Commandment number 2 in promising to combat corruption in a small, developing country is to have a long-term, strategic plan. But perhaps that was not important because the newly elected Mayor of Prishtina, Shpend Ahmeti, might have not thought of commandment number 1, which is that there is a possibility that someone will kill you for undertaking this endeavor. In 2000, just after the war in Kosovo ended, Rexhep Luci, the city planning director working for the UN, was shot six times and killed because he was trying to stop the illegal constructions that had already become a problem in the capital city. This murder case has still not been resolved. 15 years later, Mayor Ahmeti campaigned for mayor by promising to restore the faith of the residents of Prishtina in local governance and rule of law. Among his promises, including 24/7 water supply and a modern urban transport that would replace the old buses of former Yugoslavia, the soon-to-be Mayor pledged to deal with the illegal construction that had overtaken Kosovo’s capital city’s landscape. Five months into his mandate, an assassination plan against him was exposed; his plans to regulate construction in the capital city did not fit well with large companies that had been profiting off this unregulated landscape mess. That did not stop Mayor Ahmeti from waging a war against the illegal construction, as he had promised during the campaign.
After the war in 1999, construction became the most profitable business of choice by large businesses. Without any urban planning or laws to regulate such construction, in a very short time the city of Prishtina became an urban planner’s worst nightmare. This industry involved a large amount of money laundering, often involving people in government positions. Since the war’s end, Prishtina’s local government has turned a blind eye on the illegal constructions that were going on at its front door, indeed profiting from such activities. According to a report issued by the Municipality of Prishtina, when Mayor Ahmeti took over, there were 46,000 illegal constructions, as well as 1,000 permits issued against the law and not in line with the city’s urban planning. 
Shpend Ahmeti, a Harvard economist and former academic, ran his first mayoral campaign in 2013, focused on combating the rampant corruption that had been stagnating the development of the young Kosovo’s capital city. Illegal construction was not only an issue long overdue for resolution, but it was also the right choice for a candidate whose political career was only beginning. “Organized crime is by far mostly linked to construction, whether it is money laundering, nepotism or corruption,” mayor Ahmeti said. “All these bad things are at their worst in construction … So it was a priority to say, here is a sign of rule of law,” said Ahmeti in an interview for the Guardian in 2014. If Ahmeti could clean up the capital city, the proof needed for the residents to vote for him for another term would be right in front of their eyes.
To show the citizens he was serious about his promises, the first thing he tried to do in office was to sell the former Mayor’s Audi Q7, while promising he would take the city bus to work every day. This was more easily said than done, since the opposition party, which made up a considerable part of the Municipality’s Assembly (the decision-making organ of the local government), refused to vote for the selling of the car to stall his progress.
Once in the office, he and his team took on a long overdue housecleaning. They reviewed the work of all the departments in the Municipality, making the reports available online for public use. This was the first time a public official had conducted a review of the past government’s work and had laid the groundwork for comparable analysis of results at the end of his term. As a result, he sent to court over 70 cases of corruption and other misdemeanors that occurred during the governance of the former Mayor Mustafa.
At the beginning, Ahmeti also worked with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to set in place anti-corruption systems and practices. According to Kosovo’s Anti-Corruption Strategy 2013-2017, “all public institutions are required to develop and implement the Integrity Management System. Municipality of Prishtina was the first local government in Kosovo to implement and adopt one.” Similarly, in Ahmeti’s first year his team drafted the Integrity plan 2014-2016, in which they set 4 main objectives for combating corruption and laying groundwork for integrity in governance, such as: “Increased efficiency, effectiveness and transparency through: integrating integrity risk management, optimized integrity controls at operational level; enhanced human resources framework to lead and support integrity reforms; and enabling external environment to promote modernization and sustain a collective commitment to integrity through improved co-ordination with stakeholders, increased quality of awareness and communication events, enhanced transparency and citizen engagement and dissemination of good practices.” The work of all departments of the municipality would be guided by these objectives, and the heads of each departments together with the Mayor would take pride in their clean governance.
An Urban Nightmare
Shpend Ahmeti was sworn in as the Mayor of Prishtina on December 13, 2013. As early as January 17, 2014, the Municipality started implementing the Law on Legalizing Constructions, which said that all buildings constructed before August 2013 must go through the legalization process. Its first action was the demolition of an illegal building in one of the major neighborhoods of the city. According to the findings of the Department of Urban Planning, the last mayoral government had issued authorization for construction projects that were not in line with urban planning or other regulations, which implies political involvement in such profitable constructions.
In the future months, together with the department of Urbanism and the inspectorate on construction, Mayor Ahmeti demolished illegal structures, often multiple-story buildings that were under construction by major companies. By the end of 2015, they stopped and brought down buildings considered threatening to safety and closed 120 illegal landfills. Moreover, they established an online platform where individuals and businesses could register their buildings as legal, at the same time running awareness campaigns on the legalization of construction. By the end of the year, the local government had issued 235 construction permits, which were published on the government’s website. For the first time in Kosovo, Mayor Ahmeti and his team organized town halls to meet with citizens of each neighborhood to discuss the regulative planning of their areas. The citizens’ input was then included in the designing of the plans that were soon approved and implemented. The municipality worked on updating the GIS database that had been largely neglected by the last government. And finally, they established a Permit Tracking System to allow citizens to keep updated on their applications for construction permits.
Friend or Foe
Ahmeti’s work has faced resistance and earned praise. The opposition party in the Municipality’s Assembly as well as the central government, have tried to make it more difficult for him to implement the policies he set out during his electoral campaign. He is arguably the most scrutinized politician in Kosovo, with (politically biased) media outlets interpreting his visits to European cities as “luxurious” and tying him with large Kosovar businesses. It has not been only his political career at stake when he decided to tackle this difficult issue: the assassination plot uncovered in 2014 was a result of his taking on corruption.
His bold electoral campaign and local policy-making have won him praise as well. In 2014, the Guardian called him “Europe’s bravest mayor.” In January 2015, Citymayors.com named him Mayor of the Month, considering his election as “a drastic change in leadership in Kosovo’s capital Prishtina.” He has been working closely with UNDP’s anti-corruption program and has created partnerships with other European cities such as Zagreb, Tirana, and Antwerp. Moreover, the Municipality has received technical assistance worth 700,000 Euros from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to help revamp public transport in the city. Ahmeti’s work has not gone unnoticed by the citizens of Prishtina, either. In 2015, UNDP measured citizens’ perceptions of public services and local authorities in Kosovo. The organization found that the satisfaction index of residents of Prishtina regarding their local government had increased from 7.62 in 2012 to 30.13 in 2015, while the satisfaction with the Mayor was at 80%, the third highest of all municipalities in Kosovo. 
Mr. Ahmeti will not be a Mayor Forever
Mr. Ahmeti has not said that he is running for a second term as Mayor. But in the last three months alone, the local government completely revamped the urban transport system by bringing in 30 new in-city buses, introduced an application for free housing for families who live below the poverty line, and has guaranteed that finally, after years of waiting, residents of Prishtina will have 24/7 access to drinking water, all while illegal constructions are brought to a halt, new constructions are legalized, and the city is starting to resemble a well-functioning European capital. It is difficult to argue that the opposition party, as well as central government, has stalled the fulfillment of these plans. It is also difficult to argue that a Harvard-trained policy maker does not know that showing all his work right before the election, may nudge voters to reelect him. Whether we are witnessing a House of Cards being unfolded before us or not, Mr. Ahmeti has done more for the city of Prishtina than every public official combined since after the war. But surely this is only the beginning, and there is still so much more to do in the city that we the residents frustratingly love. Many believe that Mr. Ahmeti will soon be a contender for Prime Minister. Meanwhile, here’s to hoping that he has inspired future leaders to do more for their community, one halted illegal construction project at a time.
- Wood, 2000. ↑
- Friends of Kosovo, 2015 ↑
- Komuna e Prishtines, 2016 ↑
- Borger 2014. ↑
- Illyria Press 2014a. ↑
- Illyria Press 2014b. ↑
- UNDP 2014. ↑
- Komuna e Prishtines 2014a. ↑
- Komuna e Prishtines 2014b. ↑
- Komuna e Prishtines 2014c. ↑
- Komuna e Prishtines 2016. ↑
- Gazeta Metro 2017. ↑
- Gazeta Express 2017. ↑
- City Mayors 2015. ↑
- UNDP 2015. ↑
- Komuna e Prishtines 2017a. ↑
- Komuna e Prishtines 2017b. ↑
- Komuna e Prishtines 2017c. ↑
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