Hashim Thaçi and the rest of the Kosovar political elite are frustrating investigations into murder, kidnapping, and trafficking in human organs.The Albanians of Kosovo — the Kosovars — revere the United States of America. They also gaze with longing eyes upon their richest near-neighbor, the European Union.
And with good reason. The United States and its European NATO allies, after all, carried out the 1999 bombing campaign that wrenched Kosovo from Serbia, and effectively gave it to the 1.7 million Kosovars who comprise about 93 percent of the country’s population. The U.S. and EU member-states delivered the diplomatic clout that resulted in the Republic of Kosovo’s recognition as an independent state by over 100 countries. They have also, along with American and European NGOs, given the Kosovars impressive amounts of financial, legal, and economic assistance. Now the Kosovars are seeking a lifting of EU visa restrictions, which would allow them to travel freely in Europe, as well as the conclusion of a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU, which would set their country on course for EU membership.
And yet, according to diplomats who have worked in the Balkans for decades but who spoke only with assurances that they would remain anonymous, the Kosovo Albanians’ most-powerful leaders are on the brink of inflicting unprecedented damage on Kosovo’s relations with the U.S. and the EU. The foremost of these individuals, the diplomats said, is Hashim Thaçi, Kosovo’s former prime minister, now its foreign minister and deputy PM. He is the country’s most-powerful public figure.
* * *Thaçi and other members of Kosovo’s political elite who have been named in Western intelligence reports as organized-crime figures are, the diplomats say, sacrificing the best interests of the Republic of Kosovo and the Kosovars in order to protect themselves from criminal prosecution.
They are doing so by defying efforts by Washington and Brussels to establish a special court to undertake prosecutions stemming from allegations that Thaçi and other commanders and soldiers of the Kosovo Albanian insurgency — the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) — were involved in about 400 cases of kidnapping, forced displacement, illegal imprisonment, and murder after NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999.
These Kosovar leaders, the diplomats say, have effectively plied their influence to prevent Kosovo’s parliament from passing a legislative package, including constitutional amendments, that would allow for the special court’s establishment.
“If this doesn’t pass, United States relations with this Kosovo government and future Kosovo governments will deteriorate,” said one Western diplomat, referring to the legislative package on the court. “The United States wants to demonstrate the depth of its commitment to have these allegations heard in a credible process.”
Any such deterioration would mark a sea change in a friendly relationship that began more than a quarter-century ago, when Serbia’s strongman, Slobodan Milošević, rose to power and resorted to wholesale violence to quash Kosovo’s autonomy within the former socialist Yugoslavia’s Republic of Serbia.
“We are all speaking with the same voice, including all the visitors who come from Brussels to discuss changes to the visa regulations and the Stabilization and Association Agreement,” said another diplomat who has represented his European country in Kosovo for years.
A U.S. warningThe victims of the alleged kidnappings and murders in 1999 and 2000 were mostly members of Kosovo’s Serb, Roma, and other minority groups; but these victims also included a significant number of Albanians who were fingered as Serb “collaborators” or who ran afoul of the KLA’s commanders in other ways. Investigators have accumulated evidence showing that several of the murders were linked with the sale for profit of their victims’ organs, but are still working to amass sufficient evidence to bring indictments against individuals suspected of being involved.
European Union officials as well as diplomats from the U.S. and EU member-states said the special court stands to benefit Kosovo’s people, because it will at the very least clear the air of the allegations hanging over dominant members of the government. The court, the diplomats added, might also contribute to a desperately needed cleansing of corrupt officials whose activities stifle the growth of Kosovo’s economy.
The special court would nominally be located in Kosovo and would operate under Kosovo’s own laws. But the court would have foreign prosecutors, judges, and staff and conduct its trials outside Kosovo. Holding such proceedings in the country would expose court officials and, more critically, prospective witnesses and their family members, to violence and intimidation. Gangland killings and intimidation of diplomats are hardly unusual in Kosovo; and the Kosovars’ traditional practice of blood vengeance, which demands retaliation even against family members of a violator, still trumps Western-style rule of law.
The latest U.S. warning to Thaçi and other members of Kosovo’s government and assembly came on July 12, when a senior State Department official vigorously urged Kosovar leaders to effect the constitutional changes by August 1. During a series of heated meetings in the country’s capital, Priština, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland informed Kosovar leaders, including Thaçi and another former KLA commander and former prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, that a failure to meet the deadline would result in “consequences” she did not specify, said a Kosovo-based source who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the risks entailed in divulging such information.
* * *Diplomats and officials from the U.S. and the European Union states have repeatedly informed Kosovar leaders that, if they fail to see to the adoption of the amendments, the U.S. would neither veto nor otherwise block the establishment, by the United Nations Security Council, of a special UN criminal court to hear the cases.
Placing the criminal cases under the jurisdiction of the UN — something Russia has demanded for years — could endanger the Republic of Kosovo’s international standing. It would create an opening for Serbia, which is close to Vladimir Putin’s Russia and has never surrendered sovereignty over Kosovo, to frustrate Kosovo’s wider acceptance as a sovereign state. Kosovo has yet to secure UN membership: Russia and China, permanent members of the Security Council, refuse to recognize its independence. Five EU member-states—Slovakia, Romania, Greece, Cyprus and Spain, with separatist fears of their own—also refuse to recognize the country.
Thaçi is behaving like a caged animal” — an international official in PrištinaDespite these warnings and despite explicit and repeated assurances by Kosovar leaders that the required constitutional changes would pass, Kosovo’s assembly thumbed its nose at the U.S. and EU on June 26 by voting down the amendments.
Thaçi — who for years was the go-to guy in Kosovo for American, European, and UN officials — has religiously expressed public support for the special court and claims to be pressuring recalcitrant deputies in his own party to vote for the amendments.
It’s one thing to say he supports the court, but the fact is he’s the one man in Priština who can make it happen, and and it hasn’t. Western diplomats speculate that his outward support is political theater and that Thaçi is working behind the scenes — intimidating members of his own political party — to delay the court’s establishment for as long as possible. Is this, diplomats wonder, because he fears being indicted? Delaying the court’s formation would — through the further loss by attrition of witnesses to crimes committed 16 years ago — weaken the evidence a prosecutor might bring against him and other potential accused.
“Thaçi is behaving like a caged animal,” said a senior representative in Priština for a major international organization. “Kosovo’s people would be happy to be rid of him, but they don’t know how to be rid of him. Thaçi controls the government and economic life. There is no chance for new, young leaders to emerge. There is no hope for new businesses to succeed.”
A significant number of opposition members of Kosovo’s assembly, including members of Haradinaj’s AAK party, voted against the amendments. Western diplomats in Priština question whether these assembly members, like Thaçi, fear being arrested, tried, and sentenced to lengthy jail terms.
Since decisive nay votes on the constitutional measures are coming from both Thaçi’s PDK party, which dominates the Kosovo’s present government, and from opposition parties, diplomats said that a resulting deterioration in Kosovo’s relations with the U.S. would affect future Kosovo governments of any party until such time as the court is established.
A former Western diplomat, who worked for years in Priština, said the U.S. would clearly not turn its back on Kosovo entirely or abandon efforts to strengthen rule of law in the country. But Washington would likely stop encouraging American and other Western investors to do business in Kosovo and might cease advocating for the country’s recognition by other states and for Kosovo’s further integration into the European Union.
“I do not count on the assembly passing the constitutional amendments,” the former diplomat said. “Thaçi announced that he will not bring the measure to the assembly unless he is sure that he has the votes for it to pass. This effectively means that he does not have the votes, or doesn’t want to have the votes.”
“I don’t rule out Thaçi finding some excuse to kick it down the road,” the former diplomat continued, speculating that there might be an attempt to delay further the special court’s formation by referring the matter to Kosovo’s constitutional court.
Some Western diplomats and analysts from international organizations say that recent armed clashes between KLA “separatists” and special police in Macedonia, as well as a sudden, surprising surge in the number of illegal Kosovar migrants delivered by people smugglers to Hungary’s border with Serbia in February might have been warnings from Kosovo’s underworld leaders to the EU of what the havoc they can cause the EU if Brussels does not back off on the court issue.
* * *Assertions that KLA leaders were involved in a spate of kidnappings and murders and other grave crimes after the NATO bombing campaign in 1999 were first aired in 2008 with the publication in Italy of “La Caccia,” the memoirs of the former UN war crimes prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, which I co-authored.
At Russia’s behest, the Council of Europe, in 2009, launched an investigation under Dick Marty — a former state prosecutor from Switzerland and a member of the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly — to examine the assertions made in La Caccia. Marty’s report named Thaçi as the leader of organized criminal enterprises that flourished in Kosovo and Albania from 1999, and implicated him in kidnappings, murders, and organ-trafficking operations that claimed the lives of Serbs, Roma, Albanians, and persons from other ethnic groups, some of whom were abducted in Kosovo, transported across the border to secret detention camps in Albania, and eventually killed.
After Marty released his findings, the U.S. and the EU organized, under EU auspices, a special criminal-investigation unit to develop evidence and decide whether there were sufficient grounds to press criminal charges.
In July 2014, the special investigation’s chief prosecutor, Clint Williamson — a former United States ambassador-at-large for war crimes and one of the drafters of the criminal indictment against Milošević by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague — announced that his team had procured enough evidence to support indictments against senior KLA members. The charges Williamson listed included unlawful killing, abduction, illegal detention, sexual violence, forced displacement of individuals from their homes and communities, and the desecration and destruction of religious sites.
“The evidence is compelling that these crimes were not the acts of rogue individuals acting on their own accord, but rather that they were conducted in an organized fashion and were sanctioned by certain individuals in the top levels of the KLA leadership,” Mr. Williamson wrote in a statement outlining the investigation’s results. The evidence and detailed findings are sealed until a court is established to hear the cases.
Mogherini, Clinton write ThaçiWestern diplomats, including individuals at ambassadorial level, have said that Thaçi has engaged high-price foreign legal advisers and lobbyists, who have informed him that the push for establishment of the court has been the work of “low-ranking” individuals in the State Department and did not have the backing of officials in the department’s top offices.
The United States and European countries knew 10 years ago that Thaçi and his men were engaged in drug smuggling and creating a mafia state” — a European ambassadorYet the prosecution effort has had the public support of Lady Catherine Ashton of the United Kingdom, until late 2014 the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; her present successor, Federica Mogherini of Italy; the former U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, now a front-running candidate for president; and a staunch supporter of Kosovo’s independence, Vice President Joseph Biden, who wrote a letter to Thaçi exhorting him to cooperate with the investigation.
According to Council of Europe investigator Marty’s findings, European intelligence agencies were reporting in the mid-2000s that Thaçi and his allies were exploiting their position in Kosovo’s government and, by 2010, had amassed personal wealth totally out of proportion to their declared employment.
“The sad thing is that the United States and European countries knew 10 years ago that Thaçi and his men were engaged in drug smuggling and creating a mafia state,” said a European ambassador who has followed the Balkans for decades. “The attitude was, ‘He’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard.’”
Thaçi has for years vehemently denied any involvement in organized crime and corruption. He has scoffed at the allegations made against him in the findings of the Council of Europe’s investigation, which, he said, besmirched the Kosovo Liberation Army and the memory of those fighters who gave their lives for Kosovo’s independence. In late 2010, the press in Kosovo reported that Thaçi had threatened to name publicly every Albanian who assisted Marty in his investigation.
In May 2015, Thaçi voiced his support for the special court before the United Nations Security Council, telling the body that Kosovo’s government would back its establishment. “We believe most of the charges are groundless,” Thaci said. Westerners who have met Thaçi during recent weeks say he appeared to be cool and comfortable while discussing the special court issue, and even seemed unpleasantly surprised that the Kosovo assembly voted down the measure on July 26.
Albanian observers and Western diplomats say Thaçi is now attempting to demonstrate his value to the West as, among other things, an ally in the fight against Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.
Another former ambassador from a Western European country said the corruption and organized crime activities in Kosovo include transportation of illicit drugs, people smuggling, smuggling of goods, trafficking of women for prostitution, money-laundering, organ-trafficking, and running protection rackets. He added that the Kosovo’s Albanian underworld works together with criminal gangs in Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Albania, and other countries.
Kosovo’s Albanian underworld has allegedly succeeded in corrupting even members of the large European Union rule of law mission in Kosovo, EULEX, which Brussels established to investigate and prosecute cases involving corruption, malfeasance, and organized crime.
Chuck Sudetic has followed the former Yugoslavia and its successor states for more than three decades and covered the Yugoslav wars from 1990 to 1995 for The New York Times. His latest book is “Dubrovnik: In Recountings true and exact…”.