Andrew MacDowall in Pristina -
Russia's annexation of Crimea and Kosovo's secession from Serbia cannot be compared "in any circumstances" and recent attempts to draw parallels between them are "unsustainable", Kosovo's prime minister, a key player in talks that ended the Kosovo War and who signed Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia as premier, told bne in an interview. Hashim Thaci, a former guerrilla leader, also rubbished claims he was once head of a criminal gang that was involved in human organ trafficking as "science fiction" and "re-writing history", and also promised further improvements to the investment environment, with the state taking a smaller role in the economy and a continued fight against widespread corruption.
Thaci, speaking in a wide-ranging interview with bne, said that there were no "legal, political or historical" comparisons to be drawn with Russia's unification with Crimea on March 18. "Under no circumstances can the cases of Kosovo and Crimea be compared," Thaci told bne in the main government building in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, just as Vladimir Putin was sitting down to accept Crimea into the Russian Federation.
"Not in legal, political or historical circumstances. We didn't change the borders, we had our borders before. Kosovo was created after genocide was committed by Serbia, after the deportation of 1m citizens of Kosovo, which was done by Serbia. After the humanitarian intervention of Nato, after the peace talks in Rambouillet, but also from the dialogue that culminated in [agreement with] the US and Russia, too," he said. "This means that Kosovo's independence was created after negotiations which followed the war. Therefore comparisons between the Kosovo and Crimea case are not sustainable at all."
Thaci's use of the world "genocide" and many of his arguments would be rejected by most Serbs, and doubtless the Russian government, amongst others. But the Kosovan PM is adamant in his determination to quash the suggestion that his country's independence, still contested by Serbia, unrecognised by nearly 90 countries and blocked at UN level largely thanks to Moscow, set a dangerous precedent for Crimea. He pointedly adds that Russia has a substantial non-Russian population.
Thaci was senior leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) that fought the Yugoslav (effectively Serb) authorities in the 1990s; Balkan correspondent Tim Judah says that the organisation, which secured western backing later in the decade, was "one of the most successful guerrilla movements in modern history". To others, it was a terrorist organisation funded by foreign backers and nefarious activities.
Thaci emerged as its most powerful figure in 1999 as a Nato bombing campaign forced a peace deal leaving ethnic Albanians, and particularly the KLA, dominating the province. He became prime minister a second time in January 2008, and the following month Kosovo declared independence, with the support of the US and some leading EU member states.
The KLA was back under the spotlight in March as reports emerged the international community wants to establish a special tribunal outside Kosovo to investigate war crimes allegedly committed by the KLA. These would almost certainly include allegations made by Swiss senator Dick Marty in a report for the Council of Europe that Thaci headed an organised crime ring that was responsible for trafficking harvested organs, amongst other crimes.
But the PM firmly reiterated his rejection of these claims, and Kosovo's willingness to cooperate with international investigators. "Dick Marty's claims are science fiction," he says. "They have caused collateral damage for Kosovo, and the aim was re-writing history. We have nothing to hide. We believe in justice and truth. We have given full support to investigations - Kosovo's government has closely cooperated with them. We believe in the conclusion of this investigation as soon as possible. Kosovo is a good example of cooperation with The Hague."
The tall, tieless Thaci, who was speaking after a European Investment Bank conference in Pristina, cuts a relaxed figure in comparison to many of his dour European counterparts. Critics suggest that Kosovo is economically backward and has a serious problem with organised crime and corruption. Average wages are just over €360 a month, according to official figures. Transparency International ranks the country 111th in the world for corruption perceptions, and it is certainly many years from EU accession.
Nonetheless, Thaci is keen to emphasise an image of a free-wheeling market economy and a European country that has made big progress in healing the wounds of the war, bridging deep ethnic divisions and moving towards international acceptance. "My goal is to strengthen the economy," he says. "We have a goal of 4% of economic growth [for 2014, high by European standards], we have a stable banking system. Different foreign investments are coming in from EU member states, Indian and China as well. We want to do more in this direction in order to create favourable conditions for investment, while also creating favourable conditions for the small and medium business sector." The latter will involve the forthcoming launch of a $1bn investment fund to lend to small businesses at low rates, financed from assets that Kosovo holds abroad.
Privatisation and empowering the private sector will be at the centre of future liberalisation, and he wants to see less political interference in the economy. "The legislation is adequate, but we have to work on a mental transformation - the mentality of the centralised economy," he tells bne.
Recent evidence shows there's a long way to go. Only as recently as January the potentially-lucrative but controversial privatisation of incumbent telecommunications firm PTK collapsed; critics say it was poorly-structured and lacked transparency. Yet Thaci insists that the privatisation process is independent and established by the international community, and argues that the country benefits from its legacy of international rule and influence in the years since 1999 in a range of fields, including its legal system and the fight against corruption. "The system in Kosovo in last 15 years is led by the international community, free of political influence, independent, effective, at one time was led by the UN and now led by EULEX, did good work."
EULEX, the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo which has responsibility for high-level corruption, has in fact been widely criticised, and its mandate ends later this year, when it will take a more advisory role. Thaci says that Kosovo authorities are ready to take over - "this battle should be done by us and won by us, I am determined to continue and there is no force that will stop me in this direction". On March 14, Balkan Insight reported that state prosecutors had raised nearly 200 corruption indictments since November in a push to address the problem.
Administrative capacity and official will to tackle graft on the ground is notoriously weak across the region. In its most recent progress report on Kosovo, the European Commission said that "anti-corruption legislative framework is largely in place", but "the main issue of concern remains the implementation of the legal and policy frameworks".
In April last year, Thaci signed a landmark EU-brokered deal with Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, once spokesman for Slobodan Milosevic, in an agreement that had an air of Nixon-to-China, or at least McGuinness-and-Paisley. The deal is intended to pave the way for Pristina effectively to take control of the whole territory - and for Kosovo to start talks on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU, the first step to joining the bloc. Serbia started full membership negotiations in January. The deal was seen as a significant step for a man who made his name fighting the Serbs, and Thaci is most animated when talking about integrating Kosovo's Serbs - once his foes. There are around 120,000 Serbs in Kosovo, around a third in four northern municipalities in which Pristina's rule is still staunchly opposed; local elections there in November were largely boycotted, despite Belgrade government officials urging (and in some cases cajoling) Serbs to vote.
Thaci argues that Pristina has "broken the iceberg of the boycott and broken the fear of integration", and lists a number of successes since the April agreement: that elections were at least held on the whole territory of Kosovo for the first time, which saw four mayors elected in the north; 300 Serbs brought into the police force in the north under a Serb police chief; Kosovo customs officers on the border; progress on normalisation of the justice system.
"Whatever makes them [Serbs] feel better, to have a more comfortable life, we will realise," he says. "I'm fully convinced about integration. It offers difficulties and challenges, but we will have success. In five to seven years the topics that we are discussing now will be [regarded as] ridiculous. The borders will be open and they will lose the meaning that they currently have for the people of the Balkans and we will have a region based on the European model."
Kosovo's charismatic premier certainly talks a good game, as other international leaders and many Kosovars appreciate - he seems likely to be re-elected at the next election, in the absence of any rival of similar stature, despite nationalist rumblings about his overtures to Serbia.
Thaci's image of his country sometimes seems to overlook the fact that it is still divided, rather poor and unproductive, and weakly-administered. And his genial demeanour contrasts with his position as a highly controversial figure in the region and beyond. But the ex-guerrilla concedes that there are substantial political battles ahead. "My vision is to be part of the EU, Nato and the UN as well. This is a road with a lot of difficulties, but it is the only road to be followed. It's a challenging, physical process."
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