Last week, the President of Kosovo Thaci announced his resignation after confirming his indictment for war and crimes against humanity committed when he was commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army. The case before the Kosovo war tribunal in The Hague marks a pivotal step for justice and the rule of law in Kosovo. What kind of consequences the President’s departure from the scene will have for Kosovo and for the normalization of relations with Serbia?
On 5 November, the President of Kosovo Hashim Thaci has resigned, following the confirmation of the war crimes indictment issued by the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in The Hague.
Thaci announced his resignation as President, declaring himself ready to appear at the trial in The Hague and to answer the charges. Following their arrests by the Specialist Prosecutor, Hashim Thaçi, together with Kadri Veseli (former PDK leader), Rexhep Selimi and Jakup Krasniqi (former speaker of the Assembly) were transferred to the Detention Facilities of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers (KSC).
The special prosecutor accused Mr Thaci and other member of the KLA of being criminally responsible for a range of crimes against humanity and war crimes, include murder, torture and enforced disappearances committed during Kosovo’s independence war against Serbia. The crimes alleged in the indictment involve hundreds of known victims of Kosovo Albanian, Serb, Roma and other ethnicities and include political opponents.
On Monday 9 November Thaci has appeared for the first time before a war crimes court in The Hague to face charges. He has denied any accusation and has pledged to cooperate with the tribunal.
Human rights groups and activists welcomed the news of the indictment. The Heads of Mission of the EU and of Member States in Kosovo take note of the resignation of the President of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci. The EU backed the work of the Kosovo Specialist Chamber, adding that “full cooperation with these institutions is essential as an important demonstration of Kosovo’s commitment to the rule of law, which in turn is a core element for Kosovo’s progress on its European path and for EU’s engagement with the Western Balkans as a whole”.
Thaci: “the snake” or the “George Washington of Kosovo”?
Before becoming the foremost influential politician in the country, Mr Thaci was one of the most important senior commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), knows as “the snake”.
He has been in power in Kosovo since the end of the independence war.
From 2008 to 2014 he was the Prime minister of Kosovo, from 2014 to 2016 he held the position of Foreign Minister in charge of handling normalization talks with Belgrade. Lastly, he was elected President of Kosovo in February 2016.
Kosovo declared its independence in 2008. Although it is recognized by the US and the major European countries (except Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania), Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo backed by the Russian Federation, a close ally of Belgrade.
Public opinion is divided as regards the figure of Thaci: for many citizens he is the founder of the state, while others consider Thaci a corrupt politician. Thaci’s popularity has therefore waned due to involvement in corruption affairs and the failure to promise visa liberalization, in addition to the restrictions put in place to deal with the pandemic. However, for the international community he is a trusted partner and even Joe Biden, when he was vice President, called Thaci the “George Washington of Kosovo”.
Where it all started
In 2010, the report of the Council of Europe, prepared by former prosecutor Dick Marty, stated that the evidence of crimes committed by the KLA between 1998 and 2000 is overwhelming. Moreover, the report named Mr Thaci as the leader of a criminal branch of the KLA involved in drug, gun and human organ trafficking.
In 2011, the EU ordered an investigation on this delicate affair, which in fact ended with the confirmation of the report. Therefore, the European Union pressed Kosovo to establish a court to investigate alleged crimes against ethnic minorities and political opponents by the KLA during the war. The Kosovo Specialist Chambers (KSC) was set up in 2015: it is a peculiar court because it operates under Kosovo law but is staffed by international judges and prosecutors.
The establishment of the court has received much criticism in Kosovo and it is perceived as an imposition by the international community.
What is at stake for Kosovo?
Thaci’s resignation and his judicial process is expected to strongly influence the political situation in Kosovo but also the difficult dialogue with Serbia. Another jeopardy concerns Russia and China which do not recognize Kosovo and could use the indictment of Thaci to undermine the independence of Kosovo.
The function of President of the Republic is exercised ad interim by the current President of parliament, Vjosa Osmani, Thaci’s historical rival. Now the Parliament has to elect a successor, but if no agreement is reached for the election of the president, early elections will be called.
Kosovo and Serbia reached a landmark agreement to normalize their relations in 2013. The process of normalization of relations with EU mediation has therefore been going on since 2013, but the poor results have facilitated US intervention, and the subsequent extension of the status quo, as well as a lack of real progress in the path of reconciliation.
Thaci’s departure offers Pristina the opportunity to rethink the process of normalizing relations with Serbia, and more generally the opportunity to make a decisive change in the troubled path of institutional consolidation and social and economic development that began in 2008.