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Thaci Allegations Don’t Change The Broader Perspective On Kosovo

Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci is accused of being a mafia boss, a murderer, a drug dealer, and of engaging in organ trafficking.
Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci is accused of being a mafia boss, a murderer, a drug dealer, and of engaging in organ trafficking.
If it bleeds, it leads, the old journalism rule-of-thumb runs. And it is hard to find another end-of-the-year story that bleeds quite like the accusation that the prime minister of Kosovo was involved in the trafficking of human organs and other criminal activities during the 1999 conflict, which ended following NATO intervention to drive Serbian forces out of Kosovo.

Swiss Senator Dick Marty is a widely recognized champion of human rights, most prominently known for taking on the CIA over the issue of extrajudicial renditions. However, most Albanians know him as a no-less-determined opponent of Kosovo’s independence.

In a report submitted to the Council of Europe, which took two years to compile, Marty accuses Prime Minister Hashim Thaci not only of being a mafia boss, a murderer, and a drug dealer, but -- as if these charges were not enough -- of ties to a group that in 1999 killed prisoners for the purpose of selling their kidneys. Moreover, in the Balkans, where even organs have an ethnicity, this story translates as an Albanian conspiracy to remove Serbian kidneys and sell them on the international organ black market.

Most of Marty’s report deals with his assessment of the role of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), and its attempts to prove that the international community -- that is to say, the mainly Western governments which in 1999 acted to stop Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s forces from laying waste to Kosovo -- got it all wrong. Unsurprisingly, the Serbian deputy prosecutor greeted Marty’s report with undisguised enthusiasm, describing it as a victory for Serbia.

Rewriting History

Even some senior journalists and experienced Balkan observers expressed the opinion that a new assessment of NATO’s 1999 intervention may be required if the charges outlined in Marty’s report are true.

“If ever it is proved that the KLA leader [Thaci] whom [then-British Prime Minister Tony] Blair backed was really a mafia boss, a murderer, and traded in human organs, then the history of that campaign will have to be rewritten – and the gloss put on it by Mr. Blair will vanish,” Tim Judah wrote in “The Daily Telegraph.”

Swiss Senator Dick Marty
In spite of the outrage among Western observers, and the near-hysterical triumphalism in Belgrade, the action against Milosevic’s army in 1999 was provoked by well-documented crimes and commenced when at least half of Kosovo’s Albanian population had been expelled from their homes, while over 10,000 had been killed. The final body count in Kosovo was recently completed – and more than 13,000 victims have been identified by name. Of the 1,800 still listed as missing, two-thirds are Albanians. There is no new information that can change or in any way mitigate these facts.

Even if Marty is able to prove the worst of his allegations against Thaci and KLA members (which is by no means clear at this point), it would not erase the crimes committed by Milosevic’s forces. And, crucially, it does not undermine the reasons for NATO intervention in 1999.

Never Substantiated

The trafficking of human organs story was circulated long ago by various Serbian sources and has never been substantiated. It sounded too much like the absurd claim that, during the siege of Sarajevo, starving zoo animals were fed Serbian babies. Both are stocks-in-trade of wartime propaganda, not far removed from World War I images of Germans as savage Huns bayoneting Belgian babies.

Nevertheless, two foreign journalists (Nick Thorpe and Michael Montgomery) decided to investigate and visited locations in northern Albania to see if the story of organ trafficking had any basis in fact. They returned with disturbing stories of war crimes but no conclusive evidence on organ trafficking.

The former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Carla Del Ponte, in an exclusive interview with, said she was torn between concern and satisfaction over the idea that these “heinous acts” would soon be brought to justice.

Del Ponte, now Switzerland’s ambassador to Argentina, was ICTY prosecutor from 1999 to 2007. If there is any substance to the organ-trafficking story, then it was her responsibility to investigate -- as she was given both the mandate and the means to do so.

In 2008, she published a controversial book, “The Hunt,” in which she describes her own trip to Albania when she met with Albanian officials who were unhelpful in providing evidence for the smuggling of organs of murdered Serbian civilians following the Kosovo war in 1999. At least one Albanian is mentioned among the victims.

Driven Toward Isolation

If Thaci is responsible for even some of the crimes outlined in Marty’s report, he should be brought to justice. But this should not change our perception of Kosovo, just as our perception of Croatia has not changed because former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader has been indicted for corruption and abuse of power.

Kosovo may not be immune to these twin scourges of postcommunist, and postconflict, societies – corruption and abuse of power – but rumors, undocumented accusations, and conclusions based on opinions rather than facts are not helpful. They will drive Kosovo toward isolation and destroy any hope of regional stability, which was the ultimate goal of the 1999 NATO intervention.

The decision to use military force against Milosevic was not taken lightly and was prompted by the urgent need to end the Balkan cycle of violence, combined with the realization – some would say belated – that diplomacy alone was insufficient for that purpose.

If Thaci and some his associates were involved in illegal activities in 1999, surely Marty and those who may find reasons to agree with his report are not alleging that the thousands of Kosovo Albanians expelled from their homes, or killed, by the Serbian (then Yugoslav) Army were partners in this alleged organ-trafficking conspiracy. Or that because some of their leaders may have been so, they did not deserve to be saved from the brutal fate reserved for them by the Milosevic regime.

Likewise, it cannot be Marty’s intention, given his record as a staunch defender of human rights, to imply that the very same Serbian Army and special police units that had committed atrocities in Bosnia and are guilty of amply documented crimes against unarmed civilians in Kosovo were in 1999 engaged in the humanitarian mission of putting an end to illegal trafficking of organs.

Regardless of the truth behind the charges against Thaci and members of the KLA, one should not abandon the broader perspective, as some otherwise reliable commentators have done. And it is important to disassociate allegations against individuals from the general truth of a Milosevic regime that simply had to be stopped after – let’s not forget – eight years of using war as a pretext for mass murder and ethnic cleansing in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina. And in Kosovo.

Gordana Knezevic is director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL