By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 23, 2007
PRISTINA, Serbia -- Albin Kurti's is not the bookshelf of a common criminal. Philosophy tomes compete for space with poetry anthologies and memoirs by those he says he leans on for inspiration, such as Nelson Mandela.
But the man police consider Pristina's chief troublemaker is under house arrest in his fifth-floor walk-up off Pristina's Bill Clinton Boulevard. He is charged with leading a pro-independence riot in February, during which police killed two ethnic Albanian demonstrators with rubber bullets fired at point-blank range.
With a wiry physique and the dark-rimmed glasses of a graduate student, Kurti, 32, is the founder of the ethnic Albanian organization Self-Determination, whose stenciled slogan "no negotiation" is spray-painted on walls throughout Kosovo. He served two years in a Serbian jail during and after the 1999 war, which ended with the withdrawal of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army from the territory. Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations ever since, though on paper it remains a province of Serbia.
The violence in February showed the potential for broad instability as Kosovo's leaders negotiate the territory's final status in advance of a December deadline. Members of the province's ethnic Albanian majority overwhelmingly demand full independence, and many ask why they don't have it already.
"People are angry because politicians give the impression that the views of citizens are unimportant," Kurti said in a recent interview in his apartment. He argues that independence should simply be declared, not negotiated with Serbia. "Victor Hugo wrote that movements end when leaders fulfill their own ambitions. Our leaders' ambitions must be very low."
The demonstration in February was a response to a U.N. proposal that would separate Kosovo from Serbia but leave significant authority in the hands of international representatives for the foreseeable future. Protesters smashed vehicles and threw stones and glass bottles filled with red paint at government buildings and at people assigned to protect them.
Kosovo's interior minister later resigned, along with the U.N. police administrator, and the United Nations temporarily suspended use of supposedly nonlethal rubber bullets throughout the territories it governs.
A prosecutor determined that the police, Romanians who are part of an international force deployed here, had acted criminally, but declined to file charges because it was unclear who had fired the fatal shots.
While the current court order against him cites his "disdain and contempt for all that represents the legitimate authority of Kosovo," officials in Pristina reject Kurti's claim that he is a political prisoner.
"It's not complicated -- he led a violent protest. These people didn't have to die," said Capt. Veton Elshani, a spokesman for the Kosovo Police Service. "And you know what? Since he was arrested, there have been no violent protests."
Initially placed under house arrest, Kurti was sent to a prison for five months after he was found to have left his apartment to visit the families of those killed at the rally. In July he was returned home and told to remain there until his trial in September. He said he plans to represent himself.
Guarded by a pair of policemen who seem unconcerned by visitors, he relies on family and colleagues to deliver food. On a recent weekday, the six-month anniversary of the two protesters' deaths, 14 young members of Self-Determination trudged up the dingy staircase and rang his bell. He welcomed them inside.
"You need to be very disciplined," he told the nodding men, who sipped Coke from plastic cups. "We are under a lot of scrutiny now."
One guest told him about friction with Serbs, Kosovo's main minority, in a northern village. While many analysts worry about interethnic tension during the push for statehood, Kurti says the February rally targeted only Kosovo's local assembly and the international presence here, not the Serbs, victims of previous outbreaks of violence.
"The worst thing we can possibly do now is attack the Serbs," Kurti said. "It will only radicalize their enclaves and ruin our relations with them. We need to focus our energy on independence."