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Scandal Over Turkish Deportees Unveils Rift Between Kosovo's President, Premier

Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj (right) and President Hashim Thaci (shown here in happier times) are in sharp disagreement over the arrest and deportation of six Turkish nationals.

As the mystery surrounding the arrest and deportation of six Turkish nationals from Kosovo to Turkey threatens to drive a wedge between the two countries, a crisis between the prime minister and the president may also be deepening.

The March 29 expulsions, which were approved by Kosovo's interior minister and intelligence chief, prompted the two men's dismissal a day later by Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj.

Haradinaj said he was not informed about the operation to deport the six, who were arrested over ties to schools linked to the Fethullah Gulen movement that Ankara blames for a failed 2016 coup.

A Muslim cleric, Gulen's organization preaches nonviolence and denies any connection to the takeover attempt.

But Kosovar President Hasim Thaci, who has publicly endorsed the deportations, saying the six were a danger to the fledgling country’s national security, must approve the sacking of Kosovar Intelligence Agency chief Driton Gashi.

Analysts say Thaci’s hesitance in cutting Gashi loose could be a sign of growing discontent between him and Haradinaj -- two former Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) guerrillas and longtime foes who fought Serbian repression of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority during the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

“If Thaci does not dismiss the [AKI] chief, then he takes on all the sins of this event. It will prove that he is the person who initiated and implemented it,” said political analyst Artan Muhaxhiri.

"This will be a great blow to [Haradinaj] and his cabinet because the prime minister will have to work further with a person (Gashi) who has an extremely important position he does not trust,” Muhaxhiri added.

Turkey’s ties with impoverished Kosovo run deep.

Turkey is a major political and financial supporter of Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Turkish firms run the tiny Balkan country's sole airport and electricity network and are building two highways worth around $2 billion.

Fethullah Gulen
Fethullah Gulen

Ankara accuses Gulen, a Muslim cleric based in the United States, of masterminding the July 15, 2016, coup attempt and has declared his movement a terrorist operation. Gulen rejects the charges.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech during a meeting of his Justice and Development Party in Ankara on March 30 that the Turkish intelligence agency MIT had brought the six Turks back "in coordination with Kosovar intelligence," fueling rumors of discord between Thaci and Haradinaj.

A day later, Erdogan said he was "saddened" by Haradinaj’s response and that the prime minister would "pay" for the sackings.

“Is there any role played by President Hashim Thaci, who is known to be very close to the Turkish government?” asked Julien Hoez, an analyst and contributor to Vocal Europe, a group dedicated to raising issues related to democracy, human rights, and rule of law in Europe.

“After all, it seems that Turkey’s Erdogan has a parallel state in Kosovo that executes decisions without the knowledge of the incumbent prime minister and minister of foreign affairs,” he added.

Haradinaj, the leader of the center-right Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), was approved by parliament as prime minister in September.

He was nominated by Thaci to form a new government after his coalition struck an agreement with several smaller parties to give his bloc the majority needed to rule.

The sometimes uneasy relationship between Thaci and Haradinaj was seen by many as a necessary evil to end a three-month political stalemate following inconclusive June elections.

The two leaders have clashed over issues such as border demarcation with neighboring Montenegro and, most recently, the March 26 arrest of senior Serbian official Marko Djuric by Kosovar police.

Thaci reportedly disregarded Haradinaj in ordering special police units to arrest Djuric in the divided northern town of Mitrovica and expel him after he entered the country without an official permit. The incident has fueled fears of renewed instability in the region.

“To some degree, their cooperation was never more than strategic and temporary,” said Florian Bieber, a Balkans expert at the University of Graz.

“After all, they were political opponents for most of the past two decades. The rift now brings in additional instability and, ironically, might be a response to the split of [the single-largest party in parliament] Vetevendosje, which is reducing the pressure on the ruling coalition to hold together,” Bieber added.

A group of 12 lawmakers from Vetevendosje, which has 32 seats in parliament, recently broke away from the party to form an independent group. The move was triggered by internal disagreements over leadership.