The Specialist Prosecutor’s Office of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers (KSC) announced on June 24th that it is indicting the current Kosovan President, Hashim Thaçi, for war crimes. These allegations follow the KSC’s four-year investigation into potential war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by President Thaçi, and other prominent political figures in Kosovo, during and after the Kosovo-Serbian war of 1998-1999. As a prominent leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) Thaci led Kosovo’s war for independence against Serbia.
“This affects Kosovo in all possible ways”, says Agron Bajrami, journalist and head of the Koha Media Group, Kosovo’s largest media conglomerate. “It will have enormous effect in the political scene in Kosovo”. President Thaçi was set to travel to Washington to conduct peace treaty negotiations with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, when indictments against him and other former KLA members were made public by the KSC. The indictments include allegations that Thaçi and his allies are responsible for up to 100 murders. The Trump administration’s controversial Balkans peace envoy, Richard Grenell, has said he respects Thaçi’s decision not to attend discussions “until the legal issues of those allegations are settled”. President Thaçi himself is yet to respond to the allegations.
The timing of this announced indictment is unlikely to coincidental on the part of the KSC. As Guardian correspondent Shaun Walker writes, the indictment announcement appears to have intentionally prevented Thaçi from travelling to Washington to sign a peace treaty with his Serbian counterpart, which would have made him politically untouchable. Indeed, the fact that the indictment has not yet been confirmed by a pre-trial judge demonstrates the urgency with which the KSC issued this statement.
Prosecutors working for KSC in the Hague are right to be wary of Thaçi’s willingness to use political strategy to evade accountability for his suspected crimes. The KLA rose to prominence in Kosovo in 1998 after escalating tensions with neighbouring Serbia. Kosovan Muslim Albanians, the majority ethnic group in Kosovo, opposed the Yugoslav government in Serbia. Serbia’s far-right President, Slobodan Milosevic, aimed to replace Muslim Albanian culture in Kosovo and replace it with Serbian institutions. The international community’s failure to de-escalate these tensions led to a year-long war between hard-line militant groups such as the KLA and the Serbian-Yugoslav army.
Atrocities were committed on both sides. The Serbian army undertook what was unmistakably an ethnic cleansing campaign, displacing 1.5 million people (90% of the Kosovan population), massacring communities and destroying villages. The UN International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia was subsequently established to investigate war crimes committed during the conflicts in the Balkans and tried Milosevic in 2000. To investigate the possible war crimes committed by the KLA and other Kosovan militants during and after this war the KSC was commissioned in 2016.
2000 people out of the 13,000 casualties of the Kosovo-Serbia war were Serbian and Roma people. In 2004, a mass anti-Serb riot resulted in 20 deaths and the displacement of another 2000 Serbians living in Kosovo. The KSC, and other investigations before it, have found evidence this was part of systemic war crimes committed by President Thaçi and his post-war government.
The actions of Thaçi and his political allies in Kosovo in recent years have done nothing to lower these suspicions. The KSC has stated that a “secret campaign” was undertaken by the President and his ally Kadri Veseli, leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, to prevent the KSC from being lawfully recognised in Kosovan legislation. Furthermore, just months ago, Thaçi aided U.S. Diplomats in ousting the democratically elected government of Albin Kurti, a Kosovan activist who had promised to tackle corruption and to take a hard line in peace negotiations with Serbia.
A U.S.-mediated peace treaty between Serbia and Kosovo threatens to bring together powerful forces of self-interest. The Trump administration, eager to score domestic political points, has been willing to topple a democratically elected government to achieve its aims. Thaçi, meanwhile, has been eager to seek political immunity from allegations of crimes against humanity he may have well-known were coming, after the KSC was established.
The KSC’s publicly stated accusations place a large obstacle in the path of these coalescing – and dangerous – motivations. However, human rights advocates such as Bekim Blakai of the Humanitarian Law Center have warned that this tribunal may well fail to live up to expectations. Nonetheless, the KSC’s indictment could bring hope to many of today’s Kosovans, who view Thaçi as a corrupt remnant of brutal war and post-war period. If their hopes are realised, the President’s days of enjoyed impunity may, finally, be numbered.