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Trouble in Kosovo: The ongoing dilemma of war crime indictments

On November 5th 2020, Hacim Thaçi, President of Kosovo, publicly announced his resignation and flew to The Hague to face trial. Thaçi is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity dating from his time as a Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) commander in the 1990s, crimes that he vehemently denies. He was accompanied by other prominent Kosovan politicians from both the governing and opposition parties in the indictment. This is the most dramatic incident amongst a series of high-profile indictments against Kosovo’s leadership since the country’s unilateral declaration of independence in 1999.

January 28, 2021 - Owen Howells - Articles and Commentary

Pristina, Kosovo. Photo: Owen Howells

The ghost of war continues to haunt Kosovan politics on a national and personal level across the political spectrum. Former commanders of the KLA continue to “wield enormous influence over former KLA members and Kosovo in general.” Lustration and the prosecution of war crimes is a troubling process — too much and you risk destabilising a country, ridding it of the very people and skills required to rebuild. Whereas too little and the problems of the past and unresolved injustices will continue to dodge attempts to move forward long into the future.

It raises the question: do these indictments, so many years after the conflict, aid reconciliation? Or is the pursuit of justice, however honourable, hampering engagement efforts? On the surface, the latter would appear to be true. This latest turn saw Thaçi indicted whilst en route to Washington in order to sign a new limited economic cooperation agreement with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. Whilst the agreement still proceeded, with Kosovo’s PM replacing Thaçi, it demonstrates how disruptive this process can be. The people of Kosovo, both Albanian and Serb, are currently stuck in a drawn-out political and economic limbo, deprived of opportunity. For them, the need for economic cooperation and political normalisation with Serbia is paramount.

A rebalancing of justice or an attempt to rewrite history?

Thaçi’s indictment also raises the question: why now? Over ten years have passed since the end of the conflict, and more than twenty since many of the crimes were perpetrated. From the perspective of the Kosovan leadership, this is an unwelcome attempt to alter the narrative on Kosovo. One of Thaçi’s co-accused and leader of one of Kosovo’s leading political parties, Kadri Vaseli, went as far as to overtly accuse the courts of political bias. “I’m worried that the true motivations of the prosecutor are political. Having in mind the timing, a couple of days ahead of the White House meeting … people are right to suspect this is not a coincidence,” he said. This is a feeling echoed amongst the people on the street in Pristina, deeply upset at the “injustice” of putting their “liberators” on trial. Despite acquiescing to the warrant — something many other suspects have refused to do — Thaçi himself declared his prosecution to be an attempt to rewrite history in Serbia’s favour, arguing that “Kosovo has been the victim. Serbia has been the aggressor.”

From a Serbian perspective, these arrests are long overdue. Serbia has repeatedly alleged that the tribunals have disproportionately targeted Serbian suspects over other groups, both in Kosovo and Bosnia. Could both these arguments have an element of truth? Is the world beginning to view the situation as less black and white and more shades of grey? Diplomatically, too, a shift is observable. Things have not been going in Pristina’s favour. International recognition stalled after an initial surge led by the US and much of Western Europe, and following a successful diplomatic campaign by Serbia, it has begun to decline. All this points to a crisis emerging on the future position of Kosovo on the global stage unless the authorities in Pristina can present a more palatable image.

The origins of the latest indictments can be found in an incendiary report, published in 2014 by American prosecutor Clint Williamson. The report found that not only had egregious human rights abuses occurred during the war, but crucially, that they had also continued in the post-war period by KLA figures who are now part of the government in Pristina. These revelations were highly embarrassing for Kosovo’s allies in Washington and spurred the creation of the new Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in The Hague to investigate and prosecute these findings.

Human Right’s Watch has identified a number of cases where KLA fighters, many of whom are now in high-level positions of government, participated in crimes against combatants and non-combatants alike: summary executions of ethnic Serbs, organ harvesting, torture and the murder of ethnic Albanians considered traitors to the cause. Despite this, cases have stalled, as a lack of cooperation and high levels of witness intimidation have hampered efforts to bring those accused to trial, though this has led to additional prosecutions.

Accepting responsibility on both sides, and signs of cooperation

This is not to belittle the burden of guilt lying with the forces of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević, whose actions against Kosovan Albanians led to 1.2-1.45 million people displaced and thousands killed, tortured or maimed. Nor does it dismiss the prolonged physical and mental suffering of the Kosovan Albanian people. However, as these trials, or rather the trouble in bringing them to pass, reveals, the world may have overlooked one side of a complicated story in favour of an easier good-bad narrative. Kosovo’s position as the darling of Western diplomacy in the Balkans may have to be seriously re-examined. Only now does the political momentum appear to have shifted significantly, following Williamson’s report and the subsequent wrangling for the court to be established.

If Kosovo is no longer seen as the aggrieved side and its authorities are exposed as being party to criminal activities past and present, the diplomatic willpower to either recognise independence or continue to support their position will weaken. The moral argument for self-determination is tarnished by such figures. Thaçi himself recognises the damage that is being done, though places the blame for having “damaged the image of the State of Kosovo” with the prosecuting authorities rather than the alleged war criminals.

These accusations extend beyond the war and represent a continuing reality for citizens of Kosovo, especially those in Serbian or Roma enclaves. Thaçi’s willingness to attend trial in The Hague is a welcome step towards addressing these issues, as was his public statement affirming his commitment to justice and “reconsideration.” However, in accusing the court of attempting to rewrite history, he echoes the stance of another former KLA leader accused, Nasim Haradinaj, who claimed the court had “violated every human law and the right to expression.” This shows not only contempt for the process, but a continued failure to recognise there may be blame on both sides. The irony is perhaps lost on them that they are mirroring reactions seen in Belgrade to the prosecution of Serbian and Bosnian Serb leaders. Pristina has long cast itself purely as the victim; for this idea to be challenged provokes an uncomfortable reality that they may have to answer for actions committed both during the conflict and after.

Despite the ongoing court processes, there have been signs of positive progress. Following the 2013 Brussels agreement, the two sides agreed to start normalising relations. Whilst this was temporarily derailed by a tax on Serbian goods imposed by Pristina, the 2020 agreement that Thaçi was due to sign sees a return to progress. Serbia agreeing to suspend diplomatic efforts to revoke recognition of Kosovo, in return for Kosovo refraining from applying for membership of international organisations, gives both parties much needed breathing space for cooperation.

There have been signs that Serbia too is willing to take greater steps than previously imaginable, with unorthodox suggestions from Belgrade for a land swap by trading the Albanian-majority Preševo valley in Serbia for the predominantly Serb areas in North Kosovo. This idea, while it was abandoned due to fears that such a land swap would further ignite ethnic tensions and set a dangerous precedent for elsewhere in the Balkans, still shows there is scope for substantive negotiations towards a lasting peace.

Troubles of delaying justice and a unique opportunity for Kosovo

Thaçi’s indictment may have come at an inopportune moment and the outcome is far from certain. Indeed, the exact charges are yet to be published; however, the arrest of such a high-profile member of the government in Pristina, the President no less, highlights a significant shift in the movement for justice in the narrative surrounding the Kosovo conflict. This should not be, as Thaçi claims, an attempt to rewrite history, but rather a filling in of the chapters that have remained redacted for too long. It shines a bright spotlight on what is an unresolved and festering crisis for the elites of Pristina, and presents an uncomfortable reality for their allies in the West. It will also, unfortunately, give further ammunition to Serbian groups hostile to any form of reconciliation or peace.

The process of war crimes trials is time consuming and wrought with accusations of unfairness or partisanship of the courts. This gets worse as time goes on and people believe it is a priority to move on and rebuild over the pursuit of justice. This was the case in Nuremberg and the associated post-war denazification processes. Then, as now, to abandon the trial process before they are complete risks the protracted delay in accepting responsibility and seeking closure, a process Germany only began in earnest with the 1963 Auschwitz Trials. Ideally, the trials of former KLA leaders such as Thaçi should have occurred earlier, alongside their Serbian counterparts at the very beginning of the peace process, but alas, it has been delayed until now. To delay it further, with the argument of prioritising rebuilding, would simply be kicking the can further down the road.

That being said, these developments could prove not to be a stumbling block for the peace process, but rather a huge opportunity for Kosovans. If they can free themselves of the baggage of the KLA’s actions, they have a chance to address each other, both Serb and Albanian, with a clean slate and fresh leadership. As long as cabals of nationalist leaders and former fighters continue to dominate politics both in Belgrade and Pristina, these wounds can never fully heal.

Too many political leaders remain who are lauded as heroes by one nation, but whose names and faces remain the subject of bitter memories, hatred and pain for the other. The difficulty remains in demonstrating to all parties that justice is blind, that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to address past wrongdoings on both sides and if not to forgive, at least to move forwards towards peace. The question remains, is Kosovo ready to accept this?

This article is part of a collaboration between Lossi 36 and New Eastern Europe. Lossi 36 is an online media project publishing news, analysis, and photography from Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Since 2018, we are committed to providing high-quality content while shining a spotlight on the work of students and up-and-coming professionals. Read the original post in its entirety here

Owen Howells is Eastern Europe regional editor at Lossi36. Owen Howells is a recent Master’s graduate from the University of Glasgow IMCEERES programme, and holds a BA in Politics and East European Studies from UCL.

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