Charges complicate peace efforts and will raise questions about cooperation with Thaçi.
By Andrew Gray 6/25/20
Just as the White House prepared a stage for Kosovo’s future, the territory’s wartime past returned with a vengeance.
Kosovan President Hashim Thaçi was meant to be in Washington Saturday for talks with Serbian leaders on a new era of economic cooperation between the former warring parties in the Balkans, hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump’s special envoy.
But as Thaçi was en route to the U.S. on Wednesday, a stunning announcement appeared on the website of a special court in The Hague: A prosecutor had filed a 10-count indictment against the former guerrilla group leader and others, accusing them of crimes against humanity and war crimes, “including murder, enforced disappearance of persons, persecution, and torture.” Those charged were responsible for nearly 100 murders and their combined crimes had hundreds of victims, the prosecutor alleged.
The timing could scarcely have been more dramatic, and brought accusations from Thaçi’s camp of a plot to scupper the White House meeting. Thaçi, who has always denied allegations of criminality, pulled out of the talks.
“The accusations are completely without basis,” Kadri Veseli, a former president of Kosovo’s parliament who is co-accused with Thaçi in the indictment, told reporters in the Kosovan capital Pristina on Wednesday evening.
The conflict was a watershed moment not only for Kosovo but also for the West.
“I’m worried that the true motivations of the prosecutor are political. Having in mind the timing, a couple of days ahead of the White House meeting … people are right to suspect this is not a coincidence,” said Veseli, the current leader of one of Kosovo’s main political parties.
The shockwaves set off by the indictment will reach far beyond Thaçi, long the dominant political figure among Kosovo’s majority ethnic Albanians, whose reputation for slipperiness was reflected in his nom de guerre, “Snake.” They will ripple across the Balkans and further afield, and stretch back through time to raise uncomfortable questions about Western foreign policy then and now.
The special court in The Hague was set up to examine war crimes committed during and after the 1998-1999 Kosovo conflict, in which more than 10,000 people died, most of them ethnic Albanians.
The conflict was a watershed moment not only for Kosovo but also for the West. In 1999, NATO went to war against another country for the first time in its history with the stated aim of ending Serb repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a Serbian province. The war ended Serb rule in Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008 but has not been recognized by Serbia.
In the months after the bombing campaign, as NATO armored vehicles patrolled war-damaged villages and towns and U.N. police officers in red and white 4x4s rolled through potholed streets, Kosovo was the scene of countless attacks against Serbs and members of other minority groups. Homes were set ablaze and tens of thousands fled in fear for their lives.
These assaults were sometimes described as “revenge attacks” — suggesting an outpouring of anger by ethnic Albanians after years of Serb repression, followed by mass killings and ethnic cleansing by Serb forces during the war. But it became clear that some of the violence was coordinated. International investigators later concluded that senior members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) that fought Serb rule were behind such attacks, which also targeted KLA opponents. Thaçi was the group’s political leader.
Most immediately, the charges greatly complicate efforts by the EU and the U.S. to reach a final peace settlement between the two sides in a volatile corner of Europe, where Russia, China, Turkey and Gulf Arab states all compete for influence.
It will be harder for Richard Grenell, Trump’s special envoy for Kosovo peace talks, to turn his mission into a major foreign policy victory for his boss in an election year. Grenell initially said Saturday’s talks would go ahead with Kosovan Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti — but Hoti, who has been in office just a few weeks, announced on Thursday he is pulling out.
Some in the region, and some European diplomats, will be happy if Grenell’s efforts falter. They feared a rushed deal between Thaçi and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vučić that would ignore fundamental issues and include a dangerous land swap (although Grenell denied he favored that idea). But some European officials said in recent days that Grenell’s efforts to push both sides back to the negotiating table to discuss economics could help kickstart political talks that had stalled under the auspices of the EU.
Human rights activists will hope the indictment shows no one can act with impunity and that justice will eventually be delivered for unspeakable crimes. Thaçi’s critics will also hope that the charge sheet heralds his political demise; they see him and other regional leaders including Vučić as symbols of a system riddled with cronyism, corruption and links to organized crime. And they accuse Western powers of being far too ready to work with those leaders, thereby helping to strengthen them and their networks.
“This indictment is a positive step for justice as these alleged crimes have hung over Kosovo for two decades,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “After years of demanding justice, victims from all ethnic groups may finally get to have their day in court.”
Richard Grenell (C), Hashim Thaçi (L background) and Aleksandar Vučić (R background) watch the signing of an agreement between Kosovo and Serbia for railway and street projects at the Munich Security Conference, February 14, 2020 | Thomas Kienzle/AFP via Getty Images
The effects of the indictment on Kosovo’s political landscape are unclear. A small group of KLA veterans gathered in Pristina on Wednesday to demonstrate against the charges but there was no sign of any immediate large-scale protests.
Clint Williamson, an American lawyer who led an EU task force investigating war crimes in Kosovo, called on political leaders not to use the indictment to raise tensions.
“For those in Kosovo who are tempted to react with anger toward this indictment, and particularly for those in Kosovo who would try to incite public opposition to it, I would urge them to exercise restraint,” he said in a statement.
“It is important that these accusations be addressed through a judicial process and that will follow in due course. At that point, I sincerely hope that there will be a clear resolution that delivers justice for the victims of these crimes — a critical step in allowing both Kosovo and Serbia to move forward and put this tragic period behind them.”
Thaçi’s opponents have repeatedly accused him of doing everything possible to try to avoid a war crimes trial, including putting his personal interests ahead of those of the country.
The president has sought to burnish his image on the international stage. A glowing English-language biography of Thaçi, entitled “New State, Modern Statesman,” was published in 2018 to less than universal acclaim.
But if the court confirms the indictment and Thaçi goes to trial, he will not be the only one facing scrutiny. Thaçi has been a key Western partner for more than two decades, dating back to efforts to broker peace in Kosovo in the late 1990s.
International powers have continued to cooperate closely with Thaçi even as accusations of serious criminality swirled around him.
Although some Western leaders were wary of the KLA and tried to keep their distance from the group, NATO effectively intervened on the side of the guerrillas with its 1999 bombing campaign that drove Serb forces out of Kosovo.
When Kosovo was placed in the hands of a U.N. administration and a NATO-led peacekeeping force after the bombing, both organizations worked closely with Thaçi under provisional political structures. U.N. police were told not to investigate Thaçi and a number of other Kosovan political leaders without top-level approval.
International powers have continued to cooperate closely with Thaçi even as accusations of serious criminality swirled around him. A 2010 report by Swiss politician and prosecutor Dick Marty for the Council of Europe alleged Thaçi was the head of an organized crime gang known as the Drenica Group (named after a region of Kosovo). Thaçi repeatedly denied the accusation.
The report also contained allegations that a number of Serbs had been murdered for their kidneys, which were sold on the black market.
The fact that Marty’s report said it drew on information from various Western intelligence agencies raised questions over how much Western powers had turned a blind eye to Thaçi’s activities.
Those issues may resurface if Thaçi faces trial, particularly if such intelligence reports are used as evidence. The questions facing Western officials will be familiar to at least one previous occupant of Thaçi’s intended destination on Saturday: What did they know and when did they know it?