In Kosovo, a critic who just won't quit
House arrest hasn't stopped Albin Kurti from railing against foreign diplomats who are expected Monday to announce their failure to broker an independence deal.
Pristina, Kosovo — In this small Balkan capital, Albin Kurti is just a bit too irrepressible, flamboyant, and critical – and the powers that be in Kosovo aren't quite sure what to do with him.
Mr. Kurti last week staged a creative guerrilla theater outside the UN compound here – harshly criticizing diplomats from the European Union, US, and Russia – on the eve of Monday's deadline for talks on Kosovo independence.
In fact, Kurti, a former student leader who has spent time in the prisons of Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia – is about the only voice of opposition here. In the midst of much diplomacy, including 120 days of talks that officially end Monday, and an upcoming UN session on Dec. 19 – Kurti deeply doubts the resolve of Europe to settle the dense complexities of Kosovo.
As something of an enfant terrible, an intellectual bad boy, and one of the most eloquent speakers in the province, Kurti has become a kind of secret folk hero among ethnic Albanians here, a safety valve for frustrations over uncertainty about their future.
In Kosovo, most public figures work hard to be patient, malleable, and understanding – waiting politely as foreign diplomats try to find a solution after eight years of talks.
Not Kurti. He'd rather Kosovo declare independence Monday without the consent of Serbia and Russia, despite what observers say is a serious risk of violence. He'd also just as soon see the UN leave, and says so openly.
For Kosovar leaders, he is a troublemaker, an embarrassment. Kurti orchestrated the painting of "Ahtisaari" – the name of the UN plan for independence – on the garbage cans of Pristina. During last month's national elections, he called on Kosovars to "stay home and rest, just on Nov. 17."
But while most Kosovars disagree with Kurti's prescriptions, like kicking the UN out, or his call for "non-negotiations" – he's admired for speaking bluntly about UN corruption, mendacity, and what he calls "the colonial attitude" of foreign missions.
"The UN and its partners are not defending our interests," he says. "We've relied too long on [the UN], which has become a colonial power here, and we are nearly sold down the river."
Experts here say that a strong and sustained determination by the EU and the US to back and follow through on a declaration of independence by Kosovo by implementing the Ahtisaari plan – is likely to take some of the wind out of Kurti's sails by proving the international community can be effective.
A new International Crisis Group Report on Kosovo issued Dec. 6 argues strongly for an immediate transition to "conditional independence" in Kosovo, warning that "the situation on the ground risks overtaking capitals."
Kurti's own rhetoric runs right through Kosovo's psychological fault lines, through the hearts and minds of Albanians.
The possibility of prolonged delays or further concessions on Kosovo's final status – will likely stoke Kurti's popularity and street power.
"Kosovars hope Kurti is wrong, and fear he might be right," as one local journalist says. A senior diplomat in Vienna worries the Vetevendosje! (Self-Determination) movement that Kurti leads could quickly "catch fire" if the US and EU do not show resolve. "It would not be helpful," the diplomat said in an understated tone.
Currently, Kurti is under house arrest and on trial in a UN court for his role in a protest last February that started nonviolently, but resulted in two deaths and 82 injuries when Romanian peacekeepers shot supposedly nonlethal rubber bullets into a crowd of 2,500 people. One charge against him is "disrespect" of UN institutions.
Kosovo experts like Louis Sell, a former US diplomat here, say that putting Kurti under house arrest on flimsy charges is not a good example of the ideas of rule of law and freedom of expression that the international community is trying to push in Kosovo.
"A charge of acts 'disrespectful' to the UN is ludicrous," Mr. Sell says. "It's the kind of charge that puts away an inconvenient opponent, and kills off his support, and it's happening under the guise of a vision to teach people how to be good democrats!
"The UN and Kosovo leaders don't want [Kurti] to criticize a process for not delivering, when it sometimes appears that it might not deliver."
Kurti himself sits restlessly in his apartment, cellphone at ear, on the fourth floor of a Pristina suburb, with a banner hanging outside that reads, "the imprisonment of Albin is a shame of the servile politicians ... a scandalous demagoguery and hypocrisy of [the UN]. Intellectuals, where are your voices? Why the deathly silence?"
In recent weeks Kurti was allowed outside his apartment between the hours of 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. – which he calls "house arrest light." "It means I am as free as Kosovo is independent," he quips.
At home, Kurti, trained as an electrical engineer, outlines his basic ideas: The international community has drifted into a misframing of the Balkan and Kosovo issue. The rectitude that brought NATO bombing and drove the Serbs out of Kosovo has been forgotten. Meanwhile, eight years of limbo for Kosovo has brought UN corruption, an unhealthy dependency on foreign aid, and a diplomacy that has begun to favor Belgrade. Kosovar cries for independence, he says, now just irritate many foreign ministries.
"Kosovo is not the problem, Serbia is the problem. About 250,000 non-Serbs were killed in the Balkans in the 1990s," he says. "There was a genocide in Bosnia and Croatia. NATO intervened in Kosovo finally, but there were never any ground troops, which is the final signal of liberation," he says.
"The international community thought after the war that democracy in Belgrade would bring independence for Kosovo. It didn't.
"Basically, the disintegration of Yugoslavia is still not complete. Kosovo isn't free; even Montenegro is independent. Serbs are achieving politically and by delay what they didn't get in the war. This isn't justice."