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Broken Or A Breakthrough? Surprise Kosovo War-Crime Charges Have Put Balkan Talks In Limbo

Kosovar President Hashim Thaci has been indicted with others by a prosecutor in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed during or after the 1998-1999 Kosovo conflict. (file photo)
Kosovar President Hashim Thaci has been indicted with others by a prosecutor in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed during or after the 1998-1999 Kosovo conflict. (file photo)

A war crimes indictment from The Hague against Kosovar President Hashim Thaci and several others caused transatlantic shockwaves when it was announced on June 24.

Prosecutors from an internationalized office (the SPO) to investigate grave crimes around Kosovo's war for independence in 1998-99 accused Thaci and other prominent figures of roles in "nearly 100 murders," enforced disappearances, and torture.

They cite "hundreds of known victims of Kosovo Albanian, Serb, Roma, and other ethnicities" that include "political opponents."

Beyond leveling grave charges against a sitting head of state that stretch back to a bitter and bloody conflict that led to Kosovo's independence -- still a divisive topic for some European countries -- the charges came just three days before a major summit in Washington that U.S. officials hoped could bring a minor breakthrough in a decade of intransigence in the Balkans.

Thaci, a leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) during his country's war of independence from Serbia in 1998-99, has proclaimed his innocence.

Prosecutors added that the indictment was "only an accusation," but it comes after a long investigation and "reflects the SPO's determination that it can prove all of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt."

A judge from the related Kosovo Specialist Chambers (KSC) is reviewing the indictment to decide whether to "confirm the charges."

Thaci quickly canceled his plan to travel to the United States for a June 27 meeting with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and U.S. President Donald Trump's special envoy for Serbian-Kosovar peace negotiations, Richard Grenell.

After initial signs that the Kosovar prime minister, Avdullah Hoti, would still attend, Hoti said he told Grenell he was returning to his country "to deal with the situation."

So the talks -- widely billed as a U.S. strategy to jump-start suspended negotiations to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia, a staunch opponent of Kosovo's independence -- have evaporated for now, though Grenell has said they will be rescheduled.

But it's unclear what the longer-term consequences will be for Kosovo, Kosovars, and for international backers of a deal to eliminate a nagging source of instability in the heart of Europe.

Timing Is Everything

Former Kosovar parliamentary speaker Kadri Veseli, another ex-UCK fighter who leads the Democratic Party of Kosovo and is also accused in the indictment, dismissed the charges and accused prosecutors of playing politics.

"Considering the time and circumstances -- a few days before the meeting at the White House -- it really raises suspicions that this is [no] coincidence," Veseli told journalists late on June 24. "No prosecutor should ever allow his decisions to be guided by political motives."

Former Kosovo parliament speaker Kadri Veseli (file photo)
Former Kosovo parliament speaker Kadri Veseli (file photo)

"I think everyone, everyone is surprised," James Ker-Lindsay, a visiting professor with a focus on Southeastern Europe at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told RFE/RL after the announcement.

It was a nearly universal sentiment and appeared to reflect the fact that even seasoned Balkans watchers were caught unawares.

"You know, we're dealing with the Balkans, and even those of us who like to think we were above conspiracy theorizing and that we must remain immune to it are naturally asking what the hell's happened here, why is this happening right now, after years of waiting," Ker-Lindsay said.

He cited several lines of argument that he'd seen in early speculation about the announcement and its timing:

  1. that Europeans were behind it because they were unhappy at the U.S. "stealing their thunder" in the normalization process and objected to the substance of the deal that Washington presumably hoped would emerge from its mediation efforts;
  2. that Americans were behind it because they wanted to increase their leverage to encourage Thaci to commit to a deal with Vucic, whose party just won a landslide election victory in Serbia; and
  3. that some individuals within the SPO in The Hague fear that a deal struck this week in Washington might include some elements of amnesty for war crimes.

"So maybe there's a sense that 'we need to put this out there now so that, in case that happens, it can't be whitewashed after all these years preparing carefully," Ker-Lindsay said.

The special prosecutor said in the statement that it "deemed it necessary" to issue the indictment "because of repeated efforts" by Thaci and Veseli to obstruct and undermine the KSC's work.

But Marika Djolai, head of the Conflict and Security Cluster at the European Center for Minority Issues, told RFE/RL that the indictment "could have been issued at any point between April and now, which I think allows a space for assumptions that the timing has been carefully chosen in relation to the upcoming meeting [in Washington]."

A Blow To U.S. Momentum On A Deal

The American side also appeared to be caught off guard by the announcement, at least publicly.

Grenell had spent months ramping up pressure on Belgrade and, in particular, Pristina, for a deal that many observers thought could serve as a foreign-policy success for Trump ahead of his bid for reelection in November.

U.S. presidential envoy for Kosovo-Serbia dialogue Richard Grenell (file photo)
U.S. presidential envoy for Kosovo-Serbia dialogue Richard Grenell (file photo)

Grenell has sought to shift a fraught political debate away from broader -- and more emotionally charged -- issues of nationality and ethnicity in favor of a narrower economic focus.

"[We] think if you can create jobs in the region, if you can bring capitalism and force the parties to get along economically and commercially, then the political issues would be the second step," Grenell said last week. He added that he hoped for a "little mini Shenzhen zone," a reference to the first of China's half-dozen special economic zones created in 1980.

"The political issues are clearly the responsibility of the Europeans," Grenell said, in reference to the hit-and-miss process to encourage "normalized" Serbia-Kosovo relations that EU officials have waged for a decade.

Late on June 24, after the word of the indictment, Grenell tweeted that he "[respects Thaci's] decision not to attend the discussions until the legal issues of those allegations are settled," and suggested the meeting in Washington would go on with Vucic and Hoti.

Are the indictment and its fallout a death blow to the current U.S. effort, then?

Florian Bieber, director of the Center for South East European Studies at the University of Graz, said the postponement was damaging, but "not a definite [death blow]."

He noted the "very asymmetrical relationship" that would exist between Belgrade and Pristina if the Washington talks proceeded with just Hoti or another Kosovar --instead of the head of state -- to meet with Vucic.

"We don't know what Thaci's position will be," Bieber said. "Will he have to resign? If so, who's going to replace him? Because the whole process on the Kosovo side has been very much driven by Thaci and has very limited backing beyond him."

Washington does not appear prepared to give up quickly.

Is Thaci Done?

A Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) committee report in 2011 accused Thaci of heading a notorious criminal network made up of leading former UCK fighters responsible for forced organ donations, illegal trafficking, racketeering, and other serious crimes. Veseli was said to be a member of the same group.

Thaci and Veseli have consistently denied any wrongdoing.

But Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the latest charges "[advance] justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity during and after the 1998-99 Kosovo war."

"This indictment is a positive step for justice as these alleged crimes have hung over Kosovo for two decades," the group's EU director, Lotte Leicht, said. "After years of demanding justice, victims from all ethnic groups may finally get to have their day in court."

And Thaci already declared -- to many people's surprise -- that he did not intend to seek reelection next year when his five-year term expires.

Judge Dean Pineles, an international judge in Kosovo with EULEX from 2011 to 2013, wondered more than a year ago about a possible overreliance on Thaci in a piece, American Dilemma: What If Kosovo's Thaci Is Indicted?

Hashim Thaci with U.S. President Donald Trump (center) and his wife Melania Trump in New York in 2019.
Hashim Thaci with U.S. President Donald Trump (center) and his wife Melania Trump in New York in 2019.

Within weeks of a Thaci trip to the United States in November 2018, Pineles said, the Trump administration was pressing Kosovo and Serbia to reach a historic agreement.

"[An] indictment would be an embarrassment for the U.S., which has placed its confidence in President Thaci and anointed him as the best person to facilitate a peace agreement with Serbia," Pineles warned.

Djolai said the indictment looks eerily similar to a call last year for Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinja to testify at The Hague -- an action that Djolai said "effectively removed" him active Kosovo politics.

The judge for Thaci's indictment is said to have six months to decide whether the evidence supports a Hague trial for the Kosovar president, possibly putting him in legal limbo for several months.

How Do Kosovars See It?

An informal poll on the streets of the capital, Pristina, after the indictment was announced on June 24 suggested that Kosovars are still divided on the issue of the court.

"Great injustice," said one, Nike Hiseni. "UCK soldiers did not commit crimes. Great injustice."

"I don't defend either the president or the president of the PDK," said Albert Shala, "but this is a great injustice to Kosovo."

"I read the news in the press. Bad news. What can we do?" said Hysen Azemi.

Thaci and other former guerrilla fighters have led Kosovo for almost its entire sovereign existence.

His Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) -- which emerged from the demilitarized UCK -- had led every governing coalition since independence in 2008.

In October 2019, voters blamed the PDK for rampant corruption and nepotism and gave the election to an upstart ethnic Albanian nationalist, Albin Kurti, and his Self-Determination party.

But stymied partly by Thaci's political maneuvering and partly by his own miscalculations -- and, some say, a nudge from Washington -- Kurti's government fell in March and was replaced by a government supported by former UCK fighters.

It was a sour defeat for Kurti and the plurality of voters who voted for him seeking change.

But the indictment could prompt some of those same Kosovars to rally around Thaci and others they regard as victims of misplaced prosecutorial zeal by the KSC and SPO in The Hague.

Thaci has publicly acknowledged the political benefit of the court's existence for his country but has dismissed it as unfair that no similar specialized court still exists in Serbia to try suspected war criminals there.

Many Kosovars agree.

"A couple of years ago, there was much more consensus in opposition to these courts...and to [the pursuit of prosecutions for] crimes," said Ker-Lindsay. "A lot of people in Kosovo said, 'This is an attempt to undermine possible statehood'" by putting Kosovar leaders on trial and trying to make the war of independence "somehow illegal or illegitimate."

Can The EU Reassert Itself?

Some have speculated that European political forces are behind the timing of the SPO announcement, though there's no evidence to back that up. But if it is, it is unclear what they might do with an opening.

Edward P. Joseph, a former deputy head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, expressed skepticism of the U.S.-led process in a Foreign Policy journal polemical on June 24, but was quick to add that Brussels is hardly in any position to seize the initiative to mediate a Serbia-Kosovo deal.

"[The] expectation that the EU will later take the lead on resolving outstanding political issues defies common sense," Joseph argued after hearing of the charges. "Nowhere is Europe more splintered politically than on Kosovo."

European foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (right) with EU Special Representative for Serbia-Kosovo Dialogue Miroslav Lajcak. (file photo)
European foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (right) with EU Special Representative for Serbia-Kosovo Dialogue Miroslav Lajcak. (file photo)

After all, he said, the EU's high representative for foreign policy, Spaniard Josep Borrell, and its special envoy on Serbia and Kosovo, Slovak Miroslav Lajcak, come from two of the five EU member states that don't even recognize Kosovo's independence.

Brussels speaks in terms of the need for Belgrade to "normalize" its relations with Kosovo to get into the EU, he added, not necessarily recognize its sovereignty.

For his part, Bieber said he thinks Brussels "has been gearing up to take on, again, an active role in negotiations" between Serbia and Kosovo, as has Lajcak through several recent rounds of shuttle diplomacy.

Bieber also cited Grenell's public deferral to the Europeans on thorny "political" issues in the bilateral stalemate.

"But…without U.S. support it's going to be hard for the EU to have a deal," Bieber said.

Kosovat President Hashim Thaci (right) with his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic, at a conference in Austria in 2018
Kosovat President Hashim Thaci (right) with his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic, at a conference in Austria in 2018

Ker-Lindsay acknowledged there are many who -- 12 years into Kosovar independence and 21 years since Kosovo's war of independence against Serb forces ended -- just want a deal and think Thaci and Vucic are the only leaders who can make that happen right now.

"These are two people who…look like they're willing to at least sit down and talk some hard politics in order to get a deal, and now this has been scuppered," Ker-Lindsay said. "But frankly, 10 years from now they could still be talking and Kosovo [might not] be any further towards UN membership and Serbia might still not be any further towards the EU; and who knows what new malign influence is on the horizon?"

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden.