Kosovo’s Thaci Aspires to Statesmanship, but Guerrilla Past Haunts Him

WHEN Hashim Thaci directed a bloody guerrilla war from the mountains of this poor and rugged country, he was so adept at evading capture that fellow fighters called him the Snake.

(Dan Bilefsky, The new york times) Saturday, July 13, 2013

Now, Mr. Thaci, 45, the former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army and the current prime minister of Kosovo, wants to be remembered as a statesman. In June he agreed to put in place a landmark power-sharing agreement with Serbia that is being hailed in Europe and the United States as a triumph of peace and reconciliation in the region after the Balkan wars of the 1990s, in which about 120,000 people died, more than 10,000 of them in Kosovo. But in Serbia, he remains a deeply reviled figure, a complication that underlines the challenges to overcoming ethnic enmities in a region where memories run deep. Former K.L.A. commanders and Western diplomats say he was a ruthless and much-feared leader during the 1998-99 Kosovo war, who ordered arrests, assassinations and purges within the rebel army's ranks to fend off potential rivals. Mr. Thaci has strongly denied this. "Most people in Serbia consider Thaci to be an unindicted war criminal who personifies the double standard of the victor's justice," said Ljiljana Smajlovic, a prominent Serbian commentator who is president of the Serbian Journalists' Association. "He now wants to forget his past and go by the book, and he is no doubt sincere in that pursuit. But every warlord in the former Yugoslavia reinvents himself as a liberal democrat." Yet the past keeps coming back to haunt him. In 2010, a Council of Europe report accused Mr. Thaci of having led a "mafialike" group that smuggled weapons, heroin and human organs during the war and its aftermath. Mr. Thaci has rejected those accusations as well, and the Kosovo government at the time called them "despicable." In August 2011, the European Union set up a special task force to investigate the veracity of organ-trafficking claims, including whether or not Mr. Thaci was involved. It has not yet delivered its findings.Asked about the accusations, including that Kosovar Albanians kidnapped Serbs during the war and harvested their kidneys at a secret "yellow house" in Albania, Mr. Thaci transformed his grin into a grimace."Something like that never happened; we have nothing to hide," he said. "The earlier the issue is clear, the better it is for Kosovo. It is really a very heavy burden for us, and we believe in truth and justice." After the war, he has been credited with demilitarizing the rebel army, though thousands of Serbs were nevertheless forced to flee from revenge attacks. He founded the Democratic Party of Kosovo, or P.D.K., which was made up largely of former guerrillas. After the party lost two consecutive elections an unexpected blow he overhauled its nationalist fighter image, preaching closer ties with the West.Although he has been widely credited with shepherding Kosovo toward independence . Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has called him the "George Washington of Kosovo" . His government has also faced repeated accusations of rampant corruption. In May, he suffered another blow when a European Union court here ordered the arrest of seven former K.L.A. commanders accused of war crimes, including two former close aides.Mr. Thaci insists that he and his fellow soldiers were freedom fighters. He quoted the lyrics of a favorite Sting song he said he had listened to as a young guerrilla leader.