One year into his presidency, Hashim Thaci has not managed to bridge the gap between government and opposition, but has worked hard to build the image of a peace-broker.
Elected amid tear gas and violent protests, Thaci’s ascent to the presidency was not likely to be boring or uncontroversial. Yet, with the exception of few olive branches offered to the Kosovo Serb community by commemorating their war victims and announcing plans for a reconciliation commission, Hashim Thaci’s first year in the presidential office was mostly uneventful.
‘A divisive figure’
Since the death of Ibrahim Rugova, Kosovo’s “historical” president, Kosovo parties found it difficult to produce a unifying figure to become the Commander-in-Chief.
Former President Fatmir Sejdiu, who was elected shortly after Rugova’s death, was impeached after failing to relinquish his seat as the political leader of the Kosovo Democratic League, LDK.
A similar fate awaited the short-lived presidency of Behgjet Pacolli in 2011, whose election without a proper quorum in the Assembly, no opposing candidate, and other procedural violations, was dismissed by the Constitutional Court less than two months later.
It was amid such a crisis of consensus that Hashim Thaci, Isa Mustafa, and Behgjet Pacolli, with the mediation of former US Ambassador Christopher Dell, agreed to elect the virtually unknown Deputy Director of Kosovo Police, Atifete Jahjaga, as Kosovo President.
Unlike most of her predecessors, Jahjaga managed to complete her five-year mandate and bowed out in dignity in February last year, leaving her seat to Thaci.
Thaci, a former Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, commander and the leader of the biggest party in Kosovo, the Kosovo Democratic Party, PDK, served as the country’s PM from 2007 until 2015 when a six-month political stalemate forced him into a coalition with his main rival, Isa Mustafa’s LDK. The deal involved Thaci relinquishing the premiership, becoming Mustafa’s deputy and Foreign Minister. Nevertheless, throughout the year, as tensions rose over the Brussels-mediated agreement on the Association of Serb-majority municipalities and the demarcation deal with Montenegro, Mustafa and Thaci would appear together as equal coalition partners rather than as a PM and his cabinet minister.
Thus it came as no surprise that Thaci was appointed President when Jahjaga’s mandate ended. Nevertheless, his election was disputed by opposition parties and even MPs of the coalition partner LDK.
On February 26, after months of tear gas in and out of the parliament and with a protest camp right outside, Thaci managed to whip up the necessary votes only in the third round of voting during a very tense Assembly session.
But his lack of popular support was telling of how difficult it would be for him to play the role of a president who would represent the unity of the people.
Political pundit Belul Beqaj sees Thaci as “a divisive figure.” For the past 12 months, Thaci failed to meet with any of the opposition leaders, neither one-on-one nor as a group.
Paradoxically, divisiveness was Thaci’s precise method for strengthening his position in the political hierarchy. Belul Beqaj
Thaci was also unable to narrow the gap between the opposition and the government when it came to major political issues in Kosovo during the last two years: the border demarcation deal with Montenegro and the formation of the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities.
Beqaj does not see a way out for the country from this political dead end. Quite the opposite: he expects divisions to deepen.
“Paradoxically, divisiveness was Thaci’s precise method for strengthening his position in the political hierarchy,” Beqaj said.
Driton Caushi from opposition party Vetevendosje, which opposed Thaci’s election and whose MPs were dragged from the Assembly room on election day, said that the “boycott” against President Thaci will continue. Indeed, Vetevendosje officials have often been recorded referring to Thaci as “the so-called President.”
“In no way did Hashim Thaci fulfill the criteria for being president. That is because of the simple fact that he never proved himself as a unifying figure of the political class. Apart from that, the way that he was elected, by buying MP votes and amid protests, makes him an illegitimate and unacceptable president,” Caushi told Prishtina Insight.
Not everyone agrees with Vetevendosje’s version of the story.
PDK MP Ganimete Musliu maintains that for a year, Thaci was “on top of his game” as a president.
She also denies that Thaci meddled with party affairs after handing over party leadership to Kadri Veseli as soon as he was elected president.
“As an active member of the PDK, I have not seen him [Thaci] interfere in any way in the party, which means that the president was easily accommodated and adapted to his role as head of state,” Musliu said.
But Thaci also faced difficulties according to Musliu: during his first year in office he dealt with a “rancorous opposition,” which she considers “politically immature.”
“I believe that [the opposition] will soon come to terms with reality and will one day sit together around a table with the President. The sooner they accept this reality, the better it will be for opposition leaders and for the politics of Kosovo in general,” declared Musliu.
Valdete Bajrami, an MP from the Initiative for Kosovo, NISMA, one of the parties that opposed Thaci’s election, explained that their protest was a question of principle.
“If Thaci would accept to be committed to dissolving the border demarcation deal [with Montenegro] and the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities, then we could look into the possibility of meeting him. But, as it seems, the chances that he will decide to reflect are slim,” said Bajrami.
Throughout his almost two-decade-long political career, argues Beqaj, Thaci was worried most about his own political fate.
Thaci is not only willing to shed his party identity, but he would also shed his own skin. They did not nickname him ‘Snake’ by accident. Belul Beqaj
“In order to become an inevitable presence in all the main processes, Thaci is not only willing to shed his party identity, but he would also shed his own skin. They did not nickname him ‘Snake’ by accident,” said Beqaj, referring to Thaci’s nom de guerre as KLA commander.
Born in Buroje in the municipality of Skenderaj, the 49-year-old politician came to Prishtina as a history student. During his studies he was also student prorector of the University of Prishtina.
In the ‘90s, Thaci was sentenced to ten years in prison by the Serb-administered Court of Prishtina during a trial in absentia. This sentence and arrest warrant issued by Serbian authorities would give him trouble in 2003, when he was detained by Hungarian authorities. Unlike his political rival Ramush Haradinaj, the opposition party leader who’s currently being held in France on an old Serbian warrant, Thaci was let go.
Immediately after the war, the UN Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, which administered the territory until 2008, established the Provisional Institutions of Self Government, PISG. Thaci and fellow KLA members from the Drenica region established the Kosovo Democratic Party, PDK, while Haradinaj, a Dukagjini region commander, started his own party, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK. Both parties became a strong opposition to Ibrahim Rugova and his LDK, who had governed Kosovo throughout the 1990s.
Thanks to a deal following the first parliamentary elections in 2001, Thaci’s PDK was in government, but a lack of consensus thwarted him from taking the premiership.
The 2004 elections put PDK in the opposition until the end of 2007, as LDK and AAK managed to form a governing coalition headed by President Rugova. But after a battle with cancer, Rugova died in 2006, leaving a power vacuum in a divided LDK. By 2007, the party splintered, paving Thaci’s way to power.
Since 2007, Thaci has maintained a strong grip on the reins, serving two terms as prime minister, a term as deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, and finally becoming a president.
While still in government, Thaci supported the establishment of the Specialist Chambers in the Hague, a new court that will be dealing with war crimes committed during 1998-2000. The court, established after a Council of Europe report accusing Thaci and other key politicians in Kosovo for war crimes, is expected to issue the first indictments this spring.
During the war I became convinced that I will be committed to prevent those atrocities from happening again President Thaci
“We should see the formation of the Special Tribunal [the Specialist Cambers] as a way of clearing, or getting rid of the allegations, ” Thaci said in an interview for Prishtina Insight in October last year.
But MPs from governing and opposition parties, including Thaci’s PDK — afraid that the Specialist Chambers will drag the KLA’s reputation through the mud — ratified an Assembly resolution to defend “the merits of war,” and are calling for the ratification of a special law on the KLA.
Since becoming president, Thaci has made several attempts to reconcile with the Serbian community in Kosovo, who consider the former KLA commander responsible for the deaths of over 2,000 Kosovo Serbs and the displacement of tens of thousands.
In July 2016, Thaci made a controversial visit to Staro Gracko, a Serb-majority village in Lipjan, to commemorate the anniversary of the murders of Serb civilians killed in July 1999. He was the first Kosovo president to do so.
Both Serbs and Albanians criticized his visit. The Staro Gracko mayor told BETA Agency that “he was not welcome in our village” until the murderers were brought to justice, while Albanians criticized him for putting a wreath on a commemorative plaque that said the crimes were committed by “Albanian terrorists.” A few weeks later he visited Gorazdevac to honor two young Serbs murdered in 2003, and then in December, he honored 84 Serbs killed in Velika Hoca.
“I am convinced that I was doing the best for the country,” Thaci later said, defending his visits.
In October, Thaci’s efforts to establish his status as a peacemaker were doubled as he revealed that he had sent four letters to the State Prosecutor demanding the investigation of war crimes during and immediately after the 1998-99 war, including crimes against Serbs and assassinations of Albanian political activists.
At the same time, Thaci failed to gather the National Council for the Survivors of Wartime Sexual Violence established by President Jahjaga to internationalize the issue.
Thaci’s efforts to appease the Kosovo Serbs were in vain, as tensions mounted over the establishment of the Association and with the Serb MPs boycotting the Kosovo Assembly since October 8.
The gulf between the two communities was further cemented when in early December a wall was erected on the northern side of the Ibar bridge in Mitrovica, an affront to Prishtina, which after a 2015 agreement in Brussels was expecting the renovation and opening of the bridge for traffic. An agreement to remove the structure was reached after pressure from the EU office in Kosovo, but the bridge’s inauguration, scheduled for January, was postponed.
Relations further deteriorated in mid-January after Serbia attempted to send a train–covered in nationalist slogans and decorated with Serbian Orthodox paintings–from Belgrade to North Mitrovica. Thaci was quick to react, calling for the train to be stopped, as it was covered in slogans against the Kosovo Constitution. The train was stopped before entering Kosovo, with Serbian authorities accusing Kosovo police of planning an attack. Serbian President Nikolic warned Prishtina that any harm done to Serbs might end with an intervention.
Days later in response to Nikolic, Thaci accused Serbia of trying to carve off Kosovo’s northern part by using the Crimea model in an interview for Reuters.
Ten days after the train incident, both Nikolic and Thaci were seen shaking hands in Brussels, after a high level meeting between two countries’ presidents and PMs. Called to subside the barely veiled war rhetoric, the dinner rendezvous ended with an awkward group photo, a gag order, and little clarity whether the dialogue would move on to a presidential level.
In a further attempt to make himself indispensable to the future of Kosovo-Serbia relations, in mid-February Thaci announced that he would be initiating a commission for truth and reconciliation.
Calling a ‘consultative meeting,’ Thaci gathered politicians, religious leaders and foreign diplomats to promote the idea.
“During the war I became convinced that I will be committed to prevent those atrocities from happening again,” Thaci said to the room full of dignitaries and representatives of victims’ families. It is unclear what the timeframe and scope of work of the commission will be.
“Considering that Thaci is such a divisive and contested figure among Albanians, one can only imagine how seriously people take his desperate and absurd attempts to look like a Kosovar Nelson Mandela,” wrote Enver Robelli in Prishtina Insight on the President’s efforts.
Beqaj also does not see sincerity in this proposal.
“This initiative is a failure from the beginning because it should not have been done by ‘the victims,’ and even less so by people holding power, like him, involved in conflict and much more interested in mystifying the truth for personal reasons rather than shedding light onto it,” concluded Beqaj.