political realities, he adds.

"This is what a lot of people are waiting to see: to what extent Mr. Kurti and his party are now capable of overcoming themselves in terms of being able to work through the institutions within the boundaries of the law."

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering the Balkans, the Transcaucasus, and science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for Reuters, Oxford Analytica, Acquisitions Monthly, the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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    Amra Zejneli

    Amra Zejneli is a reporter in Pristina for RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

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    RFE/RL's Balkan Service

    In 2019, RFE/RL's Balkan Service marked 25 years of reporting in one of the world’s most contested regions, championing professionalism and moderation in a media landscape that is sharply divided along ethnic and partisan lines.

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