Ever since Vetëvendosje came out first in Kosovo’s elections a month ago, everyone interested in the Balkans has been somewhat puzzled: what does Albin Kurti’s win mean for Kosovo and the region?
The answer remains unclear, and Kurti’s power currently rests partly in the suspense and uncertainty he has created. But some hints may be possible through a deep dive into his complex political history, which reveals his character and ideas.
The former anti-establishment intellectual and protest leader – who within a decade has metamorphosed into a fully-fledged suit-and-tie mainstream politician – is a rare political breed in the Balkans.
You’d expect to see phenomena like him and Vetevendosje (VV) – which started as a leftist nationalist movement of the anti-colonial (not xenophobic) type – somewhere in Latin America. But then again Kosovo – where most Albanians felt subjected to colonial rule by Serbia for a century and international administrators for another decade – also makes sense as a setting.
While in the post-war period mainstream intellectual discourse in Kosovo was all about individual rights and democracy – the kind of stuff you’d see preached by the likes of the EU or USAID – Albin Kurti looked at the situation and read it through the prism of Frantz Fanon (mandatory reading among VV activists at the time).
The international community and its nation-building industry – i.e UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and other foreign missions – had installed yet another form of colonial rule in which Albanians were once again stripped of their political subjectivity. Kurti believed Kosovo deserved self-determination without seeking permission. He served jail time trying to prove his point, as he organized protests and refused to accept the legitimacy of UNMIK.
When Kosovo declared independence in February 2008 by accepting the compromises of the Ahtisaari Plan, Kurti and his movement – then a small group gathering in a modest house in Prishtina – were maybe the only people in Kosovo (save for Kosovo Serbs) not celebrating. “This is one step forward and three steps backwards”, he said at the time, pointing at the nature of the compromises.
But Kurti’s movement quickly gained momentum, largely because a big part of society was uneasy with the nature of the new Kosovar state. Not only was Kosovo’s independence constrained by foreigners, but also the formerly privileged Serb minority got constitutional veto rights and ethnic decentralization, which Kurti predicted Serbia would use to sabotage Kosovo. Everything else about the state also felt foreign and imposed – the neutral symbols unrooted in history, the anthem with no lyrics, etc.
Vetevendosje’s first electoral run in 2010 as a civic initiative therefore promised to delegitimize the new political system from within, and the campaign revolved around the themes of preserving national identity and unifying with Albania. The new anti-establishment party, whose activists were demolishing EULEX vehicles as late as 2009, claimed it was the real representative of the people’s distorted will and got about 12 percent of the votes.
But once it got into parliament, VV started to evolve into a proper political party. By bringing in moderate figures and professionals like Shpend Ahmeti, Kurti started to build a structure with ambitions to govern, build coalitions and reach out to the international community. Political discourse started to focus less on symbolic identity issues such as the flag and more on bread and butter issues like jobs and corruption.
In Kurti’s effectively crafted narrative – soon embraced by the rest of the opposition and parts of civil society – Hashim Thaçi was by now not just the traitor and puppet of foreign powers who had stripped Kosovo of its Albanian identity, but also the mastermind who had captured and robbed the state.
By 2013, the new Vetevendosje won local elections in Prishtina and built a solid urban base Kosovo-wide, drawing on youth dissatisfaction with the governing elite. In the 2014 national elections it ran on a standard social-democratic platform with things like progressive taxation and state interventions in the economy as central themes of the campaign.
When in 2015 the new PDK-LDK government was pressured by the EU and US to agree to sensitive deals with Serbia in the Brussels dialogue – such as the one on the Association of Serbian-majority Municipalities (ASM) – as well as a border agreement with Montenegro, Kurti once again returned nationalist causes to the forefront of VV’s agenda. He cleverly hijacked leadership over the other parts of the opposition and led massive protests, blocked parliament through tear gas, and served jail time again.
Vetevendosje’s focus on these causes did not make it any friends abroad. But the failure to pass the demarcation deal with Montenegro forced the government to collapse and VV became the single biggest party in parliament after the 2017 elections (although they came second after PAN coalition).
Then the party had its dramatic and ugly split. Thirteen powerful MPs and Prishtina’s Mayor Ahmeti left over a disagreement with Kurti on strategy and power sharing – but mostly because mutual trust disappeared. The splinter group accused Kurti of running a personality cult, but they lost the public relations battle. Kurti convinced public opinion that they were traitors who wanted to cooperate with the government. VV was nevertheless initially severely damaged by the events, as polls saw it drop from contention for first place.
But Kurti’s long game and persistence eventually paid off last month. It allowed him to ride a wave of popular frustration with the cronyism of “war wing” parties of the previous governing coalition. He managed to surprise most analysts by surpassing VV’s 2017 vote share and to come out first – 1,6 percentage points ahead of the other opposition party, the LDK.
He was aided by the fact that the “war wing” coalition split over the issue of “border correction” with Serbia, which forced the three parties to run separately. But the main reason for the result was a well-run positive campaign focused on issues, and the fact that frustrated voters were judging character above anything else. In the mission “to oust the commanders”, key swing voters trusted Kurti’s history of decisiveness over the LDK’s shiftiness. Kurti had throughout the years demonstrated that he was both an intellectual and someone not driven by material gains – in all possible ways, he was the starkest contrast to the establishment.
But his narrow win was by all means not a landslide, nor a mandate for a revolution. He got just enough votes so as to be unavoidable as PM. He will now have to govern constrained by a coalition with the LDK – a party that may be described as the antithesis of revolution, a synonym of status-quo and, uncomfortably for Kurti’s pan Albanian aspirations, the most Kosovo-centric party.
It’s unclear how Kurti will now play the international game from the position of power, especially the dialogue with Serbia. While he will surely be no pushover and is not one to be blackmailed, he has since his victory struck statesman-like tones of openness and criticized outgoing PM Haradinaj for being “stubborn, rather than principled” on the issue of taxes against Serbian goods. But he has also said he is against any rushed agreements and border changes, preferring quality over speed.
Kurti is hard to read and predict because he has on occasions shown himself to be both a Jeremy Corbyn type of leftist ideologue with strong and self-defeating beliefs, as well as an Aleksis Tsipras type of realist who can easily change course to achieve ends. “I have changed strategies, not goals”, he said recently when asked to explain his transformations. Opportunism in the name of achieving ideals was also a feature of another of Kurti’s inspirations – Lenin.
One thing that might reveal Kurti’s thinking is a recent observation he made about Tsipras – the Balkan leader closest in resemblance to Kurti. He was paraphrased by a journalist as saying that he had closely followed Tsipras’s trajectory and thought his mistake to be that “he spent too much energy quarreling with Germany and Merkel instead of focusing on fighting domestic oligarchs”.
It remains to be seen how Kurti translates that lesson into Kosovo’s context. Kosovo does not have any big external financial creditors demanding payoff. But it does have security and political creditors, primarily the United States, which have certain demands and have issued threats with regard to the dialogue.
So far, as Kurti’s reluctance for a quick deal shows, it does not seem like the PM-designate has struck a chord with Kosovo’s key ally. U.S special envoy Matthew Palmer recently met with Kurti and had good words to say about what the new coalition means in terms of the anti-corruption and rule of law agenda. But he also noted that Kurti “still hasn’t integrated into his thinking the fact that the dialogue is important ALSO for the United States.”
The former rebel against international domination in Kosovo does seem keen on building strategic partnerships abroad, as his recent meetings in London and Paris suggest. But Washington’s reaction has been chillier and anticipative of his signals, while Berlin is wary of his pan-Albanianism. Regionally, Kurti’s main challenge is repairing his strained relations with Albania’s PM, Edi Rama.
But if his very active international outreach means he seeks to become a strategic partner to the West, and he says has not changed his goals – the question is: what exactly are the goals he intends to achieve through such strategic partnerships?
The goals, too, have been a moving target. Many critics, including his now coalition partner Vjosa Osmani from the LDK, noted during the last campaign that Kurti’s greatest consistency has been his uncompromising desire for power. Even his harshest critics admire Kurti for his personal integrity when it comes to the issue of corruption. But he has also shown that he is willing cooperate with some of the most corrupt political figures in Kosovo to get to where he is.
Will that kind of realist pragmatism and power-drive define his approach to foreign and security policy, or will the ideological stubbornness prevail?
Tsipras comes to mind again as a potential model. Who would have predicted in 2014 that the leader of the Greek radical left would oversee the largest pro-American shift in Greek foreign and security policy in decades, turning Greece into the key security partner of the U.S in the Eastern Mediterranean, and pushing historic deals for NATO like the agreement with North Macedonia?
One thing is for sure. Kurti might be constrained, but he also has clear legitimacy and a lot of political capital to spend. He enjoys the kind of trust among supporters (but also the wider public) to justify any change in position as he has done until now – by citing changing circumstances and the need to achieve certain ends.
Another thing is also certain: Kurti is very smart, the definition of a political animal, and understands the stakes and the interests involved perfectly well. If, as he says, he has learned something valuable from Tsipras, he will become a realistic power player and cooperate with Western partners working on solutions to the region, while giving Kosovo the kind of tough and smart negotiator it needs.
This also means he would have to channel his radical agenda domestically on issues such as rule of law and economy, where expectations are sky high, but the bar too is very low. The worry is that domestically he may resort to his authoritarian tendencies – visible during his rise to power, when he treated principles of liberal democracy as mere procedural obstacles to the materialization of a “real popular will”, which he insists he represents.
By choosing this path (minus the authoritarianism), he might actually get to do both the right thing and increase his popularity (i.e strengthen his hold on power) – a luxury not afforded to Tsipras because of Greece’s crumbled economy and the need to do a sharper post-election U-turn.
One hopes, at least, that this is the trajectory Kurti will take.
But then one gets a bit skeptical when remembering the part of Kurti that sometimes resembles the stubborn and self-defeating figure of Jeremy Corbyn
In cooperation of two web portals, Remarker and Sbunker, a series of analysis will be published in the upcoming period in order to promote a critical debate on the current situation in the region of the Western Balkans.
After last messages received from one of the most influential members of the EU, France, the region has faced one of the greatest challenges in the last 30 years, when countries in the Western Balkans began their difficult path, first into conflicts and then in the process of democratization and european integration.
The goal of Remarker and Sbunker is to support better understanding of the current trends in the countries of the Western Balkans and raise the awareness on necessity of european integration process, straightening the process of democratization and the rule of law as necessary preconditions for permanent peace and stability in the region.
You may find the Albanian version here and the Serbian version here.