Trump Administration’s Bet on Kosovo’s Thaci Fails to Pay Off

Dean B. Pineles, Washington DC, July 1, 2020


The White House’s envoy for Kosovo-Serbia dialogue hoped to rush both countries’ leaders into a deal and score a win for Donald Trump – but the announcement of Hashim Thaci’s war crimes indictment exposed the problem with Washington’s strategy.

The planned tour de force orchestrated by Richard Grenell, the US’s special envoy for Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, was scheduled for June 27 at the White House in Washington DC.

This was the day when President Hashim Thaci of Kosovo and President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia were to meet with Grenell and other top officials to jump-start the long-stalled peace talks, and hopefully reach an agreement on economic issues as a possible prelude to a future mutual recognition agreement between the two countries.

The meeting and any resulting agreement would have been a personal triumph for Grenell, the sharp-elbowed tactician and Trump confidant who has successfully muscled his way into the centre of discussions between the two countries.

The meeting would have also allowed the Americans to upstage the Europeans, who detest Grenell and who are desperate of late to play a meaningful role, if not a leading role, in shepherding the dialogue.

While the EU has paid lip service to resumption of the talks, it has been woefully unsuccessful in advancing the cause. As a result, both Thaci and Vucic now place greater trust in the US.

Perhaps most importantly, an agreement could have been heralded by President Trump as a foreign policy achievement, something that is glaringly absent from his resume.

As he heads toward the November 3 presidential election, his poll numbers are in freefall because of his ineffective leadership during the pandemic crisis and the recent Black Lives Matter protests, and he needs all the help he can get.

But the grand meeting turned out to be the dance party that nobody attended. As Thaci was on his way to Washington on June 24, the Specialist Prosecutor in The Hague issued a press release saying that Thaci was the subject of a multiple-count indictment charging him and nine others, including Kadri Veseli, former speaker of the Kosovo Assembly, with a multitude of serious crimes, and that Thaci and Veseli had been attempting to sabotage the Kosovo Specialist Chambers.

Thaci had little choice but to turn around and forego the much-hyped meeting which had received attention in all leading US media outlets, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti also cancelled his trip to Washington following the news about Thaci.

Whether the timing of the announcement was planned or merely coincidental is now the subject of much speculation; the timing was strange indeed. One plausible version posits that the timing was planned so that Thaci would not be able to negotiate a deal in Washington to abrogate the court or otherwise achieve immunity.

This view finds some support in the wording of the press release that says that Thaci and Veseli “are believed to have carried out a secret campaign to overturn the law creating the court and otherwise obstruct the work of the court in an attempt to ensure that they do not face justice”.

But how could such a deal happen?  The court is a creature of Kosovo law and could not be abrogated without the Kosovo Assembly repealing the statute.

In any event, Grenell promptly called off the meeting, saying that he respected Thaci’s decision, and it has not been rescheduled.

The Trump administration has always placed its faith in Thaci as the proper person to represent Kosovo, and has treated him as the only person who can deliver a deal with Vucic. Thaci has been to the US numerous times over the last several years and has always received a warm welcome and support from top US officials.

A case in point:  On November 30, 2018, Thaci gave a speech which I attended at the Atlantic Council, a respected Washington think-tank. I was an international criminal judge with European Union rule-of-law mission EULEX in Kosovo in 2011-13, but this was my first opportunity to see him in person and to hear him speak.

All eyes were on him as he entered the room – tall and fit, with a presidential bearing. He strode to the stage before a packed audience of US government officials, foreign ambassadors, policy analysts, numerous dignitaries, members of the public and many media outlets, and presented his remarks in fluent English.

His key point, which he delivered emphatically, was that despite the horrors of the war with Serbia, which Kosovo will never forget, Kosovo was prepared to negotiate a final and permanent settlement agreement with Serbia, and that the time to do so is now. He was roundly applauded.

Time runs out for Grenell’s gambit

Not only did Thaci make a powerful impression on this audience, but he   obviously made a persuasive case to high-ranking US officials he consulted with in Washington – a former warrior turned statesman with the best interests of his country at heart.

Indeed, in mid-December 2018, just two weeks later, President Trump took an unusually proactive position by writing directly to Thaci and Vucic, imploring them to take advantage of this unique opportunity to make an agreement and suggesting that they would be invited to the Rose Garden at the White House to commemorate it – a true honour.

But for years, Thaci and other top Kosovo Liberation Army veterans have been in the crosshairs of international investigations for war crimes. These investigations eventually led to the creation of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Special Prosecutor’s Office in The Hague.

First there were the shocking allegations made in 2008 by Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, about senior KLA members’ alleged involvement in organ-trafficking.

Then came the infamous Dick Marty report for the Council of Europe, adopted in early 2011, which corroborated many of Del Ponte’s allegations and added other serious crimes as well, and specifically identified Thaci and other KLA commanders by name for the first time.

Thaci was described in the Marty report as the ringleader of an organised crime enterprise engaged in murder, torture, forced disappearances, organ-trafficking and other serious crimes. He strongly denied the allegations, describing them as “monstrous” and “scandalous”. (He repeated his strong denial in his speech to the nation on Monday.)

There followed an investigation by the EU’s Special Investigative Task Force, whose report in 2014 buttressed Marty’s claims. This led to legislative action by the Kosovo Assembly, establishing the Specialist Chambers in 2015.

While the evolution of the court has been a case study in extraordinarily expensive international justice in slow motion, it was only a matter of time before indictments were actually filed, and anyone familiar with the workings of the court would have known that the time was rapidly approaching.

Indeed, the Specialist Prosecutor filed the confidential indictment on April 24, and a pre-trial judge was appointed to review the indictment for legal and factual sufficiency with a six-month timeline. The indictment would not be made public until confirmed by the pre-trial judge, but the clock had begun ticking.

This likely informed Grenell of potentially rough seas ahead for Thaci in the very near future. However, Grenell probably believed that he had sufficient time to stage the Washington meeting, assuming he moved quickly, given that the pre-trial judge’s six-month window extended into late October.

This strategy required him to rush ahead with the meeting, as seems to have happened, and to come up with an agreement, any agreement, in an attempt to beat the clock and salvage a much-needed victory for Trump. But no one could have anticipated that the prosecutor, whose office historically has been a dry well of information, would issue the explosive press release and derail the talks.

This extraordinary sequence of events calls to mind the last time that talks were scheduled to resume in Brussels under European auspices on January 16, 2018.  On that very day, Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic was murdered in north Mitrovica, and the talks were scuttled just as they were again last weekend.

While I make no claim to being clairvoyant, I wrote an article for this site in January 2018, a year and a half ago, entitled “American Dilemma: What if Kosovo’s Thaci is Indicted?” The subtitle read: “The US has invested a lot of political capital in Kosovo President Hashim Thaci in the hope of securing a Pristina-Belgrade peace deal – but potential war crimes indictment could torpedo Washington’s strategy.”

And this is exactly what has happened.  The US has never developed a Plan B without Thaci, and this outcome can only be described as a foreign policy debacle and an embarrassment for Grenell and the Trump administration.

Meanwhile, Germany and France are planning a Kosovo-Serbia summit in France in July, which will be seen in Washington as a poke in Trump’s eye.

Judge Dean B. Pineles is a graduate of Brown University, Boston University Law School and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He served as an international judge with EULEX from 2011-13. In addition to Kosovo, he has extensive rule of law experience in Russia, Kazakhstan and Georgia.