Albin Kurti: ‘I Wouldn’t Play Chess With Vucic’

Vetevendosije leader talks of Serbia’s new/old plans for Kosovo, why justice beats tolerance as a virtue - and why Albanians should be allowed to unite into one state one day.

This article is also available in: Bos/Hrv/Srp

Albin Kurti. Photo: Wikicommons/Agron Beqiri

From the sixth floor of the building in KLA Street in Pristina, you can see the peaks of the Sar Mountains covered with snow.

“This is Ljuboten and Macedonia is behind it,” Albin Kurti, MP in the Kosovo assembly and an iconic figure of the Vetevendosije [Self-Determination] Movement, points out.

The 41-year-old is known in Serbia as one of those Kosovo Albanians who were imprisoned under the rule of Slobodan Milosevic and as a radical advocate of an independent Kosovo in the post-war period.

To many people in Kosovo, he is a symbol of protest against the current government of Isa Mustafa and newly elected President Hashim Thaci, but also against Serbia, which is viewed as a constant threat to Kosovo’s independence.

While many among the young support his radical ideas, the older generation looks at the actions of Vetevendosije on the streets more apprehensively.

Kurti says he read a lot and played chess in Serbian prisons. Asked whether he would play chess with Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic he says, no. “Not even off duty.”  

Just as he had a problem with the government in Belgrade while Kosovo was part of Serbia, today he has a problem with the government in Pristina because he says it does not work in the interest of Albanians and of the Republic of Kosovo.

His movement has obstructed the work of the Kosovo parliament in recent months by letting off tear gas in the chamber as well as by staging protests on the streets – the biggest since the war in Kosovo ended.

He sees Kosovo as a community based on three basic principles: universality, solidarity and cooperativeness, which he says is entirely opposite to the basis of the present society and its maxim of tolerance.

“When someone tells me to be tolerant, it is as if they say I should hide my true intentions towards someone, which is not the right path,” Kurti says.

Instead of the proclaimed principles of peace, stability and security, the system needs to be based on justice, development and democracy.

We start the conversation with the announcement of new protests, which the movement has called for mid-March.

Q: You are planning more protests this month. Can you say more about them?

A: Our next protest will be in a bit more than two weeks but we haven’t made the final decision about the details. It will surely be in Pristina in the main square.

Q: You will stay in the square until your demands are met?

A: We haven’t decided. I don’t know whether it will be a one-day protest. We know where it will but not how long it will last.

Q: What are your demands?  

A: Our government is very keen to resurrect the CSM [the autonomous Association of Serbian Municipalities], which we are against. Their intention is to establish an autonomous territorial administrative community, very similar to Republika Srpska in Bosnia, which will result in some sort of ‘Bosnia-ization’ of Kosovo.

Q: The whole situation related to Republika Srpska was agreed in the 1995 Dayton peace accord, surely?

A: What Serbia did not achieve during the war, it wants to achieve slowly in peace. [Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar] Vucic and [Foreign Minister Ivica] Dacic are Milosevic’s and [Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav] Seselj’s legacy and I do not see any difference between their goals, only a difference in strategy and method because circumstances are different….

There is a double imitation going on. On one side Vucic is imitating Milosevic, his aims and tactics, on the other hand, [Russia’s Vladimir] Putin as well… This double imitation will not lead to long-term peace and stability in the Balkans.

Q: Serbia has a long-term project with the Serbs in Kosovo?

A: It is an old project. Serbia and Kosovo are abnormal countries, neither is a normal country…The approach should be different – we need normal Serbia and normal Kosovo and normal relations as a consequence of normalization of the countries themselves. For me, the countries on their own are more important than relations between them.

Brussels sees it like this – they consider us small countries that are still not EU members and they care more about relations between the countries than how it is for us in our own homes. I think this is a geopolitical concern on one hand, but with unemployment and social poverty on the other, it turns democratic countries into autocracies. This entire region is under an autocratic regime. This is the idea of a fatherly figure on the top, not a dictator in the full sense but with the last word on everything. Unfortunately, 21st century, Europe thinks it’s over with dictatorship, but at the same time we have autocracy, which has a tendency towards totalitarianism if not overthrown.

Q: There are trends towards totalitarianism all over the Balkans?

A: That’s right. In Bosnia, you have an international protectorate and I think that these projects, managed politically, nationally and socio-economically, are actually against the people and not democratic. If stability and security are more important than democracy, development and justice, it leads to autocracy. The entire region is now heading towards autocracy. This is something of an old project in the Balkans coupled with the wrong approach of Brussels.

Q: How can you change that?

A: We are fighting in institutions and outside them. It is not enough only to fight on the street or only in parliament.

Q: What did you change in institutions?

A: We could not change much since we have been the opposition all the time, but we did a lot on emancipation and raising awareness among people. There is a kind of curse on us rebels, and that is that we can never document the bad things that we prevented by our activities. But bad things all over the country are becoming smaller thanks to our opposition. We did not stop or eliminate them, but with the help of our resistance, they are becoming smaller and slower. It is not easy, but, sooner or later, we will succeed.

Q: You have said Albanians do not have any problem with Serbs but with Serbia. What changed in the previous period in these relations?

A: There have been no protests of Serbs in Kosovo where Serbs asked for the CSM. We organize a lot of protests, but they did not organize any protests with such demands. This demand came from Belgrade, but I do not think this is for Serbs as citizens but for Serbia as a country. Vucic does not care about Serbs, only about his power.

Q: People in Serbia say he recognized Kosovo and that this is why he came into office, to recognize Kosovo…

A: Maybe at the end of the process, he will recognize the independence of Kosovo, but he will do that only after he is certain that he has built a small Serbia within Kosovo.

Q: Is it different for the Serbian community in Kosovo compared it to how it was for Albanians in Milosevic’s time?

A: There is a big difference. There is no Milosevic among Albanians who will send Serbs to prison and torture them. We don’t have an army and police, there is no abuse. I don’t believe Serbs suffer oppression here. We have many mutual problems, such as unemployment, poor education and health care, but there is no analogy.

On the other hand, we want Kosovo to get full independence, which, in our opinion, means the right to join Albania. We are getting no help on the side for advocating such an idea. Article 1.3 of our constitution does not allow us to join another country. We want to be able to join Albania in a peaceful and democratic manner, but that’s not possible due to our own constitution, which was more or less written by international powers.

The biggest difference is also that Serbia gives 500 million euros to their paramilitary structures who tell them that Kosovo is Serbia and is the heart of Serbia. I do not get a single euro from Tirana to advocate for unification. Actually, I am the one who sometimes tries to convince them that things in Kosovo are not as good as they seem.

Q: You will agree that the change of border is not a question of money invested in a campaign…

A: Kosovo Serbs are not able to have their own opinions on that. We have not heard the opinion of Serbs here. If we had heard over the past years that Serbs here were demanding the Association [of municipalities], I would be ready for that, but unless I hear it from Serbs in Kosovo but only from Vucic and Dacic, it is normal I am against…That is why the CSM is a project of Belgrade, and not of Serbs.

Q: So, if Kosovo Serbs organized protests demanding the Association, you would say, let’s talk about that?

A: This was supposed to happen in the past in order to get me to listen to them. There is no authentic demand. And why was that not the case? Why was that not possible? As Belgrade is not allowing Kosovo Serbs to represent themselves. In addition, [Bosnian Serb leader] Milorad Dodik is closer to Putin than Vucic on numerous topics, and this is also our great concern because I can easily imagine the president of the Association exchanging phone numbers with Putin. This is a big threat.

Q: How is that a threat ?

A: Putin mentions Kosovo once a week, comparing it to Crimea…

Q: If the Brussels Agreement is not good for Kosovo, how to establish better relations?

A: Kosovo is an abnormal country and has two key problems for the building of stable relations. These are the divided city of Mitrovica and the high unemployment rate. Serbia also has big problems, it has not faced its past, it does not know where its borders start and it is becoming an autocratic society. I think Kosovo and Serbia need to become normal countries and then we should establish normal relations. What I am suggesting is some kind of social, open and democratic dialogue.

For Serbs from Kosovo, I am primarily a citizen of Kosovo, not an Albanian. If you add Serbia to the equation, I become an Albanian. I cannot successfully stand up to Serbia as a citizen of the Republic of Kosovo. Serbia is too big and much stronger than us. But this is not the case with the Serbs from Kosovo; it’s not a problem with them.

Institutional integration is not enough, we need social integration. It happens on two levels – one is on the level of industrialization and economic development and second are universities – professors and students. I think quality education integrates people and that education and economy are the two main levels of social integration.

Q: How can we do that?

A: First, we have to want to. We have to stop with this closed, diplomatic dialogue in Brussels where [EU foreign affairs chief] Federica Mogherini tells Vucic and Mustafa, you have a deal, now go and sell it to the people. I do not believe in this top-down method. Real dialogue starts bottom-up.

Q: Do you see such a dialogue in Kosovo?

A: No, the whole approach is wrong. Instead of bottom-up for development, we are going top-down towards reconciliation. I don’t need to make peace with the Serbs from Gracanica. They did nothing, so why would I need to make peace with them? My problems are Vucic, Dacic…I remember Vucic, as [Milosevic’s] Information Minister during war in Kosovo…

Q: You are bothered by the autocratic regime in Serbia and equalize Serbia with Vucic, but what if someone different runs Serbia?

A: If the regime in Serbia changes, and for example a coalition of Zarko Korac and [Serbian liberal leader] Cedomir Jovanovic takes office, the process of normalization of Serbia would start then. When I say Vucic, I do not mean the Serbian people but Serbia as a country. In Kosovo you have one imprisoned state, but Serbia is like that as well.

Q: You deny that Vucic’s government has done more in this process than the previous government?

A: I think this is a deception.

Q: If Brussels says Vucic, Dacic, Mustafa did a good job, do you believe the Brussels package will be abandoned and they will come up with a different suggestion?

A: I think Serbia will recognize Kosovo in the end, but it will be a bitter end. However, our politicians are very corrupt and [the EU rule-of-law mission] EULEX has its files here. Using those files, they discipline our politicians. So, my main concern is that the EU is recognizing Serbia on one side, but not Kosovo and be a mediator. The EU has access to Kosovo via EULEX but there is nothing similar in Serbia. This creates a certain asymmetry and as a result of that, the CSM has been created….

Q: What has Kosovo done in the past 16 years to show that it is a functional democratic society?

A: After UNMIK, the character of government has not changed, though the names of ministers became Albanian. They haven’t managed to establish a harmonious society. This government will also fail at that, because they have a bad approach based on starting from the differences between us, not from what we have in common. What is in common is that people are all workers, farmers, housewives, taxi drivers, students – that should be a starting point…

[The UN body in Kosovo] UNMIK and our governments have the same approach – they start from differences, with an idea of achieving diversity and end up wanting tolerance. I’d start by offering universality instead of diversity; I’d suggest solidarity instead of diversity and I’d suggest cooperation instead of tolerance. I am not against diversity, I just prefer solidarity. They had the wrong approach over these 16 years. They had all the power, money, police, media, the NGOs, but the wrong approach.

International communities and out government are constantly talking about peace, stability and security, but what about justice, development and democracy?

Q: What is justice in Kosovo?

A: The rule of law, an independent judiciary, which is not the case here.

Q: How to establish the rule of law?

A: We cannot have justice without democracy and development. That is why we need to overthrow this government. We must change this government to free the judiciary from the executive branch of government.

Q: What is the specific program of your party? When Serbs here say they are afraid of your protests, what is your message?

A: Our President Visar Imeri [President of Vetevendosije] said in his speech, ‘We are not against Serbs, but Serbia is against us’. We do not hold our protests in Gracanica but in the main square in Pristina.

Q: Are you protesting against Serbia or your own government?

A: We are protesting against our government, which made a wrong, harmful and unjust deal with Vucic and Dacic.

Q: That’s the biggest problem, not unemployment or organized crime?

A: That is also a problem but all that is connected. These are all problems but one of the biggest is this ‘Bosnia-ization’, which we see as a specific threat.

Q: What about land that Serbs say was stolen from them, for example, in Gracanica, how can this be solved?

A: We have a lot of problems with property. It is good that you asked me this because Vucic never asked about this. Vucic wants the CSM; he never asks about one Serb or what problems he has.

Decision of courts should be implemented. There is selective implementation of the decisions precisely because the government has too much influence over the judiciary. Property issues need to be renewed in Kosovo. 

Q: Why is the law not implemented?

A: Because there is large material interest of powerful people. This is not just to do with Serbs, but with Albanian property, too. Many people lost their property because of powerful people in the system or around it. Kosovo is a place where there is a big outfall of capital. On the other hand, accumulation of capital is happening among a small group of tycoons.

Just as not all Albanians are the same, all Serbs are not the same, either. You have Serbs who got their property from Milosevic during the Nineties and this was not right. Then you have the natives, Serbian people who sat next to Albanians and many of them did not wear uniforms at that time. It is not the same for Serbs who lived here before the Second World War and for Serbs who got their property from [Yugoslav communist-era leader Aleksandar] Rankovic or Milosevic. It is interesting that those who got property from Milosevic are even bigger nationalists and extremists because they know that what they have is not theirs and was never theirs, actually. At the same time, Albanians who have had property here for more than a century are less tied to their land than people who got their property recently in an illegal way.

Q: What do you think about Serbian churches, in the sense of status and cultural heritage?

This is very valuable cultural heritage of all the people in Kosovo. There is this religious side, but the cultural side belongs to everyone. I agree that churches and mosques need to have their property but I do not agree that they need hundreds of hectares. This is not right. Priests and imams need to be vertically and spiritually able to face God, not horizontally, towards the ground.

Q: How did you understand the story of Kosovo’s failed bid to join UNESCO?

A: The whole attempt of Kosovo to join UNESCO was privatized by Hashim Thaci who believed success was guaranteed. There was also the prominent negative role of Serbia in international circles and the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church. With rare exceptions, the Serbian Orthodox Church is part of the [Serbian] state establishment. This is no small problem…

Q: You said two years ago that you must face the past and then maybe we can talk.

A: The dialogue that leads to development, we can start immediately. With Vucic this is not possible, he does not recognize us, but with Nenad Rasic [a previous minister in Kosovo government] it is possible immediately.

Q: Is it realistic to blame Vucic for everything?

A: The Serbian opposition has been almost eliminated by Vucic. I think Vucic represents a new face of an old concept.

A: Is your final idea a united Albania and how do you see Kosovo in the next 10 years?

A: I’d like to see our whole region integrated in the EU. In the meantime, I’d like to see a more sociable EU with more equality and redistribution. So, the EU changes, we are members of EU, and Kosovo gets the right to join Albania. I would vote ‘yes’ in that referendum, but if people do not vote ‘yes’, we wouldn’t start a Third Balkan War.

Q: What would be the name of that unified country? 

A: I think it would be Albania.

Q: What do you think about the idea of this entire region being united around something like EU?

A: The last chance for that was before the war. This is no longer possible.

Q: In the late Nineties, Serbian intellectuals perceived you as one of the better representatives of civil Kosovo. Now you are increasingly identified with radical ideas and even called Kosovo’s ‘Seselj’. Have your ideas changed, or circumstances?

A: I think that this explains what the media are like in Serbia, if they create such a perception.

Q: Not in the media, in the intellectual public…

A: That is totally false and untrue. Seselj is a fascist, he participated in wars in Bosnia…

Q: Seselj had the idea of greater Serbia like you have of Albania

A: The bigger Albania is a concept created in Belgrade. Belgrade got the territory but we got this label. You are well aware of the borders Seselj had in mind and what he did because of that…. It’s important how we want to accomplish it [unification]. I want it in a peaceful and democratic manner. If people say ‘no,’ I will stay here.

Q: Where would that border stop? Could Albanians from Macedonia and Montenegro join this union?

A: It is up to the people to organize themselves and talk to their political parties. As a movement we have members in all places where Albanians live, but we operate in Kosovo.

Q: You don’t see it as creating a possible crisis in the Balkans?

A: The biggest threat of a crisis is Belgrade, not Belgrade as a city, but its politics. Serbia is always talking about the interests of Serbs in Kosovo but never refers to Albanians in Serbia. There is no reciprocity.

Q: Can you say in Kosovo “the good old days”?

A: No, there is no nostalgia here. There is no revolution with nostalgia.

This piece was produced as a part of the Balkan Trust for Democracy’s Enhanced Policy Dialogue of Professionals in Kosovo and Serbia Program. Opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent those of the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office

This article is also available in: Bos/Hrv/Srp