For most of his adult life, Kosovo politician Albin Kurti has opposed the establishment. But after his Self-Determination Movement party won almost 50 per cent of the vote in a snap election on Sunday, the charismatic leader is set to become the establishment.
His convincing victory has been hailed as an “Obama hope moment” for one of Europe’s poorest countries — but it also raises questions for western engagement with the former Serbian province.
Much of Kurti’s career has hinged on opposing the powers in control of Kosovo. His public life began as a student leader of a protest movement against apartheid-like policies of former Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, as Yugoslavia was being torn apart by war. When Kosovo was liberated in June 1999 after 78 days of Nato air strikes, Kurti was in a Yugoslav prison, where he was serving a 15-year terrorism sentence. He was released in December 2001.
In 2005, when postwar Kosovo was under UN administration, Kurti founded his Self-Determination Movement, which staged sometimes violent actions with the slogan “No Negotiations, Self-Determination!” Two years after Kosovo declared independence in 2008, the movement became a party and campaigned against the EU Rule of Law Mission, EULEX, which oversaw the country’s judicial system and continues to operate in a decreased capacity today.
For years, Kurti’s violence and his calls for union with Albania made many western policymakers, who wield tremendous influence in the country, apprehensive. But he has calmed and his ascension to premier in February last year, after winning almost 30 per cent of the vote on an anti-corruption platform, was cheered by many diplomats.
Kurti was ousted after less than 100 days in power in a no-confidence motion seen as engineered by Donald Trump’s boisterous aide Richard Grenell, who was hoping to rack up a quick foreign policy victory for the former president by reaching a landmark agreement between Kosovo and former master Serbia. The EU, which has mediated negotiations between the two countries since 2011, appointed its own envoy but talks have largely stalled.
Many were uneasy about US pressure for a deal, especially one that would include a contentious exchange of territory with Serbia. But many Kosovars have lost trust in the EU, which has kept its population of 1.8m out of the Schengen visa-free travel zone while extending the privilege to everyone else west of Belarus, including war-torn Ukraine. It is complicated for Brussels to create policy towards Kosovo as five EU member states do not recognise its independence.
Kurti has made clear the EU-mediated dialogue with Serbia is not his chief priority. But he could surprise. Former president Hashim Thaci, who was the west’s chief interlocutor for more than a decade, has been compromised by allegations of corruption and war crimes, for which he now awaits trial in The Hague.
Kurti is the first leader in Kosovo in years with the popular legitimacy to deliver a deal. The question is whether the unbending anti-establishment force will be ready for compromise.
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