Kosovo opposition leader and election winner Albin Kurti says that if a referendum was held on his country joining Albania, he would vote yes.
His comments came in an interview with Euronews just days after his Vetëvendosje party won its largest share of the vote in Kosovo so far, paving the way for Kurti to form a government.
Over 90% of Kosovo's 1.8 million people are ethnic Albanians and the prospect of a union between the two nations is popular both in Kosovo and in Albania.
Vetëvendosje - meaning Self Determination - appears to have doubled its result of last year, with more than 50% of Kosovar voters choosing the party despite Kurti being banned from running in the poll by the country’s Constitutional Court.
The February 14 election punished the two parties that have dominated Kosovo since the end of the war against Serbian forces in 1999, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) and the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), which won just 13% and 17% of the vote.
The result has convinced Kurti that despite the events of last year, Vetëvendosje can weather the political storms of the coming week and make good on its pledge to combat the nation’s rampant corruption, restore the economy and take on the old guard of Kosovar politics.
A student activist that was jailed during the 1990s for his work with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), Kurti made international headlines in 2015 when he set off tear gas in the Kosovar parliament in protest against a border demarcation deal with neighbouring Montenegro.
In the years since, Vetëvendosje has grown from a grassroots social movement to a political force in Kosovo, attracting votes from young Kosovars as well as in the vast Kosovar diaspora.
But despite his political capital at home, Kurti returns to power at a difficult time for the young nation, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 in a move still not accepted by Belgrade. Talks on EU membership, which Kosovo seeks, has been made conditional on resolving its dispute with Serbia, with which it fought a bloody two-year conflict between 1998 and 1999.
That has been made more difficult with the rise of Serbia's president, Aleksandar Vucic, whose base on the nationalist right wants to see swathes of Kosovo's territory handed over to Serbia - or even a reconquest of the entire territory, which was part of Serbia for most of the last century.
Kurti's own view on the dialogue with Belgrade - far more hardline than his predecessors in Pristina - is unlikely to make that any easier. But Kurti, unsurprisingly, is unapologetic on that.
He spoke to Euronews about the prospect of restarting dialogue with Serbia, a federation with Albania, his political trajectory and Kosovo’s path towards European Union membership.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Your election win on Sunday was even larger than predicted. Now you need to secure 61 votes in parliament to govern, how do you plan to do it?
We created a pre-election coalition between the Vetëvendosje movement and the list of President Vjosa Osmani. Votes are still being counted but we have, I think, surpassed half of the vote. This does not translate automatically the 61 MPs that is necessary for a majority, that is why we will need a couple of MPs from the non-Serb minority. I think this is very doable.
Even if it isn’t, you’ve ruled out a coalition with the PDK and the LDK.
PDK and LDK are two factions of the ancien regime and the electoral landslide victory we have had tells us that we should move on with some of the MPs from minority communities and that these two big, old partiers. Well, big until yesterday, old for certain, that they should reform.
We have built the third wave of enthusiasm in the recent history of our country. The first was the liberation in 1999. The second was independence in 2008. Now we want to get jobs and justice, which means we want to replace the migration of youth with employment and we want to fight corruption and end the elements of state capture, which were largely carried out by these parties that lost the election on Sunday.
Even if you get to 61 MPs, I understand you still need to get the president elected. If not, the government falls and new elections are called. How will you deal with this?
We plan to elect the speaker of the parliament, a new government and a new president. We need two-thirds of MPs to sustain the vote. I think that after this landslide victory it is doable to have them in the room because they know the will of the people. If they had imagined boycotting earlier on, I am certain they have second thoughts because they would lose even more support among the people. They cannot afford to go to early elections. If that happened, which I don’t think it will, then in the next round of elections I think they will disappear altogether.
Your last term as PM ended during the COVID-19 pandemic. What is the first thing you are going to do as PM to tackle the pandemic in Kosovo?
We plan to start allocating adequate funds for vaccination and a programme of priorities regarding social groups who should be vaccinated first and in what order, and we plan to have 60 per cent of the population vaccinated by this year, in cooperation with the EU.
When I left office on the 3rd of June last year, we had only 30 deaths and the number of cured people was three-and-a-half times higher than active cases. Since I left office, we had more than fifteen hundred deaths.
Have you discussed accepting vaccines from Serbia as North Macedonia has done?
We plan to discuss this issue with our partners, with countries that did recognise us and in particular with [the] EU.
Is that a no to vaccines from Serbia?
No, we are not going to get vaccines from Serbia, which gets vaccines from Russia and China. Both in terms of values and interests, our orientation has always been towards the West.
It could be seen as a way to build bridges with Belgrade.
We don't want to replace the EU and US with any eastern non-democratic powers because it has been proven that there is no certainty regarding quality, on the one hand, and on the other hand, there are always strings attached in the form of geopolitical games.
You’ve said your government will apply for European Union candidate status, but the EU has said repeatedly that Kosovo’s ascension to the EU depends on dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina being restarted. Do you plan to restart it?
Well, I think that Serbia should face its own past. They caused four wars in the former Yugoslavia and it seems that there's no regret, no penitence, for that within the state about this. It is important to have changes in Serbia regarding how they view Kosovo.
I'm ready to engage in a dialogue where people will be the beneficiaries. But I think it is not acceptable to anyone in Kosovo - of course, including me - to engage in a dialogue where we are supposed to compensate the state of Serbia for the loss of this state during times of Milosevic. Serbia committed genocide in Kosovo.
We don't have to read history books or listen to our grandfathers. We experienced that. I think it's very important to address justice being delayed and denied and based on the past in order to have more long-term peace, security, stability and reconciliation.
Do you still want a full apology, recognition and reparations from Serbia?
I think that is necessary. What else is Serbia going to do, try and attack us again? I think that they should move away from the Russian Federation and from China and they should try to do it as fast as possible. They have to liberate themselves from Kosovo. We liberated Kosovo from Serbia. I think that Serbia should liberate itself from Kosovo.
How do you achieve reconciliation between Serbs and Kosovars in Kosovo?
For reconciliation, with Serbs in Kosovo, it is not necessary because we did not fight with them. We fought against Belgrade, who was against us and committed genocide in spring 1999 and to that end we need Serbia to face its past, to look itself in the mirror rather than look at Kosovo with military binoculars. And to recognise our independence and show some regrets for the crimes committed by the regime. I think that what Serbia needs is a Serbian Charles de Gaulle who will say, just as Charles de Gaulle said ‘France is great without Algeria’, that Serbia is great without Kosovo.
You've been described as a nationalist, albeit a leftist nationalist, how do you feel about that title?
I am a social democrat and if you see some nationalist traits in me it comes from the history of Kosovo and it is of an anti-colonial, liberation character. In order to reach equality between people and nations and not to dominate someone else. We could say that all three were nationalists - Charles de Gaulle, Marine Le Pen and Franz Fanon, but if you put these three in the same basket you could make a big mistake.
You once said that you would support a great union with Albania, is this still the case?
We believe in strengthening the state of Kosovo as a sovereign and independent republic and in our constitution, article 1.1 is in contradiction with article 1.3. Article 1.1 says that Kosovo is a sovereign independent country and article 1.3 says that Kosovo cannot join another country. So I believe that full independence implies also, independence from independence, so we could join a federation with Albania or an EU federation.
Two referendums in the future could solve this, in Albania and Kosovo, but never by violating our constitution. The constitution would have to be changed first and only if it can be done in a peaceful and democratic manner one day.
How would you vote in that referendum?
Once we would have a strengthening of the state in Kosovo. Once we can do it peacefully and democratically. I think I would vote yes. Yes.
Do you have a message for Europe?
Europe should reform itself and not only its enlargement objective. The Western Balkans six and EU are very important for each other. And I think that with Western Balkans six, EU will achieve congruence with Europe as a continent and we should never forget this and never let it go.