While Ramush Haradinaj’s resignation as Kosovo Prime Minister sparked dramatic reactions, and ignited speculation about political ramifications, these latest developments highlight continuity more than change. The continuing influence of UÇK (Kosovo Liberation Army) veterans in Kosovo’s political landscape, the continual use, on all sides, of war crimes cases for political gain, and the continuing one-dimensional narratives regarding the conflict all serve to perpetuate and even exacerbate ethnic division and sideline reconciliation. Whatever the result of the latest Haradinaj investigations, or any other cases at the Specialist Chambers, recent events offer little evidence to suggest that the impact on reconciliation between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo is likely to be significant.
Haradinaj resignation 2.0
On the 19th of July, Ramush Haradinaj announced that, due to being invited by the Specialist Chambers in The Hague to be interviewed as a suspect in alleged war crimes, he would resign his post, declaring dramatically that ‘I could not take the entire state in front of the investigation.’ It was a curious case of history repeating, as Haradinaj was also Prime Minister in 2005, when he resigned to face prosecution by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). He was eventually acquitted in 2008, and returned to Pristina to a hero’s welcome and a continuing (perhaps even enhanced) political career. He also successfully fought a second case at the ICTY in 2011-2012.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić quipped that the latest resignation was a “political trick”, and predicted that Haradinaj would be released in 24-48 hours. As it turned out, Vučić’s prediction was accurate, at least regarding the length of Haradinaj’s stay in The Netherlands. By last Friday, after refusing to answer any questions put to him by the Special Prosecutor’s office, Haradinaj was back in Pristina vowing to continue his work. The same day, Haradinaj continued his political capitalisation of events, by posting on his Facebook page that he had received a letter from retired NATO General Wesley Clark congratulating him on progress in Kosovo.
The Controversial Establishment of the Specialist Chambers
Characterised by public opposition, overt international pressure and cynical speculation of back-room political deals, the manner in which the Specialist Chambers was established in itself provides insight into the state of progress regarding transitional justice in Kosovo. While the Specialist Chambers is located in The Hague, it is part of Kosovo’s judiciary. It was established specifically to prosecute alleged crimes outlined in Council of Europe Special Rapporteur Dick Marty’s 2011 report. Significantly, the report only outlines alleged crimes committed by UÇK members, and includes alleged crimes committed in Kosovo after the end of the conflict, while it was under UN protection. The process of establishment was controversial, with the Kosovo Assembly voting in favour of establishing the court in April 2014 but then in June 2015, amid public protests, it rejected the vote on making the constitutional amendments necessary for the court to be established. After various public statements, including by the US ambassador and the head of the UN Mission in Kosovo warning of the consequences of failing to establish the court, and a second parliamentary vote, the motion eventually passed. President Hashim Thaçi, who was Kosovo’s Foreign Minister at the time and who is explicitly named as a suspect in the Marty report, publicly supported the establishment of the Court, amid speculation that this support was the result of a deal with international stakeholders to ensure that he himself stayed out of the dock. In the same week that the Constitutional changes for the Chambers were approved, a bill ‘For the Legal Protection and Financial Support of Accused Persons’ also passed, thus giving clear, state-sponsored support to any future defendants. Opposition to the Chambers continued, and in late 2017 a group of MPs launched an unsuccessful attempt to have the law on establishing the Chambers repealed. The Specialist Chambers officially opened in July 2017, but came under increasing criticism and was termed a ‘ghost court’ as proceedings stalled until the first former fighters were eventually called to interviews in late 2018.
Contribution to Reconciliation?
When the Kosovo Assembly voted to establish the Specialist Court in 2015, the decision was hailed by the EU and US as an important step towards reconciliation. A joint statement declared that ‘by dealing with its past and ensuring justice for the victims, Kosovo can achieve reconciliation and build a better future’. But as the legacy of the ICTY demonstrates, judicial mechanisms alone cannot effectively challenge the accepted narratives of the different sides without the support of political leadership. Indeed there are many examples, even in cases where a defendant has been convicted of war crimes, where judicial outcomes have fuelled popularity and nationalist rhetoric. The ICTY was widely regarded in Serbia as being ethnically-biased against Serbs, and was described in 2017 by Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić as contributing to heightened tensions in the region. In Kosovo the Specialist Court faces similar challenges, as it is similarly seen as a vehicle to punish only those from one side of the conflict.
Reactions to last week’s events provide familiar sentiments, and indicate that the shift in the political rhetoric towards a more balanced view of the conflict is an unlikely prospect. While the traditional dominance of the three parties led by UÇK veterans (PDK, AAK and NISMA) was weakened somewhat after the 2017 elections, the ‘war wing’ coalition still governs Kosovo. The very fact that Haradinaj held the post of Prime Minister in 2005 and 2019 in itself highlights the longevity of war veterans in Kosovo’s political landscape. In this context it is perhaps not surprising that the public statements of high-profile Kosovo Albanian political representatives offer a unified and one-dimensional narrative of the UÇK cause as being “pure and fair”.
This simplistic approach regarding the Kosovo conflict is not confined to the public statements of Kosovo Albanian politicians. In April this year the then Kosovo Minister for Local Government Administration, Kosovo Serb Ivan Todosijevic, dismissed the massacre of Kosovo Albanians at Raçak in 1999 as ‘pure fabrication’. In the same week, Serbia’s defence ministry promoted a book by a former army chief of staff who is currently serving a prison sentence for war crimes committed by Serbian troops in Kosovo. These examples demonstrate that in both Kosovo and Serbia, the political traction gained by using the conflict in this way is more valuable than finding common ground upon which to effectively deal with the past.
Despite the immense pressure put on Kosovo’s institutions to establish the Specialist Chambers, the reactions of key western embassies to the news of Haradinaj’s resignation are significant for the absence of any mention of the Court’s contribution to transitional justice in Kosovo. Such silence can perhaps be interpreted as a reluctance of EU countries to risk disturbing the delicate situation regarding relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Last November Kosovo introduced a 100% tariff to Serbian goods entering Kosovo in retaliation after Serbia blocked Kosovo’s bid to gain Interpol membership. As a result of the introduction of the tariff, the Belgrade delegation has refused to resume the EU-facilitated dialogue with Pristina until the tariff has been revoked. Set against this backdrop, there is little indication that any indictments or prosecutions coming from the Specialist Chambers will be accompanied by a shift away from tendencies to exploit transitional justice for domestic political gain.
As Ramush Haradinaj flew to The Hague last Wednesday, the families of victims of the 1999 massacre of farmers in Graçka e Vjetër/Staro Gračko quietly marked the twentieth anniversary of that crime, for which no one has been successfully prosecuted. Victims rarely feature in the political statements and speculation regarding war crimes cases, and while there have been convictions for war crimes, there has been no notable progress towards a mutually-accepted view that crimes were committed on both sides of the conflict, with victims coming from all ethnic groups. The continuing presence of war veterans, and even convicted war criminals in the political landscapes of both Kosovo and Serbia give few signs that this mentality will change in the near future. Unfortunately as these most recent events reveal, political theatrics continue to take precedence over genuine support for transitional justice and reconciliation, and international pressure to prioritise transitional justice flows inconsistently with the changing political tide. It remains to be seen whether history will again repeat itself for Ramush Haradinaj regarding the outcome of these latest proceedings, but judging by both past and recent reactions, there is little indication that any findings from the Specialist Chambers will lead to political representatives on either side of the ethnic divide challenging the mutually-exclusive narratives that, after twenty years, have become so deeply entrenched.