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Kosovo dissident Albin Kurti reaches halls of power

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Pristina (AFP)

A political prisoner turned parliamentary troublemaker, Albin Kurti is on the verge of becoming prime minister in Kosovo after an electoral triumph that could remake the political scene in Europe's youngest democracy.

"The day has come! The day has come!" the charismatic 44-year-old chanted with thousands of supporters who swarmed Pristina's central square late Sunday night after the vote, setting off fireworks.

They were celebrating the victory of Kurti's left-wing and Albanian-nationalist party Vetevendosje in a poll that captured a hunger for change in one of Europe's poorest areas.

"Revolution," read a headline in Monday's local Zeri newspaper.

Kurti has long been an insurgent force in Kosovo politics, railing against the ex-guerillas who have dominated the former Serbian province since independence in 2008.

He and other critics accuse those elites of swindling the people with a decade of corruption and nepotism.

On Sunday, voters handed that political class a bitter defeat, with President Hashim Thaci's PDK party set to go into the opposition for the first time in 12 years.

According to preliminary results, Vetevendosje came first with nearly 26 percent, barely a point ahead of another opposition party, the centre-right LDK.

The pair have already signalled their openness for a coalition to secure a ruling majority.

"I will offer them (LDK) a hand of cooperation as prime minister of Kosovo to crown the change," Kurti said in his victory speech.

"This is the beginning of Kosovo's liberation," he proclaimed.

- Riots, tear gas -

Ermal, a former rebel fighter who now drives a taxi in Pristina, said even he was swayed to vote against the "war parties".

"They have robbed this country and our people," he told AFP.

Kurti "is purely clean...Only him and God can save this country."

The former student activist made his name on Kosovo's streets, organising protests in the late 1990s against former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, whose forces waged a bloody campaign against Kosovo's Albanian majority.

Kurti spent two years in a Serbian jail for his activism.

After the province split from Serbia following NATO's intervention in the 1998-99 war, Kurti became a leading critic of both local leaders and the international community's heavy influence in Kosovo.

Now he needs to convince Western diplomats he is no longer the radical anti-imperialist whose supporters were rioting in the streets not so long ago.

Vetevendosje, which means "self-determination", has flexed its muscles over the years with massive rallies that have sometimes veered into violence.

The worst incidents saw supporters lob Molotov cocktails at parliament and overturn UN and EU-owned cars.

Inside the assembly, Kurti's MPs made a habit of protesting votes by unleashing tear gas, drawing condemnation from Western diplomats.

Kurti has reined in these radical antics over the past year.

In an interview with AFP in 2018, he rejected the "radical" and "nationalist" labels, saying his group has moved to a Social Democrat outlook since 2013.

"One could say that I am a romantic person but I am not a chauvinist," he added.

As prime minister, "I would be just. Neither strong nor weak," he told AFP.

- Flags and anthems -

Kurti is fiercely against ceding any ground to Serbia in the ongoing dialogue between the neighbours.

Belgrade still rejects Kosovo's independence and the West has put heavy pressure on the pair to resolve their "frozen conflict".

If made prime minister, Kurti says he will take charge of the EU-led talks, which were previously run by President Thaci.

"He is aware that the international support for him will depend on his approach to the dialogue," said political analyst Imer Mushkolaj.

Controversially, Kurti has been a vocal advocate of merging Kosovo and Albania, though he said recently that now was not the right time.

His party rallies, however, are still flooded with Albania's red-and-black flag, while Kosovo's blue-and-yellow one barely makes an appearance.

Supporters also sing Albania's national anthem instead of their own.

"We have big expectations because we have been very disappointed," he added.

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