10 July 2007

Ethnic Albanian 'revolutionary' stirs up new wave of dissent in Kosovo

Associated Press, Wednesday, February 14, 2007 6:49 AM


PRISTINA, Serbia-It began as a ragtag band of youngsters who slashed tires and walked a donkey in front of U.N. offices. Now Self-Determination, the group behind the latest violence wracking Kosovo, is raising the stakes in the province's quest for independence.


Its tough-talking leader, former student activist Albin Kurti, is serving a 30-day jail sentence imposed after a protest last weekend led to the deaths of two demonstrators.


Kosovo's prime minister, Agim Ceku, has denounced Kurti and other Self-Determination leaders as "bearers of anarchist-revolutionary ideas."


But Kurti's message has struck a chord among some of Kosovo's restive ethnic Albanians, who see a draft U.N. proposal on the province's future status as ignoring their drive for full independence from Serbia and catering to the small Serbian minority.


"I support them. They have it right," said a 27-year-old backer who gave only his first name, Arben. "Times might come when we will all join them because nothing will happen with Kosovo."


Kurti vented his frustration over the U.N. plan at the start of last Saturday's protest, in which 3,000 demonstrators punched through a barricade in the provincial capital of Pristina, prompting U.N. riot police to fire rubber bullets and tear gas on the crowd.


The plan "does not reflect the will of the people of Kosovo, but only the privileges of one minority, the Serb minority, which is being manipulated by Serbia," Kurti, accompanied by former rebel figures from Kosovo and neighboring Macedonia, told The Associated Press.


The roadmap, drawn up by U.N. special envoy Martti Ahtisaari, calls for internationally supervised self-rule, not the full independence from Serbia that ethnic Albanians demand.


It is not the first time Kurti's group has stirred up trouble.


In the past, its members have hurled eggs at the U.N. administrators who have run Kosovo since 1999, denouncing them as colonizers, and have splashed red paint on U.N. buildings. The group once even invited computer hackers to cripple the Web site of the French military, which it accused of maintaining the ethnic division of the northern town of Kosovska Mitrovica, long a flashpoint for violence.


As a student leader, Kurti organized and spearheaded protests against Slobodan Milosevic's regime in 1997, just months before Milosevic launched a brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists. Kurti was jailed in Serbia, where he refused to recognize the Serbian court trying him.


An enemy to the Serb regime and a popular figure among ethnic Albanians, Kurti, 31, was freed and allowed to return to Kosovo only after pro-democracy forces came to power in Serbia and Milosevic was sent to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands.


"Kurti himself seems to have the air of a kind of a Che Guevara, but without some solid ideological underpinnings," said Alex Anderson, Kosovo project director for the International Crisis Group, which keeps tabs on trouble spots around the Balkans.


"At the root of what Albin is doing is a desire to overturn any authority," he said. "One gets a nervous sense that nothing will satisfy Albin short of bringing this society crashing down around his ears."


Over the past few years, Kurti's followers, mostly high school and university students, have sprayed the group's slogan, "No negotiations, self-determination," in virtually every town and village across Kosovo.


Officials say Self-Determination's actions have escalated since last April, when assaults on police officers and the destruction of government buildings and U.N. property increased across the province.


Kurti has found fertile ground for his confrontational approach, especially among Kosovo's large and restless population of unemployed young people and its war veterans.


He has tapped into deep frustrations over "the way Kosovo's final status always seems to be slipping into the future as a distant prospect, which from the point of view of ordinary Kosovo people always seems to be semi-promised but never arrives," Anderson said.