Perspectives | Politics

The Kosovo Specialist Chambers reflect Kosovo’s relationship with the West

By - 21.06.2024

A dispatch from the trial of Thaçi, Veseli, Selimi and Krasniqi.

In August 2002 I attended the trial of Slobodan Milošević at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. In early June 2024, I visited The Hague again, this time to observe the trial of former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) members Hashim Thaçi, Kadri Veseli, Rexhep Selimi and Jakup Krasniqi at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers (KSC). All are charged with six counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of war crimes; the indictment also alleges that the four were members of a “joint criminal enterprise.” The trial, and the court itself, are a stark illustration of how Kosovo’s importance to the West has declined. 

An alien court 

The KSC has largely slipped from the headlines. There have been the occasional moments of societal anger in Kosovo, but the proceedings now largely play out in the background. At time of publishing, the KSC’s YouTube channel has just 571 subscribers and most of the uploaded videos have only a couple of dozen views. Given the trials’ importance, this is remarkable. The nature of these proceedings no doubt accounts for the public apathy. 

Depictions of trials on film and television are far from the reality; rather than the moments of high tension, sharp exchanges and gasp-inducing revelations, the KSC’s proceedings grind along at a glacially slow pace. This is due in large part to the fact that legal proceedings are orientated towards forensically examining the minutia of each testimony, but also because in this court, each question to the witness has to be translated, then the witness answers and this too is translated. A number of times, in fact, the head judge asks the witness to slow down so that the translators can keep up. The majority of the questions posed relate to mundane details; by the time we get to anything of note, hours have gone by. 

There is something almost otherworldly about the courtroom; the judges, prosecution and defense team all wear floor-length gowns that give them the appearance of an order of monks. The four judges — from the U.S., Switzerland, Germany and the Republic of Ireland — peer down from a raised platform like some alien race of higher beings from Star Wars. 

The viewing gallery inside the courthouse is generally empty but occasionally a group of law students bustle in; they enthusiastically take notes as the prosecution and defense lawyers speak, and whisper to each other when the judges intervene. They are here to study the judicial processes and listen to debates about legal intricacies; for them, the trial is a spectacle, an evolving case study, a chapter in their dissertation. The accused are but peripheral characters. Kosovo is some supposedly war-torn place in Eastern Europe they will likely never visit. 

Why did I agree to this?

How degrading it must be for Thaçi to be displayed like this in front of the public gallery — and those watching the live streaming — as the prosecution strives to present him as a war criminal and the KLA as a “joint criminal enterprise.” In the courtroom the skills that made him a rebel leader, a prime minister and a president are impotent; his gravitas, his ability to make quick decisions, his Machiavellian politicking, all are useless here. The courtroom is not the natural habitat for “The Snake.”

As I watch Thaçi fiddle with his pink highlighter pen, shift uneasily in his chair and occasionally sigh forlornly, I wonder if he thinks back to the days when he was feted by world leaders, to when then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden described him as “Kosovo’s George Washington” at a White House reception. But I also wonder whether he must sit here and think, “why did I agree to this?” For surely one of the most remarkable aspects of this most unusual judicial institution is that Thaçi campaigned for the establishment of the court where he is now on trial. 

Creating the ‘Special Court’

Establishing the court — which is based on Kosovo’s laws but also located abroad and staffed by foreign judges — necessitated changing Kosovo’s constitution. This had to be approved by the Kosovo Assembly; thus, we witnessed the curious spectacle of Thaçi convincing the Kosovo Assembly to establish a court to try the KLA, who are regarded as national heroes by the majority of people in Kosovo. While the court is in legal terms a Kosovo court based on Kosovo’s laws, it is in every meaningful respect a foreign court presiding over an issue of profound sensitivity for the people of Kosovo. As such, though there is a general lack of interest in the proceedings, there will be huge public interest in the final judgements. 

Though it is fair to say without his support the court would not have been created, Thaçi also described it as “the biggest injustice and insult which could be done to Kosovo and its people.” Clearly, he didn’t want to create the court; he had to. Indeed, he admitted this when later stating that he only supported the creation of the court because he was “under great pressure from the international community.” 

We can safely assume that by “international community” he meant Western states, and the U.S. in particular. Those states were certainly very vocal in calling for the establishment of the court and later when there was an attempt by the Kosovo Assembly to revoke the court, the Quint — France, Germany, Italy, the U.K. and the U.S. — issued an unusually blunt threat noting that Kosovo would face “severe negative consequences” if it did so as this would be seen as “rejecting Kosovo’s partnership with our countries.” 

Allegations that the KLA committed war crimes have been investigated by the ICTY, the UNMIK courts, the EULEX courts, Kosovo’s national court system and Serbian courts. The KSC is therefore the sixth court to investigate the KLA. This is highly unusual; what is it about the alleged crimes committed by the KLA that warrants such repeated investigation? The simplest answer is that victims seek justice and perpetrators remain at large. But does anyone really believe that this court was established because of a singular desire for justice?

Only the most naïve could imagine that legal proceedings somehow levitate above human affairs unsullied by interests and power. The KSC is an obvious manifestation of this; the court need not have been created. It only exists because certain actors — primarily Kosovo’s erstwhile Western allies and the U.S. in particular — wanted it. But why? The answer is increasingly obvious; this court was established because the West wanted to appease Serbia. 

Appeasing Serbia

Western power has been in decline since at least 2008, when the Russian invasion of Georgia and the global financial crisis heralded the start of a new world order. In adjusting to the new multi-polar world order, the West recalibrated its foreign policy commitments in a bid to consolidate rather than expand its sphere of influence as had previously been attempted. This recalibration has meant that certain hitherto allies such as the Kurds and most spectacularly the Afghans have been abandoned. 

Kosovo too has suffered from this policy change; as has become so evident in the last twelve months, the West now clearly favors Serbia over Kosovo. Over a decade ago, a calculation was evidently made that in the multi-polar era, pulling Serbia towards the West and away from Russia was essential. Thus, Serbia’s new rulers were widely lauded as they consolidated power; Western leaders cheerily posed with Vučić and celebrated his electoral victories

This is why Kosovo has been sanctioned by the EU but Serbia — which sponsored an armed assault against the Kosovo Police that killed one officer — has not. This is why Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti has been subjected to sustained criticism for allegedly scuppering the “Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue” while Vučić can gloat about never intending to sign the Ohrid agreement without censure. This is why, despite the growing authoritarianism, the curtailing of media freedom, and the links between the government in Serbia and criminal gangs, the U.S. Ambassador to Serbia cheerfully took part in a Serbian government public relations campaign, declaring “Serbia is headed towards the West!” and stated in March this year, “Serbia is much closer to NATO than Kosovo.” It is clear that principles have been abandoned and the previous alliance with Kosovo is now of lesser importance than a future alliance with Serbia.

The current one-sided approach has many obvious progenitors; the signing of the original ASM deal in 2013; the border deal with Montenegro in 2015; the proposed land swap. All involved Kosovo making concessions for the benefit of others. The creation of the KSC has to be seen in this light. It was created because the government of Serbia asked for it. 

The coming damage

Thus, the KSC should be seen for what it is; it was not created to pursue justice or truth, nor was it motivated by a desire to promote “reconciliation” between Serbs and Albanians. It was created because key Western actors wanted to please the Serbian nationalists now in power in Belgrade. The KSC has already tarnished Kosovo’s international reputation, and should Thaçi, Selimi, Veseli and Krasniqi be found guilty — as is essentially inevitable — the damage to Kosovo will be enormous. 

The authoritarian neo-Milošević government that has ruled Serbia since 2012 want to see the KLA publicly vilified as criminals and its leaders found guilty of murder and torture. Thaçi read out Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008; Krasniqi collected the votes in favor of independence in the Kosovo Assembly. Finding these two figures guilty of war crimes will be a public relations bonanza for the nationalists in Serbia. The Vučić regime will naturally use these proceedings and verdicts to tarnish not just the individuals and the KLA; Kosovo itself will be portrayed as an illegal entity forged by “terrorists” and “murderers.” This will do great damage to Kosovo’s ongoing attempts to consolidate its international status. For this reason alone, the KSC should be afforded significantly more attention by the people of Kosovo. 

How Thaçi fell into this trap is a matter of contention and rumor; what exactly was the nature of the pressure he was under? What threats were issued? Was he secretly promised immunity by Western diplomats and later betrayed? Conspiracy theories abound. But either way, he is now caught, and Kosovo is likely to pay a dear price.  


Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0

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  • 24 Jun 2024 - 14:37 | Robert Bosch:

    Perfect analyses. I was co guilty defending the establishment of the court and telling Thani: if serious court you will be out soon because of lack of evidence ‘. I was wrong it is turned out to be a very unserious court and what is surprising that nobody in Europe seems to care.