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Politics

Europe’s bravest mayor? The man trying to clean up Kosovo’s capital

In Pristina, Shpend Ahmeti has already faced an apparent assassination plot after just five months in office

When the phone rings in the Pristina mayor’s office, it usually means there’s either a crisis brewing or an old crisis worsening. And the phone rings all the time.

Shpend Almati PristinaShpend Ahmeti has been in office less than five months, and has spent most of that time with his mobile phone clamped to one ear, fighting fires – mostly figurative but occasionally literal.

The burly Harvard-trained economist is attempting to bring rational, clean governance to the most corrupt city of one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, making him arguably the bravest mayor on the continent. An apparent assassination plot against him was recently uncovered: the five would-be hitmen were allegedly overheard divvying up grenades and assault weapons for the job. All but one are still at large and every day Ahmeti makes powerful new enemies.

“There were discussions in a restaurant, and weapons were exchanged,” he said. The police have kept him in the dark but assured him it could not have been a very serious plot because officers had not known about it – a somewhat inverted logic that brought little comfort. “We took our own security measures,” Ahmeti, 36, said with a shrug as if to concede those measures did not add up to much.

If such measures exist at all, they are hard to spot. One of his first acts in office was to auction off his predecessor’s luxury official car, an Audi Q7. He now takes the bus into work each morning and uses one of the city hall’s silver compact Hyundais to get to meetings. Often he just walks through the city’s teeming streets, being accosted with praise, blame or petitions every few yards.

Even Ahmeti’s surrender of his €25,000 limousine has generated ire. Another city mayor has followed his example but that has only heightened the unease of officials still enjoying expensive rides.

Connections

On a recent day the embattled Pristina mayor spent with the Guardian, the most pressing crisis was rubbish. The director of the Pristina landfill had closed its gates to the city’s rubbish trucks on the grounds that the capital’s public waste management company owed him money. That was true, but it has been true for 14 years and the landfill only shut once Ahmeti had taken office and national elections, due next month, began to loom on the horizon.

The mayor is a member of a protest group turned upstart party called Vetëvendosje (“self-determination”), while the landfill director is the brother of a powerful member of the ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo(PDK) who is close to the prime minister, Hashim Thaçi. The PDK man’s brother-in-law runs the water management company, which has also started to squeeze the city, with daytime cuts in the water supply of up to eight hours, despite recent torrential rains.

Whether intentional or not, both moves make Ahmeti and his party look bad before the June polls, with the waste crisis by far the most pressing. Ahmeti sent Pristina’s rubbish trucks 25 miles north to a landfill in Mitrovica. It was a temporary solution, as the problem was likely to spread north because of the links between waste disposal bosses. In a series of urgent phone calls, Ahmeti raised the stakes. If the lockout was not stopped immediately, he would tell the capital’s refuse workers to empty their trash in front of ministerial buildings.

“It’s a typical example of how nepotism, cronyism and corruption has taken over this place,” Ahmeti, a former World Bank economist, said. “You can never close down a landfill. It’s a public health issue. So I’m threatening them if they don’t open up I’m putting the garbage in front of the government. I will really spill it in their backyard so they do something about it.”

The threat had rapid results, with police being dispatched to the Pristina landfill to force open the gates. The round went to Ahmeti, but in the bare-knuckle world of Kosovo politics, there is almost always another round, some act of revenge waiting in the wings.

Another of the many battles involves an alleged fuel scam in Pristina schools. His office claimed that instead of supplying diesel at €1.20 a litre for the furnaces used to heat 43 Pristina schools, the local contractor was selling cheap heating oil smuggled from Serbia, worth just 50 cents a litre, and pocketing the difference. It meant the schools were getting fuel with sulphur emissions 70 times over the EU and Kosovan legal limit. Ahmeti shut the schools and ended the contract, and is now being sued for “reputational damage” by the company, which said the fuel had been switched after delivery to the schools’ storage tanks.

But more absurd claims have succeeded in Kosovo’s courts, and the company is well connected – a major funder of the two main political parties, the PDK and the opposition Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK).

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