Gloves off for Kosovo leader as war court charges loom

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci was the former political leader of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (AFP Photo/ARMEND NIMANI) (POOL/AFP/File)

Pristina (AFP) - Kosovo's President Hashim Thaci has launched a rare attack on the country's Western supporters in recent weeks, an outburst that analysts say could be linked to coming war crimes indictments.

An EU-funded tribunal has been set up at The Hague to try crimes allegedly committed by senior members of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) as it battled the forces of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the 1998-1999 war.

But Thaci, the KLA's political leader during the war, says Kosovo has received nothing it was promised -- such as visa-free travel in the EU -- in exchange for adopting a special law authorising the tribunal.

"Kosovo has kept its word. The international community has not," the president said in October at a presentation of a survey showing that most Kosovo Albanians consider the court unjust, and that more than half are ready to protest if KLA fighters are indicted.

The first indictments could be announced before the end of the year -- and Thaci himself is widely suspected to be among those appearing on the list.

The court's creation stems from a Council of Europe report in 2011 which accused Thaci of heading a mafia-style network that orchestrated the kidnapping and disappearance of about 500 civilians, mostly Serbs.

He has denied the explosive claims, telling AFP early last year that he had "nothing to hide".

But prominent commentator and Thaci critic Veton Surroi wrote in the Koha Ditore newspaper that the president's recent comments could be a sign that "the special court's frequent heavy breathing is being heard."

Belul Beqaj, a political science professor, told AFP that the president "aims to destabilise the situation to save himself" from the tribunal.

- 'Pro-EU leader' -

Thaci, 49, said the unfulfilled pledges to Kosovo included quick application for membership in the Council of Europe and UNESCO, visa-free travel in the EU, and the creation of its own army.

"The international community did not accomplish any of these promises; on the contrary Kosovo's euro-Atlantic journey has been made more difficult," he said in October.

US and European officials in Pristina responded by denying there had been any kind of bargaining over the court set-up.

But Shqipe Pantina from the main opposition party Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) said Thaci's declaration showed how "the dirty games he has played so far" were starting to backfire.

Bekim Collaku, one of Thaci's close allies, refutes the suggestion that his boss is turning his back to Europe.

He is "without doubt the most pro-EU head of state in the Western Balkans, even beyond," Collaku said.

But Kosovo needs "equal treatment" to that of its neighbours, and "so long as this is not the case, the president cannot applaud those who leave Kosovo isolated," he added, without mentioning the special court.

The Kosovo conflict killed 13,000 people, most of them ethnic Albanians, and ended after a NATO bombing campaign against Serbia.

A decade later Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence, a move supported by Western powers but denied by Belgrade and Moscow.

Last year Thaci described the KLA struggle as a "just and clean one" and said he would "fully support any attempts to do justice".

But he now expresses doubts about a court that will deal only with crimes on the KLA side and not "around 400 massacres committed by Serbs".

An association of families of the war's victims subsequently asked him to support an amendment to the law on the special court so that it also investigates Serb crimes.

- Provoking crisis? -

Many of Kosovo's leaders are former KLA fighters. In order to retain their faltering grip on power, they joined forces for an election in June behind Ramush Haradinaj, now prime minister, and parliamentary speaker Kadri Veseli.

For Ramush Tahiri, a political analyst, "They control vital state mechanisms. There are signals that they intend to defend themselves by provoking a crisis."

And their parties "may try to trigger discontent," said Lulzim Peci, a security expert.

He warned that any attempt to "play the card of destabilisation to delay the work of the court" could backfire against Kosovo, leaving it isolated and even under sanctions.

Others warn that Kosovo's citizens have no choice but to prepare for the indictments, which could come at any time.

"There is no turning back," said criminal law professor Ismet Salihu.