In Kosovo's capital, new mayor fights corruption – by doing his job

Pristina's mayor, Shpend Ahmeti, has earned plaudits – and death threats – by investigating corruption, making hiring transparent, and even selling the posh mayoral car.

By , Correspondent

The former mayor of Pristina drove to work every day in a 75,000-euro ($100,000) luxury car. But after Shpend Ahmeti pulled off an electoral upset on the back of promises to improve services and expunge the corruption rampant in the Kosovo capital, he decided to shake things up by simply doing his job.

So the young, Harvard-educated Mr. Ahmeti, soon after his election, sold the car. He now rides the 7 a.m. bus to his office.

Only months into his four-year term, it's too early to judge how successful Ahmeti will be. But in a country where politicians often amass expensive homes and flashy cars while education and healthcare suffer and unemployment tops 30 percent, some Pristina residents say Ahmeti has inspired them to believe, for the first time, that change is possible.

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“He gave me so much hope,” says Nora Ahmetaj, head of the Center for Research, Documentation, and Publication, which focuses on transitional justice issues in Kosovo. On the day of his victory, she says, “I didn't remember such happiness since June 1999 when NATO entered Kosovo.”

'Setting the tone'

Ahmeti completed a master's degree in public policy at Harvard, has worked for the World Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, started a think tank, and taught at the American University in Kosovo. But he says politics is the work he truly loves.

“It's the calling that I like the most because you can influence things, you can fight for things. The things you believe in you can put into practice,” he says. “People should get involved in politics so we don’t leave politics only to corrupt politicians, but actually make a change.”

Since he took office in late December, he's been busy. He put a stop to illegal building in the capital, a pervasive problem linked to what local newspapers call a “construction mafia.” He filled vacancies in the education department by following a transparent process to interview applicants and hire those most qualified – breaking from past nepotism. And he canceled a contract with one of Kosovo's largest petrol companies after discovering it was fraudulently selling the city harmful heating fuel for schools.

Ahmeti holds 8 to 10 meetings a day with average citizens to hear their requests or complaints, and his administration has spent time digging into the workings of the municipality to flush out corruption. So far, he says, he's sent more than 50 cases, most involving apparent illegal building and some about apparent illegal property transfers by the city, to a prosecutor for investigation.

He has also made promises to improve education and healthcare, and to end the water cuts that plague the capital – something many doubt he will be able to achieve amid a historic drought.

But he expects voters to hold him accountable: Taking a cue from former Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams, Ahmeti's campaign printed his pledges on small “scorecards” for residents to keep in their wallets to weigh his progress.

His biggest achievement so far, he says, is “setting the tone.” By following the law and being transparent, he hopes he will put pressure on other government officials and institutions to do the same.

“Obviously I can’t solve everything in Pristina. But if we can show an example that things can be done in a clean way, a transparent way, that not everyone in politics thinks of enriching himself, then I think it makes people think,” he says.

His work has not gone unnoticed. Ahmeti says police told him that people connected to construction companies had talked of an assassination attempt, but he doesn't appear concerned. “When I ran for office, I didn’t think this was going to be an easy path,” he says.

Time will tell

Analysts take a wait-and-see approach to Ahmeti, offering some criticism of his beginnings while noting that time will tell whether he keeps his promises and is able to make headway in a broken system.

Avni Zogiani, head of the anti-corruption organization Cohu, says Ahmeti shouldn't be talking about the apparent corruption cases he's uncovered until they've been investigated by prosecutors. Krenar Gashi, director of the Institute for Development Policy in Pristina, says Ahmeti may get too much credit at times, such as in the recent arrest of 10 people, including the city's chief building inspector, on charges of corruption connected to illegal building. That investigation started before Ahmeti was elected, Mr. Gashi notes.

“These people were not arrested because Shpend became mayor. But I’m not sure they would be arrested if Shpend wasn’t mayor,” he says.

Ahmeti's election, Gashi says, has proven to Pristina residents that one government employee doing his job properly can bring about change. “Because people were really getting hopeless in terms of changing things. People were hopeless about being able to win a government contract without paying bribes. I think this is the first turning point of that phenomenon.”

Whether Ahmeti's victory will have an effect on upcoming national elections is less evident, say analysts. Ahmeti is a member of a small nationalist party, called Vetevendosje, or Self Determination, that was losing popularity before his election. Most analysts agree that Pristina residents voted for Ahmeti, not his party, when they elected him. He also benefited from a nationwide trend in which cities voted out incumbent mayors.

But some Pristina residents see his election as the beginning of something bigger. Bashkim Berisha didn't believe that Ahmeti could even win, let alone effect change. But now Mr. Berisha has changed his mind, and will vote for Ahmeti's party in national elections. “He's going in a good direction and I do believe he will make change,” he says. “Kosovars deserve so much more than what they are getting. People want change.”

Those high expectations bring tremendous pressure to bear on Ahmeti, of which he is well aware. Mr. Zogiani, the anti-corruption activist, says if reform doesn't go past Ahmeti, “I'm afraid these people who are being arrested will be in the streets again,” and “this sentiment of change will be lost.”

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