Comment 09 Jan 18

Kosovo Leaders’ War Court U-Turn is Self-Destructive

The futile attempts by former guerrillas turned politicians to revoke Kosovo’s commitments to impartially prosecute war crimes at the new Special Court show that the West’s support for the ruling elite must end.

Krenar Gashi Pristina
Kosovo PM Ramush Haradinaj and President Hashim Thaci. Photo: Kallxo.com

Instead of a cold Balkan winter, this past holiday season in Kosovo brought political heat. Out of the blue, the country’s top politicians decided to turn their back on the West and attempt to withdraw the country’s commitment to impartially investigate, prosecute and try war crimes.

There is no logical framework that can explain such a move, except for their personal fear of prosecution, but this infantile behaviour is unlikely to go without consequences, no matter how futile such attempts appear to be.

The issue is no longer about war crimes, impartial prosecution or ethics, but rather an issue of international relations, and therefore crucial for the country’s statehood.

How did it all begin?

In 2014, when the United States and the European Union came up with the idea of establishing an international tribunal for war crimes committed during the Kosovo war, I wrote a lengthy argument against it.

In my view, an international body could not have more powers and competencies than the EU rule-of-law mission in Kosovo, EULEX, already had. The idea for an international courtroom, I maintained, was more an attempt to externalise responsibility for EULEX’s mediocre results in prosecuting war crimes.

In spite of all the objections, however, Kosovo’s political elite promoted the war crimes court as a must-do for the country. A Council of Europe report by Dick Marty had already cast a shadow over Kosovo’s young statehood and the discourses promoted by the political elite were those of cooperation with the international community when it came to prosecuting war crimes.

Legal and constitutional changes were enacted and the so-called Specialist Chambers are now formally part of Kosovo’s judiciary, although they will operate independently from the system, funded and supervised by the EU and operating in The Hague.

Whereas parts of the Kosovo society continued to see the court as an anti-Kosovo Liberation Army institution, such opinions were mainly limited to former fighters and more nationalist circles. In spite of reservations, the majority of society as a whole accepted the new reality, adhering to its promoters’ discourse that the court would take off a huge burden off Kosovo’s shoulders and the new country could seek further legitimacy for its statehood and move towards full integration into the international community.

Given this whole process, the sudden shift of position by Kosovo’s former fighters turned politicians on the eve of the holiday season was a major shock, as MPs from the ruling coalition parties staged an attempt to revoke the law that enables the Specialist Chambers to operate. The US ambassador to Pristina described it as ‘backstabbing’ and the British ambassador assessed it as the worst event in Kosovo since the war.

Kosovo’s political elite, probably for the first time ever, was inducing a major policy shift without any prior consultation with their Western partners, who they owe a great deal for the country’s independence and statehood.

A direct obstruction of justice

It is, of course, pure political infantilism to believe that a government that barely holds a majority in the parliament of a country that is now about to turn ten years old could stop an international arrangement that has the support of virtually the entire Western world.

The EU has already dedicated a large budget to the Specialist Chambers, a portion of which has already been spent. The chambers have now a functional system in place and the first indictments are expected very soon.

As many legal minds in Kosovo have already pointed out, repealing the law that enabled the creation of the chambers would be a direct obstruction of criminal justice.

Such a move, however, would merely delay the proceedings, as the chambers would still be established through the UN Security Council, as the Council’s Resolution 1244, based on which Kosovo declared its independence, is still applicable.

The question that begs asking, then, is why did the Kosovo leaders change their minds when it comes to the Specialist Chambers, or as they are referred to by the public, the Special Court?

Since no analytical framework enables us to provide an answer to that question, we are left only with personal motives. Having been also the leaders of the KLA, Kosovo’s three top men - President Hashim Thaci, Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj and parliamentary chairman Kadri Veseli - could easily be on the new court’s radar.

Thus the only reasonable explanation we are left with is that they decided to put their personal interest first, against the country’s interests, and attempt to buy more time for whoever is going to be indicted.

The moral of the story

While Kosovo MPs are probably not going to support their political leaders’ initiative and repeal the legislation that opened the way to impartial prosecution of war crimes, the attempt alone has caused quite some damage.

The country’s political elite has once again showed complete immaturity and irresponsibility. Functioning as an informal group of powerful people, the current elite has ruled the country through decisions made in late-night bars and at family gatherings. The West - that is the US and the EU - has been ignoring such a behaviour for a long time, and has even silently supported it.

In their eyes, the former guerrilla fighters were mainly seen as partners and the only ones who could maintain stability in Kosovo. The West’s support for this political class has been uncontested and absolute.

Yet, as the Quixotism over the war crimes court over the past weeks has shown, it is the end time for such persistent support to end.

At the time when Kosovo is yet to consolidate its democracy and pursue the further legitimation of its statehood in the domain of world politics, turning its back on its long-term partners and virtually the whole Western world is a self-destructive move indeed.

And while Kosovo society may now allow a few individuals to hold its future hostage, there has never been a stronger signal that the current political elite is unreliable and that for the country to prosper, the West’s support for that elite must end.

Such support, in the immediate future, should be given to issues and ideas rather than to individuals.

Krenar Gashi is a political scientist from Kosovo, currently a doctoral fellow at the Centre for EU Studies, Gent University, Belgium.

The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

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