In his second term, Shpend Ahmeti, former member of Vetëvendosje! and now of the Social Democratic Party, explains what he sees in the immediate future of Kosovo's capital: solidarity, fair development, and social justice
Mayor of Prishtina since 2013, Shpend Ahmeti is one of Kosovo's best-known politicians. A graduate of Harvard University, he launched the liberal party "New Spirit" in 2010 and then joined the opposition front Vetëvendosje! (Self-determination, in Albanian), a leftist-sovereignist movement, that he abruptly left last spring. As the first citizen of the Kosovar capital, Shpend Ahmeti speaks today about the challenges of his city and his political future in Kosovo.
Your break with Vetëvendosje! was a shock for the Kosovar political scene. You were one of the most prominent exponents of the movement. What happened?
For all my life I have considered myself a Social Democrat, and Vetëvendosje! was an umbrella party that gave shelter to many unsatisfied people. But the initial 20 members [Vetëvendosje! was born in 2005, ed.) became over 20,000 and, insisting on homogeneous politics, we have not been able to create a system capable of managing dissent within the party. Suddenly, the question of the direction to take revealed several answers: radical left, Marxism, social democracy, nationalism.... all these souls were present under the same umbrella. It did not work.
However, you have remained the head of the municipality of Prishtina, which brings together almost a quarter of Kosovo's population. What are the city's biggest challenges today?
The infrastructures. After the war we had what we call the "neoliberal period", when people built where and how they felt for 15 years. In those years, the city lost its fight against illegal constructions. But if 2.5 billion Euros were invested in construction, at least a third of that sum would have needed to go into infrastructure: water, sewage, electricity... But it was not done and now we are trying to batten down the hatches, while the city is spreading again. Therefore, in the next twenty years, we must slow down the pace of construction and give the city the opportunity to acquire the necessary infrastructure. In 2013 we managed to stop the illegal construction and, after a battle lasting six months, we regained control of the city. Now we are in the situation where we have a clinically dead patient and we are keeping him alive while we repair the organs one by one.
What measures can be taken?
It is not just about measures, change must come from below. For our part, we stopped illegal constructions and now we have to limit legal ones, making the legislation a bit harder, so that getting a building permit is not so easy and cheap as it is now. But changing people's mentality is the most difficult challenge, because in order to solve the problem of infrastructure it would be enough to have money, but with the mentality of people it is different.
For example, now we are dealing with the number of cars in circulation. Last winter, we had a big debate on pollution and everyone knows what's going on in the city. As a municipal measure, we decided to ban traffic downtown for two days. I know very well that this does not solve the issue, but it has created the basis for a discussion. Some criticised us, some realised they can walk to work... and it is this kind of thing that makes a city more progressive. Then, it takes generations to really change, and we want to prepare everything so that the next generation can do better.
Prishtina, by the way, is a very young city...
Yes, Prishtina is the youngest city in Europe: 50% of the population is under 25 and 70% under 35. So, when we run this city, we have to bear in mind that most of its residents are between 15 and 35 years old and there are many young families looking for new apartments. And if, on the one hand, there are neighbourhoods in which you can find affordable apartments, on the other hand people complain about the lack of infrastructure. Once again, this creates the space for discussion and also changes real estate demand and people's approach.
In addition to traffic and pollution, one of the priorities of your administration is waste management. What is going on in this area?
Here too, a change of mentality is required, accompanied by the introduction of a better service. We are preparing a great campaign that will begin this fall. The goal is to clean the city, so we will introduce fines for those who throw garbage in the street and we will also have a "green police" dedicated to this. Today we have an excellent opportunity to control the waste system, because we have changed the payment method and now citizens pay [the taxes on waste, ed.] directly to the municipality. Starting in September, this great information campaign will serve to involve the inhabitants and show that the municipality is at their service.
Where are we with recycling in Prishtina?
I would say that it will take another couple of years to get to recycling. This is a longer challenge than the mandate of a mayor. Only this year we managed to understand how many tons of waste we produce. Now, Prishtina is the only city in Kosovo that has enough waste to do something with it. And we will certainly use this opportunity.
Your first electoral campaign, in 2013, revolved around the theme of the fight against corruption. Five years later, what are the developments?
Without an efficient system, one can only rely on the good or bad faith of administrators. Personally, I can say that I fight corruption, but my successor may not. That's why what we need is a system and I also think of technology, which can make administration more transparent. We have the best open data platform in the region – I do not want to be modest about it – and there we publish everything, even requests for building permits. This changes the behaviour of politicians and public officials. They are more careful.
I always take the example of the politician who goes to the restaurant on Saturday for lunch. It has happened to me so many times that a waiter asks me: "Do I put the bill on the account of the municipality?". And I answer: "You do see that it's Saturday and I'm not working, why should you put it on the municipality's bill?". But it's not their fault, it's tradition that institutions are used to pay for private meals as well.
What kind of system against corruption are you creating in Prishtina?
First of all, we identified the weak points, for example the employees of the urban development department earn a salary of 500 Euros per month, but they issue building permits for tens of millions of Euros. There, you have to check two or three times the authorisations issued. But we also moved on the judicial level, we sued some building inspectors who were supposed to check several buildings, built – in our opinion – illegally. In the first instance, ten were sentenced to several years in prison. This sends a clear message to investors.
We also moved against a large energy company that supplied our schools with gas containing sulphide. It serves to expand the volume of gas and burns quickly, but is harmful to children's health. I remember that no laboratory wanted to analyse my samples, I had to send them to Italy. Also in this case, suppliers were sentenced to 4 and a half years in prison.
Obviously, when you attack the system, the system strikes back. More inquiries have been opened against me than against any other Kosovar politician. But we go on.
In the meantime, however, the inhabitants of Prishtina and Kosovo keep dreaming of living elsewhere, of emigrating. What can be done?
Yes, despite the problem of visa liberalisation, many of our compatriots now live abroad, for example in Germany. But at the same time these are the rules of the game, the freedom of movement that we so much want. And it must also be said that the fact that one in three Kosovars lives abroad is what keeps us alive, financially. It is interesting to note that members of the diaspora always return to Kosovo for their holidays, despite having the means to go elsewhere.
I worked at the World Bank and the EBRD, but I think that if we try to stop the brain drain with a classic approach, we will not achieve great results. We must appeal more to feelings than to reason. Because rationally, the right thing to do is to leave, but sentimentally everyone wants to stay.
Is Prishtina also reflecting on a tourism strategy?
We are working on it right now. But even without doing anything, in recent years, the number of visitors has increased significantly. We dialogue with tourists to understand what they are looking for, but it is difficult to arrive at a precise answer. In Prishtina there is the oldest mosque in Europe, the Ottoman quarter, Yugoslav architecture that many would like to destroy, like the Grand Hotel. Then, the neo-liberal period, with boulevards George Bush and Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright square, with houses on top of buildings, all these absurdities. We probably have the ugliest Bill Clinton statue in the world. His wife Hillary inaugurated it, with a face like "this does not look like my husband!".
Prishtina is also close to many other regional destinations: Tirana, the Albanian and Montenegrin coast, Thessaloniki, Belgrade... Everything is close, even ski resorts and mountains.
Do musical hits help promote the city?
We have two of the best singers in the world: Dua Lipa and Rita Ora, who are from Prishtina. We have recently organised a festival with Dua Lipa and will use this as much as possible to change the image of Kosovo. When I went to New York and said I was Albanian, people replied "ah, Dua Lipa is Albanian!". It's a great opportunity for us. And we are also very hospitable. If you go around Prishtina with a map, after two or three minutes someone will come to ask you what you are looking for. We need to highlight these things...
To attract new investors?
Yes. I am very happy that KFC has landed a few weeks ago, not so much for the junk food they sell, but for the symbolic aspect. Two years ago, Austrian Cineplex arrived, after over a year of negotiations. They said they would never sell anything in the poorest country in Europe. Instead, they set the goal of selling 250,000 tickets in a year and sold 400,000. Also Pizza Hut broke its sales record just a week after it opened. So there is more interest and this leads to more investments. I see it in the requests for meetings that I receive from big companies.
What plans do you have for your political future?
This is the first year of my second term as mayor and my priority is Prishtina. Even when they asked me to become president of the Social Democrats, I accepted on condition that I could deal with the city first. For the rest, I have devoted my life to public affairs, so I will do everything I need for my country. But for now, my focus is Prishtina.
The entry into the Social Democratic Party (SD) last May was your last political transformation. Are you satisfied with that platform?
Yes. There are no easy battles in politics and here we try to change what has been done in the last twenty years. The political landscape is divided between pre-war parties, those born after, and ethnic movements. Our goal is to be an ideological, social-democratic party, ethnicity does not matter. Because there are good social democrats among Serbs too. But these are not easy changes. After all, I think we are all social democrats somehow. Take this country, for example, we have a high rate of poverty, but nobody dies of hunger in the street. It means that social ties are still strong and that there is solidarity. And this is what we need and we must rediscover: solidarity, fair development, and social justice.
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