An  Interview with Kosovo’s Hashim Thaci

Kosovo’s enigmatic Foreign  Minister speaks out about economic instability, clean energy and plans for a genocide lawsuit against Kosovo’s former adversary

For the past several years we’ve been attempting to conduct an interview with Kosovo’s  always colorful  and sometimes controversial foreign minister – and also, concurrently, deputy prime minister – Hashim Thaci.

  I’d recently returned to Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, on an annual pilgrimage to the Balkans. Just as we were about to embark on a long-planned and needlessly complicated and stressful travel itinerary to Belgrade, my Kosovar Albanian colleague and I suddenly received the call from Thaci’s special advisor, Petrit: Can you be here in two hours, or else…

It took all of three seconds for me and my friend, a political analyst in Kosovo’s media, to alter our travel plans and set out to interview, face to face, Kosovo’s longtime political leader. I was suddenly filled with nervous anticipation in finally meeting the man, popularly known by admirers and foes alike as the ever clever “Snake.” After all, Thaci is the ethnic Albanian one-time war hero who is now attempting to accomplish the seeming impossible: making peace with Serbia – Kosovo’s long term former ruler and adversary – while helping guide his fledgling nation to gradually become a fully independent and robust state with United Nations membership.

Ironically, Thaci had recently announced  Kosovo’s intention to  pursue a genocide lawsuit against Serbia’s government. The announcement provoked near hysteria from Serbia’s old-guard leadership, but proved a welcome surprise to many of us, knowing full well the high and bloody price the people of Kosovo were forced to pay for their independence. It all convinced me to treat this seasoned politician and former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) leader very seriously indeed. In person, Thaci is maturely handsome, highly articulate and surprisingly soft-spoken. He listened intently to my untranslated questions, but generally preferred to offer  responses in his native Albanian, then have them translated into English by a trusted aide.

Robert Leonard Rope, San Francisco
Robert Leonard Rope  My first question is about the position of Kosovo in the Balkans.  How do you see your country as moving forward? I realize you face numerous challenges, for example, membership in the United Nations. Belgrade has managed, so far, to successfully block your path. How do you see things as moving forward?

Hashim Thaci Kosovo’s independence brought peace and stability to the region, and good neighborly relations between the countries of the western Balkans. A new European spirit in the whole of the Balkans. Kosovo is recognized by 108 countries, gaining membership in numerous international organizations – regional, European and global ones.

 

 Serbia’s Ivica Dacic (left) and Kosovo’s Hashim Thaci shake hands in Brussels in December 2013 as EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton looks on

There are 5 EU member states that have not yet recognized Kosovo. But what is important is that the EU supports Kosovo’s European future unanimously.

When it comes to the United Nations, Russia is still a sticking block. What is important is that we’ve reached, let’s say, a peace agreement with Serbia two years ago in Brussels. an agreement on full normalization of relations between the 2 countries. And things are changing for the better. Today Kosovo is a stable country with a clear, defined Euro- Atlantic future.

RLR I want to ask you about Kosovo’s economic situation. There was some scary news coming out a few weeks ago. It seemed to us there was a spiraling down for people on the bottom tier of society – busloads of people fleeing the country. Now that appears to be leveling off. But it’s left a rather bad feeling. I want to know how you feel about that, and how you see things as playing out.    

HTH Yes, since Kosovo is an independent state. there’ve been years of successes but challenges as well. We’ve consolidated the country internally and externally, but we’ve also faced the challenge of  economic development and opening more jobs for the citizens of Kosovo.

It is interesting to note that only a few months ago, Kosovo citizens were the most optimistic in the region. We had continually an annual economic growth of 4%.

We had the lowest public debt in the European region, the most stable banking system.

Unfortunately we inherited the situation from the former Yugoslavia where Kosovo was the least developed and Kosovo citizens  were discriminated against.- we can easily say   were  second  hand citizens in every aspect.

Despite this economic crisis at the present time I remain optimistic Foreign investors are arriving, are coming, a better environment is being created, especially with potential investments in energy, in mining, and particularly with a ski center in south Kosovo. It is also important to note that the EU should not delay its outreach to Kosovo and the region. Kosovo should not be kept in isolation.

And this year we expect to sign a Stabilization and Association agreement with the EU.

We plan to apply for membership in the Council of Europe. And getting back to the EU, by the end of the year, we expect to have a decision on a liberalizing visa regime for Kosovo citizens.

RLR I want to ask about clean energy. You have a lot of coal – nearly everyone in the world agrees that this is not the wave of the future.You also have a lot of sun, a lot of wind and other renewable resources. How do you see Kosovo as moving away from dirty fuel sources? And what about the frequent power outages?

HT Investments in the energy sector in Kosovo are closely coordinated with USAID (United States Agency for International Development) , with the European Commission and the World Bank. It will meet all the criteria including environmental criteria and it will be of the latest, most modern technological advancements. Of course there will also  be  investments in hydro-power. We already have investors from Austria investing in hydro-electric power. And of course we will continue to be expanding with wind and solar energy. We need to overcome this emergency phase.

 

  Posing in the office of Kosovo’s foreign ministry (from left) Political analyst Albinot Maloku, Minister Thaci and this journalist

RLR What’s going to change that in the short run?

HT The supply will be met immediately with a thermo plant. Kosovo can export energy in the region. This will help the economy and businesses. And again, everything will be done in accordance with the highest standards in protecting the environment.

RLR That’s good to hear –  it means a lot since we’re concerned with people’s health. And how healthy can they be if they’re inhaling coal dust?  Moving on, most of my past work involves war crimes and war criminals, mainly from Serbia. I’ve written about the pronounced lack of response and concern from the international community, and from Serbia, in going after war criminals. I want to know, in general, what you see is being done and what needs to be done in order to pursue war crimes and criminals from that period?

 HT We have nothing to hide.and we’ve been cooperating closely with the international justice system, organizations until now. It is clear to the whole world that it was Serbia who attempted genocide in Kosovo.

We’ve cooperated closely with the Hague Tribunal and the Justice Secretary in Kosovo was in the hands of the International Community, first with UNMIK (United Nations Mission in Kosovo), now with EULEX (European Union Rule of Law Mission). Whoever committed crimes, regardless of their ethnic background, have to be held accountable.

RLR And that’s being worked on by your government?

HT Yes, definitely. We’ve fulfilled all of our obligations to the international community.

But it is also a standard that we put up, so that we tell the truth. And people who suffered know the truth. This is also a step forward towards reconciliation between peoples.

RLR My understanding is that there’s an informal list of wanted war criminals, citizens or former citizens of Kosovo and Serbia, and yet nothing is done – what is happening with those people and how do we establish justice?

HT There are many of those who committed crimes in Kosovo and now are hiding in Serbia, often holding senior positions in Serbia. People who were involved in crimes in Izbitza, Krusha, Meja … and other villages. EULEX is involved in this, is dealing with these criminals.

                              

            Desperate Kosovar Albanian refugees fleeing Serbian forces – Spring, 1999. When will there be justice?

 

RLR Inside serbia?

HT Yes

RLR How many war criminals do you believe are hiding in Serbia today?

HT I don’t know numbers. I know that they live in Serbia – if they’re hiding or not I’m not sure.They might even be in power, in parliament. You’re aware of the latest accusations from Miss Natasa Kandic and the Humanitarian Law Center regarding the head of the Serbian army? And you are aware of how much the president of Serbia actually protects those suspected of war criminals?

RLR But I don’t understand why it’s taken 16 years – has it only now been discovered?

HT It’s only now that things are being discovered or perhaps they did not dare to mention these  issues.

RLR Natasa did not dare??

HT I don’t know.

RLR One of the reasons I wanted to interview you – I’m always listening, watching, seeing what’s happening in the Balkans. You recently brought up the possibility of a potential genocide lawsuit.and immediately everyone freaked out…The dominant historical narrative appears to have gradually shifted from what happened, as far as we’re concerned, to what Belgrade wants to promote. After the genocide lawsuits from Bosnia and then Croatia failed in the courts, Belgrade hardliners were able to say, “You see – we never committed genocide,” which is a  lie. How serious are your preparations? If Kosovo goes through with the genocide lawsuit I would be happy to participate as some sort of a partner in putting that together.

HT Thank you for the your interest in the genocide suit. My efforts are to prepare for that suit, to prepare the case. And at the moment when we are convinced that we will win  our case, we will raise the issue. We are convinced that we are right, that we have a stronger case than in Croatia or Bosnia, because in the case of Kosovo violence  was committed directly by the Serb forces. There were less paramilitaries involved, it was directly military and police from Serbia that were attempting genocide.

 

The hierarchy can be followed starting directly from Milosevic all the way to the foot soldiers. Then one million people were expelled from their homes by Serb military and police. But we will prepare well,  and I am convinced that attempted genocide by Serbia in Kosovo will be confirmed.

 

From left to right: Hashim Thaci, KLA leader; Bernard Kouchner, United Nations Interim Administrator; KFOR Lt. Gen. Michael Jackson; KLA’s Brig. General ; Nato Commanding General Wesley Clark (1999)

RLR I want to discuss  perspectives for Kosovo’s future. We were hoping things would be further along by now, and I tend to blame what I see from Serbia. We still see someone like Vuk Jeremic, smart and successful, going around the world attacking independent Kosovo. His main battle cry is the non-recognition of Kosovo.There still seems so many forces out there, blocking, trying to keep things down. What do you see in the next few years  as a way to bring things out of the morass and into an easier  and successful future?

HT I am convinced Kosovo has a safe future. It will be part of NATO and the EU

but also a member of the United Nations. We might have different interpretations about Jeremic. Yes he studied at Harvard, he’s a Harvard graduate. But his diplomacy was not a healthy one, even for Serbia. He might have prevented us from gaining recognition by five or six countries, but with his stance at the United Nations he hurt Serbia more than he hurt Kosovo. For me he’s a model of how, today, diplomats should not behave.

 

RLR You know him?

HT Of course.

RLR And to know him is not to love him.

HT But not to hate , too.

RLR The future of Kosovo – this continuing discussion about corruption, and how to get past it. If we’re talking about investment, talking about membership in international organizations, talking about normalization. I know that there is corruption in every government How do you propose to deal with this?

 

HT Kosovo is not immune to this phenomenon, but Kosovo had one advantage.

We had international justice present in Kosovo, and they fought organized crime and corruption and all the other negative phenomena. We are taking ownership over that international experience. And we will continue without any compromise. Kosovo has European experience  in dealing with justice but we have to do more.

 

Let’s not forget, at the same time, we are faced with attempts by both ISIS and Russia

to extend their influence in the region. Kosovo, today, is the leader in the region in fighting terrorism and extremism, and is resisting, making it impossible, for Russian influence to penetrate Kosovo. But I look with concern at the military parades organized in Belgrade to honor Putin (Russia’s current strongman president), and plans/projects to build Russian military bases in Serbia.

RLR Is that what’s coming?

HT They are trying. This is the reason why Brussels should not delay and must integrate Kosovo and the whole region, as soon as possible, in NATO and in the EU.

RLR Very well said. We appreciate your time. Thanks so much.