AIM: start

FRI, 21 DEC 2001 00:04:44 GMT

Kurti & Kostunica

AIM Pristina, December 14, 2001

The two names in the title would probably have nothing in common were it not for the fact that the latter was in a position to sign a letter granting the former his freedom and himself possible concessions. Albin Kurti, Kosovo Albanian student leader, and Vojislav Kostunica, one-time Serbian opposition leader, may have known each other from newspaper interviews and may have had in common their dislike of Slobodan Milosevic, former Yugoslav president and now indicted for war crimes. They shared nothing else. They had different aspirations and sought to topple Milosevic in different ways. Kurti, a young student, was organizing protests while Kostunica struggled for supporters in elections that were yet to be held.

War was what brought them together. During the conflict in Kosovo Albin Kurti was secretary to the political representative of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Adem Demaci. A student with long hair, considered an "urban rebel," a student leader in the 1997 protests which sought the return of Pristina University to Kosovo Albanian students and professors forced to leave the institution in 1991, became "Demaci's favorite." His long hair, however, remained his trademark until April 1999, when Serbian security forces arrested him.

His immediate transfer to Lipljan prison marked the beginning of his three-year plight together with 2,000 other ethnic Albanians who police simply rounded up and took to prison during the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia and Milosevic's anti-Kosovo Albanian campaign of vengeance. Together with his fellow prisoners, on June 10, 1999 he was transferred to a prison in Serbia, a day after Yugoslav officers capitulated to NATO in Kumanovo. All of them had become prisoners of war that the Milosevic regime would use to make deals after Serbian forces began withdrawing from Kosovo. Kurti was but one of many until a court in Nis sentenced him to 15 years for "conspiring to commit hostile activities and terrorism." (Many Kosovo Albanians have been convicted on the same charges, and Belgrade considered the Kosovo Liberation Army a terrorist organization.) One of the best known prisoners, Kurti became a public personality once more when a group of journalists toured Serbian prisons. He then said he did not recognize Serbian courts and considered himself a prisoner of war. Other Albanian prisoners shared his view, but Kurti had a chance to say that in front of TV cameras. A campaign pushing for the release of Kurti subsequently began in Kosovo. Young people wore T-shirts with the words "Free Albin Kurti" and gathered at rock concerts where bands performed his favorite songs. Kurti became an idol, and Milosevic's regime had already began to free certain prisoners, those whose relatives could pay to have them released.

Kurti and a number of his fellow prisoners, however, were still in prison when Milosevic's regime fell. Their treatment hardly changed:they were still considered "enemies," much like during the former regime. Then, however, they became part of more sophisticated bargaining. The new Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica, inherited an important bargaining chip from his predecessor, obviously determined to made better use of it. As a "democratic president," Kostunica went ahead where Milosevic had stopped -- he selectively freed Albanian prisoners depending on political circumstances. Shortly after Nov. 17 elections for the Kosovo Assembly, Kostunica visited major international centers and upon returning, signed a decree freeing Albin Kurti. It was a good move to make at the time -- he was also praised for ensuring Kosovo Serb participation in the elections and was under pressure to fulfill his commitments from the time he had sought international assistance, coinciding with the period in which the future of his country depends on politicians in Montenegro.

Kurti himself described his release as "a political trade." Immediately after setting foot in Kosovo, this boy with a crew-cut and the vocabulary of a mature politician said his release should not be celebrated. Over 200 ethnic Albanians are still being held in Serbian prisons and their condition, according to Kurti, is very serious. Many of them suffer from tuberculosis, some from wounds they got in the war, which were never treated. Because of that, Kurti said, the day of his release was "the most difficult moment of my life."

His return was a major media event, and his former boss, Adem Demaci, announced "a political force has come back"; they were many who reiterated what Demaci had also said: "we are ready to follow Albin." But as is often in such events, Kurti's name became part of everyday political life and became something that he hardly wanted: a reason to glorify Vojislav Kostunica. Only one Belgrade-based humanitarian organization called for the immediate release of all Kosovo Albanians from Serbian prisons because "with the release of Kurti all reasons for holding them have disappeared."

Kurti's release prompted the Kosovo Albanian press to ask a question once more: "How much was done for Albanians prisoners?" The answer to this was also known in advance -- very little. Still, the issue has been dealt with ever since the war in Kosovo ended. And while Milosevic was still in power and only his overthrow could have finally settled the matter, after his fall favorable political conditions were used as an excuse. During negotiations between UNMIK chief Hans Haekkerup and Belgrade officials on Kosovo Serbs' participation in elections, the issue of ethnic Albanian prisoners was also mentioned and according to Haekkerup a kind of agreement reached on their transfer to Kosovo, where they would be tried by international judges. The Serbian government, however, raised the price, demanding reciprocity in the release of prisoners. It appears that in exchange for the Albanian prisoners' release, Belgrade demanded that Serbs accused of war crimes and "Serbs held in secret prisons and camps" also be released, which is a claim launched by Kostunica and which on several occasions was denied by even the highest NATO officials.

The release of Albin Kurti is a positive step, say observers, adding that those who watched his return home from behind bars should not be forgotten.

Besnik Bala