INTERVIEW: Kosovo president-elect promises progress with Serbia to achieve Balkan peace

INTERVIEW: Kosovo president-elect promises progress with Serbia to achieve Balkan peace
Hashim Thaci, Kosovo’s controversial president-elect, meets Hilary Clinton.
By Andrew MacDowall in Pristina March 11, 2016

Kosovo’s controversial president-elect has vowed, in an interview with bne IntelliNews, to continue negotiations with Serbia to achieve EU membership and a comprehensive peace in the Balkans, despite vocal opposition at home and Serbia’s refusal to recognise its sovereignty – a position he says is unsustainable.

Hashim Thaci, previously the foreign minister, a two-term prime minister and political leader of the guerrilla movement that fought against Serbia for Kosovo’s independence, also said that he would leave party politics for good following his elevation to the presidency, while taking an active role on the global stage as head of state.

“After a whole century of conflict we finally have a dialogue [with Serbia], and what I’d call correct communication,” Thaci tells bne IntelliNews in Pristina’s main government building. “I believe and hope that in the eventual future we will have one comprehensive peace agreement between Kosovo and Serbia that will once and for all establish peace, not only between Kosovo and Serbia, but will have wider implications for the whole region.”

Thaci was elected president by Kosovo’s Assembly on February 26, despite teargas being released in the building by opposition MPs and protests outside. While Kosovo enjoys goodwill and strong support from powerful allies – the US in particular – Thaci will have his work cut out winning over his many domestic and international critics. Kosovo’s opposition will understandably question his presidential neutrality after years at the head of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), seen by some as the organisation most responsible for corruption and state capture in the territory. Meanwhile, allegations about crimes committed on Thaci’s watch continue to dangle over him like the Sword of Damocles.

Belgrade still regards its erstwhile province of Kosovo as an inalienable part of Serbia, despite withdrawing troops from the territory following the 1998-99 war with Thaci’s Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), and Pristina’s 2008 unilateral declaration of independence. Kosovo is still not recognised by the UN, thanks largely to a Russian veto, as well as five members of the EU itself.

However, in April 2013 Pristina and Belgrade signed the EU-brokered Brussels Agreement laying out a path for the normalisation of relations between the two. “We’ve made considerable progress in the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia,” says Thaci. “We have negotiations with Serbia that are the only means to normalise relations and build lasting peace in the region. Of course we now have to do more to fully implement the Brussels Agreement.”

Serbia has since been rewarded with EU candidate status and a start to accession negotiations. Following a further deal on implementing the Brussels Agreement last year, Kosovo obtained a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), seen as a first step towards getting official EU candidate status. The 2015 deal, which covered areas including rights for Serbs in Kosovo, telecommunications and energy, has roused serious protests in Kosovo, with the government building attacked and opposition MPs repeatedly releasing teargas in the national Assembly.

Controversial provisions include the establishment of an Association of Serb Municipalities, and allowing Serbian state-owned companies to operate in Serb enclaves. These are seen by the opposition as divisive, undermining Kosovo’s sovereignty, and ways of maintaining Serbia’s baleful influence in the territory. But Thaci insists that Kosovo “stood firm behind” agreements signed under the EU’s aegis. “We intend not only to implement all the agreements, but actually we are seeking to make the whole process a more dynamic one.”

Spats between Belgrade and Pristina still occur, though, and Serbia remains firmly against recognition – though in some Belgrade circles, the acceptance that Kosovo is lost came some time ago. 

Furthermore, Thaci, even as Kosovo’s top diplomat, head of government and soon-to-be head of state, cannot travel to Serbia, where he is still wanted for alleged war crimes. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said after Thaci’s election as president that he was “neither happy nor satisfied” with the result.

But the former KLA political leader insists that in reality relations with Serbia’s leaders – former allies of wartime leader Slobodan Milosevic – are cordial. “I have spent around 300 hours in meetings with Prime Minister Vucic and Deputy Prime Minister [Ivica] Dacic [who was prime minister when the Brussels Agreement was signed]. Initially it was not easy. Gradually we have established a fair and correct communication and atmosphere. We didn’t offend or attack each other, even in public.”

But he warned that the current situation of Serbia’s lack of recognition of Kosovo would not be sustainable as both approach EU membership. “Even if Serbia is not ready to recognise Serbia today, Brussels must have a very clear strategy of how to include Kosovo and Serbia in the EU. There [could] be another Cyprus in the EU, and that’s why Brussels must be very careful,” Thaci said, referring to the island state which is an EU member, but divided between the Greek south and a de-facto independent Turkish north.

Freedom fighters

Thaci insists that he had nothing to fear from rumbling allegations that as a KLA leader he headed a criminal gang known as the “Drenica Group” that was responsible for assassinations, unlawful detentions and trafficking of murdered captives’ organs. Claims made in an EU-commissioned report in 2011 that senior KLA figures were involved in such crimes during and after the 1998-99 war have led to the establishment of an EU-backed special court to try cases, due to be set up in The Hague – but under Kosovo law – by the end of the year.

Thaci tells bne IntelliNews that he sees the court as a means of clearing Kosovo’s name – it has gained something of a reputation as a “black hole” in Europe – as well as that of the KLA. “Kosovo has met all its obligations as regards the new judicial institution,” Thaci says. “I have personally led this. It is now in the hands of the judicial authorities. We have nothing to hide – I fully support this special court. Kosovo must get rid of this burden. I’m confident that this process will be over, and see the special court as to the advantage of Kosovo, not damaging for it. It is one more argument…for presenting and proving that it is a serious country, a state on the international scene.”

While insisting that the KLA was not a terrorist organisation like the IRA, the Kurdish PKK or Basque ETA, Thaci admits that crimes did happen. “As the KLA we didn’t violate any international laws, we only violated the laws of Milosevic, and we are very proud of that. We didn’t commit any terrorist acts. The KLA was an organisation established by the citizens of Kosovo to resist against Serbia, to resist continued repression and violence that at some times reached levels of attempted genocide. In that sense, we didn’t do more than other countries did for the own freedom.”

However, he went on: “Were there individual abuses? I’m afraid so. And this is why I support any initiative to clarify, explain, bring to light all these cases. For example, the murder of 14 Serbs in Lilpljan, a classic crime. It’s in the interests of Kosovo for it to be fully explained and investigated. But there was never a plan [to ethnically cleanse Serbs].”

Indeed, Thaci insists that he is “proud” that the KLA’s victory helped topple Milosevic. “I did not act against Serbs. Serbia would not have become free of Milosevic if it didn’t lose the battle for Kosovo. I was instrumental not only in creating the state of Kosovo, but in helping the people of Serbia get free of the dictator.”

While Thaci claims that Serb families sometimes ask him for selfies at airports, it is fair to say that very few Serbs sympathise with the Kosovo president-elect, or feel particularly grateful for the KLA’s actions in the 1990s.

Main man

Thaci has been the dominant figure in Kosovo’s politics since the late 1990s, and sees his step up to the presidency – theoretically a largely ceremonial role – as the logical next move. He tells bne IntelliNews that he intends to leave party politics permanently, while performing an active role as head of state. “I will step out of all my political party and executive competences. I will not go back to executive positions. The presidency will be some sort of exit strategy for me from politics in Kosovo – a legitimate exit strategy.”

While insisting he would respect Kosovo’s parliamentary system, Thaci said that he would be “very active”, which could be taken as confirming a general understanding that he will remain highly influential. “I’m not going there for retirement,” he says, listing democratic reform, meeting the Copenhagen Criteria (for EU membership), economic development, and developing relations with the diaspora, as priorities. “I will represent my country around the world.”

Thaci made it clear that he sees EU and Nato membership for all the countries of the Western Balkans as the only realistic option for the future, without which the spectre of further conflict could too easily re-emerge. He disavowed the idea of a “Greater Albania” encompassing ethnic Albanian areas in Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro, that some fear could be the next irredentist movement in the Balkans, particularly following comments by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama that Albania and Kosovo joining would be "inevitable", through membership of the EU or through “a classical way”.

“Prime Minister Rama is a good friend of mine, and I think that we will be together in the great European family. We will not change the borders, we will open the borders – this is Rama’s vision and mine as well. Serbia had aspirations to create a Greater Serbia, and where did it end? It lost the battle in Croatia, committed genocide in Bosnia, in Kosovo, and now it remains within its narrowest borders. Croatia had ambitions to create Herceg-Bosna [in Bosnia & Herzegovina], but had to retreat within its recognised borders. We have to be realistic. [Ethnic] Albanians are no exception from other people in Europe. Not all Germans live in Germany.”

But Thaci’s dream of Kosovo’s membership of a border-free Europe was already distant before the refugee crisis started to fracture the Schengen zone and put the EU’s very existence in question. Kosovo’s recent past is complex enough; despite Thaci’s relatively smooth election to the presidency, he will head a statelet still in international limbo, in a region once again concerned about its future.