Albin Kurti is the leader of the Vetëvendosje (English: Self-determination) movement in Kosovo that won with around 26 percent this October’s parliamentary snap elections. The vote was triggered by prime-minister Haradinaj’s resignation after being summoned to the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in the Hague investigating war crimes committed between 1998 and 2000. After the election on October 6, some irregularities with regard to the diaspora ballots caused a delay in the certification of the final results. In this interview with Heinrich Böll Stiftung’s Belgrade office, future Prime-Minister Albin Kurti talks about his future government’s priorities, the dialogue with Serbia, his green agenda, and addresses the issue of ethnicity vs nationality in the Balkans.
Simon Ilse: Mr. Kurti, what is the current situation with regard to the votes from Serbia and the recount; are you still confident that you will be able to form a coalition-government with LDK (note: Democratic League of Kosovo) as planned?
Albin Kurti: We always thought that it’s important to create the core of a coalition with LDK, never excluding others but never jumping into others either. Vetëvendosje has 29 mandates plus 1 from the minorities who joined our group, which makes us 30 members of parliament (MPs). Whereas LDK has 28 mandates. We want to include non-Serb minority MPs immediately, 10 of them, perhaps nine, because one might not join, we shall see. Harmonization of the government program has been fully accomplished – 100 percent. What remains to be done is the second part, namely government responsibilities, which has not been finished yet. We’ll distribute ministers’ portfolios for which we have agreed that at least 30 percent will be women, two deputy ministers per ministry max, two deputy prime ministers max, and we will try to wrap it up in twelve ministries. It’s not easy but it seems doable nonetheless. We want to strengthen the state, not enlarge the elite.
You ran a campaign on fighting corruption, de-capturing the state, pushing socio-economic development, and you were elected by a lot of young people. What would be the priorities of your government?
Kurti: We want to have rule of law in place. We want to fight corruption, high level corruption and organized crime, and to this end we need to empower the prosecutor’s office. We need to liberate it from the executive branch. Prosecutors have to become active, and not just wait in the office for victims to press charges. They should investigate and be more assertive and active, and for this purpose we are going to change the procedural penal codes. And we want a vetting process.
Inspired by the Albanian example?
Yes, I think it’s being done in Congo and Ukraine as well, but yes, the vetting process is something that we have to do, not only limited to the judiciary and prosecution but also in the security sector, the police and intelligence services - but perhaps for the high ranking officials only. Then we need economic development, labor-intensive investments, and we very need much to decriminalize procurement, because we have over 170 authorities which buy products — the state is a consumer as well and we need to decriminalize because there are certain businessmen not from “king’s court” but from “government’s court” - who are winning the tenders regularly. So we will stop corruption in the government, we will fight it everywhere in institutions and society. We want to restore the integrity, credibility and authority of our state as a tax collector. Because people don’t pay taxes if they see scandals in the government every day on the evening news - that has been the case in previous years, so to be clear: rule of law and anti-corruption is not just for the sake of justice and human beings, it’s also for the sake of the economy, which then affects the life of human beings and citizens, because, as progressives, we want the economy to work in service of society. We also need a public development bank and sovereign investment fund to boost the private sector, especially small and medium-sized enterprises in manufacturing, as well as trade, finances and services.
We’ve seen candidates in the region before who were running on promises of anti-corruption and de-capturing of the state, generating a lot of hope - but then they turned out to abuse this promise for the consolidation of their own power. How do you plan to prevent that?
Well I think that those who went after oligarchs in the Balkans were imitating Mister Putin, who went after oligarchs when he found out that they controlled and owned the media. This is not our goal. We have a completely different approach. We want our country to be free, our citizens to have freedoms and liberties. We are not after the media and finding out who owns them, but on the contrary, we want liberation. And I think with our center-left social democratic policies, this is very much doable.
Integration of the Serb Community & Dialogue with Serbia on Normalization
What about the integration of the Serb minority? There’s a bit of a dilemma, on the one hand you are obliged by the Constitution to have at least one minister from the Serb community, on the other, you don’t want a coalition with the Serbian list. How do you intend to integrate the Serb minority?
Well, first of all I don’t think that Serbian national identity can be reduced to a party membership. Whether you’re a Serb or not, it’s your parents who decide that perhaps, not your president. So in our Constitution it is written that there must be one minister who represents the Serb minority, not one who comes from the party of Serbia’s president. So let’s deliberate a little about this. These elections were marked by a fraud on an industrial scale. They (note: Srpska Lista) did it in June 2017, they are doing it again in October 2019, and between these two moments, we have seen the assassination of Oliver Ivanović, a member of the Serbian community who dared, not just to stand against Serbia’s policies in Kosovo, but also to try to bring together independent organizations and parties. So, in my first week in office I will start the dialogue from below with the Serbs of Kosovo.
A dialogue on the dialogue?
A bottom-up approach, so not like a top-down command, but starting from below, a dialogue for development: open, democratic, social. On the other hand, regarding dialogue with Serbia, I will start the dialogue with Brussels, but that’s another issue. I want Serbs to be integrated socially and economically, not only institutionally, because even if we have a Serb from the Serb List in the government, that is no guarantee that they are being integrated. I want this bottom-up approach and I want people to be integrated, not in structures but in activities. So, let’s start from what people have in common, like their social roles, social functions. For example, if Albanian and Serbian farmers in one village get together for fertilizers, seeds, food production, how can they get subsidized from the state? I think this is the real integration. We are going to respect the Constitution, we’ll have one minister from the Serb community for sure, but we are very far from what we want in terms of social progress. Even if Nenad Rašić  is minister, even if Slobodan Petrović  is minister, we haven’t achieved our goal, we are very far from that, but in this respect I feel sorry for the Serb List because their purpose is to transfer the pressure they feel on themselves onto the people of Kosovo who are Serbs. It’s a kind of interface for pressure transfer.
And on the Brussels dialogue, are you ready to lift the taxes and resume the dialogue brokered by the EU?
First of all, I must say that dialogue with Serbia is not my top priority. We need democratic state building, we need socio-economic development, and if you ask Albanians and Serbs of all regions in Kosovo what they want most, it’s jobs and justice. Of course, we are not going to run away from dialogue — we need a well-prepared dialogue, which means that we need principles, and I can imagine it will re-start, but I am not in favor of fast deals or quick fixes.
Even if the US seems to be going in that direction?
I don’t know, they have two envoys. Of course, I would like to have an agreement as fast as possible, but I think that the content, the substance of it, on one hand, and the process of it on the other should not be neglected while chasing some deadline.
Some of the principles in the dialogue were arguably set out in the Brussels Agreement of 2013. Do you still uphold Article 1, the idea of an Association of Serb Municipalities?
In 1991 Republika Srpska started as an association of Serb majority municipalities in Bosnia and Hercegovina, so it started precisely with what they are looking to do here in Kosovo. International recognition of Republika Srpska took place on December 14th 1995 in Dayton, Ohio, but much earlier on, I think it was April 1991, they created this association of Serb majority municipalities, which declared independence and got their own Constitution, bit by bit incrementally. I am not in favor of that kind of model, that kind of approach, I want reciprocity between Kosovo and Serbia, full reciprocity. On December 7th 2011 we adopted a resolution on full reciprocity with Serbia in our Parliament, so we cannot lift tariffs before we put reciprocity in place as a constructive principle for healthy bilateral neighborly relations. Preševo, Medveđa and Bujanovac , they have this national coordinating body, perhaps that should be in place in Kosovo as well. On top of that, our Constitutional Court ruled out the possibility of an Association. It’s sad that 23 articles of our Constitution are not in compliance with the Brussels Agreement and none of the seven Chapters of the agreement fulfills the criteria to be in compliance with our Constitution so basically the Association is dead and Belgrade knows this very well. And one thing which was particularly interesting for me, on December 23rd 2015, when our Constitutional Court said that the Association is out of question, no Serb of Kosovo protested, only Belgrade. Serbs of Kosovo said to me ‘We agree with you. We don’t like this Association’. Can you imagine? 130,000 Serbs in Kosovo, not a single letter of protest after the Constitutional Court said no Association was possible.
But if you look into the future, the Normalization Agreement will have to be a compromise, so that means both sides will have to give something. What are you ready to give to Belgrade?
I am sorry to say, but this is the wrong question. Ahtisaari was a compromise, independence was a compromise, so now it’s only tactic.
Independence was a compromise?
Not between Serbia and Kosovo?
Ibrahim Rugova, in the early 1990s said that independence was a compromise. Athisaari’s plan was a compromise on compromise. What I can offer to Serbia is a list of demands. 10,000 unarmed civilians were killed during the war, 20,000 women raped, 1200 cultural artifacts stolen from our museums. Bank deposits of Kosovars, pension funds were stolen, 120,000 houses were destroyed, burned down and damaged. Serbia didn’t pay a single euro for any of it. So, basically I think Serbia owes us. Why should I compromise with Serbia when they owe us — for letting me live?! This is our country, we declared independence, 110 countries recognized it, and it would be good for Serbia to recognize us as well, but I am not going to beg Serbia to recognize me. I think Serbia should face its own past. In Batajnica , in the middle of Belgrade, 744 Albanian bodies were exhumed, and there’s not even a sign that there was a mass grave.
In German we have a saying: “When two have a quarrel, the wise one gives in.”
I think it’s time for them to be wise. I think we need a Serbian president who will have a bit of Charles de Gaulle saying France is great without Algeria – Serbia is great without Kosovo. Then, a bit of Willy Brandt kneeling in Warsaw for the victims, and a bit of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika for the state of Serbia, which is too centralized. But let them send me a list as well, I want to read it but not by saying what are you ready to give.
The Special Court & Accountability
Vetëvendosje traditionally had a critical view of UNMIK, ICTY and the Special Court, but now the Special Court has summoned Haradinaj and they might actually sentence many of the people whom you would also like to see to be held responsible because they are corrupt or have a dubious past. Are you still opposed to this Special Court?
I didn’t welcome it, I said that this is a sui generis court, with one leg inside and one outside of our system and I think it’s going to be very difficult one day in Strasbourg to defend it as a mechanism. But we are going to make normal courts function normally and render unnecessary the special court which has unfortunately become an international obligation for our country, because they’ve changed our Constitution in order to enable its existence. It’s been over four years now and no indictments, no processes.
Would you welcome indictments if they happen?
No, I wouldn’t welcome indictments, but I think that many people for whom UNMIK and EULEX had tons of evidence of corruption but didn’t act upon it, and now all of a sudden we are going to go back 20 years for something that ICTY, UNMIK and EULEX all were scrutinizing, namely the findings of the Dick Marty Report. So, I am not optimistic about this court at all, and I think that more transparency is needed. It functions as a specter and they have introduced this concept of suspected witness, so some of the people are summoned as suspected witnesses (editor's note: insider witness). So are they witnesses or suspects? There were crimes against Serbs and Roma after the war, and I think that UNMIK did not do any justice, EULEX did not do any justice: we should do it. And these crimes must be pursued individually to find out who killed Serbs or Roma, or Albanians for that matter. There was twenty years’ time to deal with this. I think the problem is that UNMIK and EULEX framed the rule of law not in terms of justice for the victims or rights for the citizens, but rather in terms of short-term political stability, by disciplining political elites. I want stability based on the rule of law and not at its expense.
A Green Agenda for Kosovo?
We heard that Vetëvendosje has a Green New Deal working group, and I wonder if environmental policies on energy, as Kosovo’s high dependence on coal, but also small hydro, the many illegal landfills are among your priorities?
Yes, we want to get educated and start applying the green new deal to tackle both issues, climate change and inequality, because these are linked, and we think that it is our obligation. Green new deal is a very good expression. Also, we want to lower carbon emissions and we need to get rid of these landfills. We are such a small country to have these open landfills, and we also have to take care of deforestation. We have to fix river beds and river banks, and we have to fight plastic as such because you get as many free plastic bags as you want in all our supermarkets.
And Kosovo E RE? (note: project of a new coal power plant)
We are opposed to that project not just because of pollution but because of high prices, the prices are going to be very expensive for Kosovo. To pay 1.3 billion 450 megawatts is too much. According to this contract we are supposed to buy all the electricity they produce, no matter if we use it or not. So, the price of electricity will go up. We cannot get rid of coal immediately. We can see it as a necessary evil for some time, but on the condition that we reduce it bit by bit. We also want to allocate some funds for renewables, and in this way affirm and practice a green new deal.
So you would renegotiate the contract with the American investor Contour Global on the power plant?
… Just stop it.
Just stop it?
Annul it. It’s not renegotiation, just annul it.
Will there be more funds for the Ministry of Environment or do you think about an environmental agency that you want to empower for certain tasks?
Yes, we will have a bigger budget for the Ministry, especially for renewables and for energy efficiency. We favor an auctioning system over feed-in-tariffs for the development of renewables.
From Movement to Political Party
You built Vetëvendosje as a citizens’ movement and initiative. How did you manage this transition from a movement to a political party and what would you recommend to young activists and people who want to engage and start a movement or a party today, without repeating your mistakes?
Well, I don’t think there’s one model that fits all contexts. I think that ideas are important, so I think Serbia needs a progressive left, and then you need dense activities and organizational structures and a general vision, you could say Weltanschauung. It is very important to think big and dare and then you add activities, you need action. Without action, it’s not possible, it’s not just thinking, you need action. Sometimes even without finishing your thinking completely, you need to do some activity and then build an organization with structure. So this is the trinity.
Ok, vision, action, organization.
Yes. For five years we were totally outside of the system, getting arrested and so on, but then independence was declared, things changed and I said: OK, we can run for elections or we could continue with protests. And we can even bring the protest inside the Parliament. So, combining methods overall, but it is very important to have people who are committed, who have a lot of passion, and who insist, who take their ideas very seriously, and themselves not that much. One should not take herself or himself very seriously. Take your ideas very seriously, pursue them no matter what. So, the passion should come from turning your vision into your desire and make no compromise with that desire. Difficult, but isn’t it great?
National Symbols & Ethnicity
Some would consider you a left nationalist leading Kosovo to unification with Albania, who has a problem with the national symbols of Kosovo. How would you respond to that?
When our flag was adopted in the Parliament, it was on the same day we declared independence, February 17th 2008, without any parliamentary debate, without referendum, without reflecting on it, the history, the geography, and under some criteria which we thought very problematic – no red color, no black color, no eagle in it – as if we were declaring independence from Albania, not from Serbia. In the Parliament, I respected it, I didn’t love it but I respected it. I was Chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and I always had it with me. In government we will have it there and we are going to, of course, respect it, we are not going to remove it. However, for us Albania is way more than a neighboring country. The border between Kosovo and Albania was put in place at the 1913 London Conference. I know from where they’ve taken this Article 1.3 of our Constitution which does not allow us to join another country. I think they took it from Article 4 of the Constitution of Austria, which does not allow Anschluss to Germany. But, it is not us who had Hitler, but Serbia had Milosevic. Article 1.3 which, by the way, is in contradiction with Article 1.1 which says we are an independent sovereign country. But we are not independent from independence. We are stuck in independence. We cannot join a federation, for example. Even joining the EU will be problematic. However, I don’t follow the line of thinking of our president who thinks that the failure of the state of Kosovo brings us closer to unification with Albania. I think that this state has to succeed first. Because saying ‘Let’s give up the North and join Albania’ wouldn’t work. This was the idea of our president. I think wrongly so. But again, I think socio-economy is much more important than symbols and geopolitics. That is our approach. Let’s hope it works out as well and fast as we planned.
I’m still relatively new to the region and I feel people are still struggling with the concept of citizenship vs ethnicity. What do you think about that?
Which country are you from?
You know, for me nationality is OK. Ethnicity I am not quite certain of, because ethnicity in academia became prominent especially with anthropological studies in the 1970s, and in the Balkans’ politics it became prominent during the war in Bosnia. There was one expression which was used before ethnicity and that is ethnic cleansing. So, before getting an ethnic Serb, ethnic Croat, ethnic Bosniak, you have ethnic cleansing. Ethnicity came through war, and came through ethnic cleansing, and came through genocide. I am OK when somebody says Serbian nationality, German nationality, Albanian nationality, Italian nationality, but why do we have to say ethnic German or ethnic Italian or ethnic Albanian? Ethnicity is a journey towards biology, away from politics, and history and socio-economy. For me nationality and nation are here to stay. We are not going to eliminate them any time soon. And I think that one day, maybe in the 22nd century we are going to eliminate the nation altogether, but it will not start with Albanians and Serbs. But to be honest, I think that traits of patriotism and nationalism of small nations are way less harmful than those of big nations. I am not worried about the nationalism of Scottish people, I am much more afraid of some other nationalisms in the world in terms of peace and security.
Thank you very much for your time.
The interview was conducted by Head of Office Simon Ilse on November 14 2019 in Pristina.