Analysis 24 Aug 16

Kosovo’s Thaci Seeks New ‘Peacemaker’ Image

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, a wartime guerrilla leader, has been embracing reconciliation by commemorating murdered Serbs, but analysts question whether he is sincere or just trying to win international approval.

Marija Ristic, Taulant Osmani, Erjone Popova BIRN Pristina
Hashim Thaci at the memorial in Staro Gracko/Gracke. Photo: Kosovo Presidency.

Hashim Thaci has been under fire in his own capital Pristina after he recently paid tribute at memorials to Serbs who were killed during the 1990s war.

His pledges to solve their murders were seen as no more than rhetoric by Serbs, while Albanians believe that Thaci effectively admitted that his own people were responsible for the crimes.

Analysts in Pristina suggest that the move can be seen as an attempt by Thaci to clear the image that some people have of him as a warlord potentially responsible for human rights abuses ahead of the impending establishment of the new Hague-based Special Court that is to try former Kosovo Liberation Army officials for alleged crimes committed during and after the 1998-99 conflict.

A 2011 Council of Europe report alleged that Thaci, a former KLA leader, was one of the main organisers of criminal activities in the Kosovo Liberation Army during and after the war. The allegations made in the report eventually led to the setting up of the new Special Court, but Thaci has always denied any links to crimes and publicly supported attempts to prosecute those responsible.

Since he took the presidency in February this year, Thaci has made a number of moves seen as attempts at reconciliation with the Serb community in Kosovo, which still perceives him as the main culprit behind the expulsions and murders of Serbs from Kosovo.

Among KLA veterans, he is still considered as one of key political leaders who secured Kosovo’s independence after the war.

Calls for reconciliation

Last Friday, Thaci called for the whereabouts of the 1,666 people still missing from Kosovo conflict to be established.

“I appeal one more time for the fate of missing to be resolved, no matter which ethnic, religious or professional group they belong to. Reconciliation among nations demand honesty, truth and justice,” Thaci wrote on Facebook.

He added that those listed missing are lawyers, doctors, agricultural workers, journalists.

A week before that, Thaci paid homage at a memorial decided to Serb boys killed in the town of Gorazdevac/Gorazhdec in 2003.

In July, he laid a wreath at a memorial to 14 Serbs killed in July 1999 in the village of Staro Gracko/Gracke.

Both of these cases remain unresolved, but Serbs from these area are convinced that the perpetrators were Albanians. On both monuments, it is written that they were victims of “Albanian terror”.

As a result, most Serbs from these areas didn’t see it as sign of reconciliation, but more as a provocation. Family victims also refused to welcome Thaci into their homes.

“We told him will not be the right time until those who ordered this crime have been brought to justice for one of the biggest crimes against Serbs in Kosovo. And until this happens, he is not welcome in our village,” said Zoran Cirkovic, the mayor of Staro Gacko.

Pristina-based analysts however point out that by commemorating the dead Serbs, Thaci indirectly acknowledged the Albanians are responsible for the murders despite the fact that no court rulings have established this.

“Reverently honouring victims regardless of nationality to which they belong is a noble gesture by anyone. But in this way, Thaci is making Albanians responsible for crimes, even though the perpetrators have not been found and convicted yet," Imer Mushkolaj, a political analyst from Pristina, told BIRN, referring to the wording on the monuments that identify Albanians as the killers.

According to Mushkolaj, Thaci’s visit to the monuments was only to score political points.

“Sure, he is making these visits in order to gain political points. But he is insincere in these cases, despite the fact that he is trying to show himself off as a unifying president,” said Mushkolaj.

“Throughout [his] years in power, Thaci was supposed to be working so that people responsible for these and other crimes to be brought to justice,” he said.

But instead, he added, Thaci’s recent actions “insulted and accused Albanians of murder and terrorism”.

Political image change

Thaci speaking at the Hague Institute for Global Justice in March. Photo: Facebook/Hashim Thaci.

Since the war ended in 1999, Thaci and his Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, which emerged from Kosovo Liberation Army, has been in power in the country. Thaci himself was prime minister, then foreign minister and since February has been president.

Other analysts agree with Mushkolaj that Thaci’s homages are more political than sincere, especially in the light of the establishment of the new Special Court, which is expected to be operational by the end of the year. Sources close to the court have told BIRN that the first indictments can be expected at the end of 2016 or the beginning of 2017.

The court will be staffed by international judges and prosecutors, although it will operate under Kosovo’s laws. In order to be start work, it still needs the approval of the Dutch parliament, which it will probably get place this autumn.

Many believe that top Kosovo politicians will end up in the dock, including Thaci.

According to Pristina-based analyst Behlul Beqaj, the transformation of Thaci from the political leader of the KLA to a the president of all ethnic communities in Kosovo, as highlighted by his visits to Serb memorials, is positive but insincere, aimed at changing his image.

“Thaci did not change his beliefs, but he realised that in this way he can be supported by the international community to remain in power, or it’s a condition of not being subjected to the Special Court,” Beqaj told BIRN.

David Schwendiman, who is expected to be chief prosecutor at the Special Court, told BIRN in March that no one was immune from prosecution.

“We can only reiterate that, under international law, there is no amnesty for anyone for violations of international humanitarian law,” Schwendiman said when asked about Thaci and if his possible position as president may spare him from prosecution.

“This is also made clear in the law on the Specialist Chambers and the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office [that was passed by Kosovo’s parliament],” Schwendiman added.

The law which enabled the establishment of the new court makes it clear that no official is out of bounds for prosecution.

“The official position of any accused person, including the head of state or government or a responsible government official, shall not relieve such person of criminal responsibility nor mitigate punishment,” it says.

Thaci has so far only visited in The Hague as a speaker at conferences and for meetings with the Dutch government.

In a speech he gave at the Hague Institute for Global Justice in March this year, he said he wants a “transparent court process” because there is “nothing to hide”.

He also sought to reassure his audience that Kosovo was a country “for all its citizens” and that its energies must be spent on creating a future for them.

“The past is the past,” he said.

But only when the Special Court starts operating will it become clear whether or not Thaci can put his own past behind him.

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