August 3, 2020
By Irena Baboi – Senior Fellow
On 24 June, the Hague-based Specialist Prosecutor’s Office (SPO) announced that Kosovo President Hashim Thaci was being indicted for his role during Kosovo’s war of independence from Serbia. Along with current leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) Kadri Veseli, and several other unnamed defendants, Thaci stands accused of a range of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, enforced disappearance of persons, persecution, and torture. The ten-count indictment, filled by the SPO with the Kosovo Specialist Chambers (KSC) on 24 April, was announced just as Thaci was on his way to attend a Washington meeting to discuss Serbia-Kosovo relations. Even more interestingly, the indictment was announced publicly before an official confirmation of the charges, a move that is both highly unusual and against the rules of the KSC. If convicted, Thaci will be the first high-level Kosovar politician to face trial for wartime wrongdoings – and his indictment alone has already triggered a host of effects and implications.
During Kosovo’s 1998-1999 independence war, which ended with the aid of a NATO bombing campaign, Hashim Thaci was the political leader of his country’s ethnic Albanian separatist militia, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Immediately after the war ended, Thaci joined politics as the leader of the PDK, and went on to serve as prime minister both between 2008 and 2010 and between 2011 and 2014. Since 2016, Thaci has been the president of Kosovo, a largely ceremonial role that he has nonetheless used to keep himself at the centre of high-level decision-making related to his country. Critics of the ruling elite associate Thaci with a political system riddled by corruption, cronyism and links to organised crime, the main cause of Kosovo’s slow democratic progress since 2008 when the country gained de facto independence.
According to the SPO, it was repeated efforts by Thaci and Veseli to undermine and even obstruct the work of the KSC that led to this surprising public announcement ahead of an official decision. The SPO believes that Thaci and Veseli have been carrying out a campaign designed to overturn the law that created the KSC in an attempt to ensure that they do not face justice. A KSC pre-trial judge is currently reviewing the indictment, and has until October to decide whether or not there is sufficient evidence for a trial. In the meantime, the United States-led meeting has been postponed indefinitely, and the European Union has taken charge of the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue again.
The 27 June meeting in Washington, meant to be led by US special envoy Richard Grenell, was reportedly supposed to focus on the economic side of ‘normalising’ relations between Belgrade and Pristina, with the European Union handling political matters between the two countries. The announcement of the meeting, however, re-ignited fears that the infamous territorial exchange proposal was back on the cards as a solution to the Serbia-Kosovo dispute. Although both Grenell and Thaci have repeatedly denied this allegation, they have also been vague when explaining what the ‘normalising’ of economic relations entails – and whether or not these talks will touch upon Serbia finally recognising Kosovo’s independence.
For the better part of 2018, the idea that a land swap agreement features highly on the list of solutions to the Serbia-Kosovo dispute made the rounds in the media. Although in February the United States embassy to Kosovo voiced its opposition to a potential exchange of territories between the two countries, by July it was unclear whether or not Washington still considered this a non-option. In September, rumours that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo President Hashim Thaci are working on a proposal for this agreement were extinguished as quickly as they were ignited, as the two leaders cancelled a Brussels meeting in which they were meant to discuss this so-called border adjustment deal. Despite this, as one after another EU-brokered negotiation meetings failed to produce any tangible results, members from within the European organisation started warming up to the idea – and the international mood towards what would ultimately be an extreme solution seemed to be gradually shifting.
A quick fix to the Serbia-Kosovo dispute, however, was abruptly taken off the table. In November 2018, Kosovo’s government imposed a ten percent tax on imports from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, a move Pristina argues is in retaliation for the two countries’ refusal to recognise its independence, and “savage” acts against the youngest Balkan republic. The “savage” acts most likely referred to Serbia’s efforts to persuade countries across the world to withdraw their recognition of Kosovan statehood, a campaign which came with some degree of success. Kosovo failing to gain membership of Interpol for the third time further increased tensions, and in December 2018 the import taxes stood at one hundred percent.
Under the potential territorial swap agreement, Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo would join Serbia, while Kosovo would receive Serbia’s Presevo Valley. While it is unclear whether or not the agreement includes recognition of Kosovo’s independence by Serbia, it is abundantly clear that, in Kosovo at least, President Thaci stands alone in support of the so-called border adjustment. In September 2018, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Pristina to demonstrate against the potential territory swap. Kosovo’s opposition Self-Determination Party (Vetevendosje) has been very vocal against the deal, and former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj has also been among those who oppose it.
A resolution to the Serbia-Kosovo dispute would certainly have represented a quick diplomatic win for United States President Donald Trump ahead of the presidential elections, but internationally, Germany and France are among the countries against it. Even if it means much-needed advancement on the European path, a land swap agreement could set a dangerous precedent, and invite further calls for so-called border adjustments. Bosnia’s Republika Srpska is always keen to capitalise on moves in the region, and cause a commotion by re-affirming its desire to join Serbia. The Serb-dominated entity could be joined by Croats in the country, whose outrage at the October election result makes them more than willing to draw further attention to their cause. The agreement could also embolden Albanian extremists in Macedonia, unhappy over the country’s treatment of the minority, to seek the same future for the part of the country in which Albanians are currently concentrated. Every decision sends ripple effects over the entire region, and a change this significant could open a Pandora’s box with widespread and long-lasting implications.
Externally, the effects of the indictment were immediate – although he is yet to resign, President Hashim Thaci is no longer included in the Serbia-Kosovo talks that were restarted by the European Union in the second week of July. In Kosovo, however, the news of Thaci’s indictment was received with mixed feelings and reactions. The 1998-1999 war is considered one of liberation in the youngest Balkan country, and the KSC is seen as a biased institution, which has been selective in its trying of war crimes and crimes against humanity. More than 150 former KLA members have been summoned for questioning since the court was established, but many wartime crimes committed by Serbian forces have never resulted in indictments. With prominent Kosovar politicians all former leaders in the KLA, moreover, Kosovo’s political elite have perpetuated an image of the war of independence as a ‘pure and just’ fight for freedom, and of KLA members as nothing else but war heroes.
On the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue front, the conclusions of the 10 and 12 July European-led meetings perfectly summarise what is likely to be the normal state of affairs for the foreseeable future. During the 10 July Paris summit organised by Germany and France, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti stated that the territorial integrity of Kosovo is non-negotiable, that any agreement with Serbia must be fully in line with Kosovo’s constitution, and that mutual recognition with Serbia is the only acceptable outcome of the dialogue for Kosovo. In response to this, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic accused Pristina of being unrealistic in its requirements, and Hoti of trying to blackmail Belgrade into accepting every one of Kosovo’s demands. Prior to the meetings, Vucic also made sure to note that the West needs to offer more than merely European Union membership if Belgrade is to recognise Kosovo’s independence – and that no resolution to the Serbia-Kosovo dispute will be reached without Russia’s approval.
Whether or not the announcement of Thaci’s indictment was timed to prevent the reaching of a land swap deal, one thing is abundantly clear: a territory exchange agreement is off the table again, and there will be no quick fix to Serbia-Kosovo relations. A comprehensive deal that takes both peace and justice into account needs to be the goal – and anything less is merely the making of a ticking time bomb.