WASHINGTON - This weekend the White House had hoped to host high-profile talks between leaders of Kosovo and Serbia, but the indictment of Kosovo’s president on war crimes charges forced officials to suspend the talks indefinitely, putting future negotiations in limbo.
On Wednesday, a Hague-based special prosecutor announced the indictment of Kosovo President Hashim Thaci and nine others on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during Kosovo's war for independence. The 10-count indictment, filed in April, has not yet been confirmed by a court.
In dramatic fashion, Thaci, who was already en route to the United States, headed home. On Friday he made his first public comments in social media since the indictment was announced, writing on Facebook, "Nobody can rewrite the history of Kosovo."
Later, upon landing in Albania and before departing for Kosovo, he wrote that he would address the nation on Sunday, adding "I am hopeful that better days are ahead for Kosovo and the Albanian people."
After Thaci canceled, Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti informed Richard Grenell, White House special envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia talks, that he would not travel to Washington.
“Due to the new developments in Pristina as a result of the indictment submitted by the Specialized Prosecutor's Office, I have to return to my country to deal with the situation. I informed Ambassador Grenell that I could not attend the June 27 meeting at the White House,” he wrote on Twitter.
Due to the new developments in Prishtina as a result of the indictment submitted by the Specialized Prosecutor's Office, I have to return to my country to deal with the situation.— Avdullah Hoti (@Avdullah) June 25, 2020
I informed Ambassador Grenell that I could not attend the June 27 meeting at the White House.
Grenell, who had been helping set up the talks, said he understood.
Thank you, Prime Minister Hoti. We understand your decision and we look forward to re-scheduling the meeting soon. https://t.co/BNOygifIyY— Richard Grenell (@RichardGrenell) June 25, 2020
Analysts said that although the timing of the indictment was surprising, it was not coincidental. Florian Bieber of the University of Graz in Austria said it appeared to be linked to the White House meeting.
“The Prosecutor’s office appears to have been worried that that visit or some other activities surrounding that visit, might have been putting a question mark over the ability to effectively indict president Thaci over the crimes he has been accused of,” he told VOA Albanian.
Bieber said he did not think the Special Prosecutor – an American – made the decision to indict in coordination with Washington, in part because the Trump administration has been supportive of Thaci’s outreach to Serbia. Now, it’s unclear when the talks might resume.
But Daniel Serwer of Johns Hopkins University said the special prosecutor would certainly want to give the administration a heads-up in advance of a dramatic move of this sort.
“Prosecutors don’t usually announce indictments before they are confirmed (by a court). This is unusual.”
In the announcement, the special prosecutor’s office said “the Indictment is only an accusation. It is the result of a lengthy investigation and reflects the SPO’s determination that it can prove all of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. A KSC Pre-Trial Judge is currently reviewing the indictment to decide on whether to confirm the charges.”
Grenell tweeted that he understood the decisions first by Thaci and then by Hoti to cancel the visit. The White House did not respond to a VOA query on whether they knew beforehand about the indictment.
A State Department spokesperson told VOA Albanian that “the United States believes the filing of the indictment announced by the independent Specialist Prosecutor’s Office is a step forward in the justice and reconciliation process in the Western Balkans.”
Campaign to obstruct?
The Special Prosecutor’s Office said Thaci and the nine other suspects were “criminally responsible for nearly 100 murders” along with forced disappearances, torture and persecution of hundreds of others including Kosovo Albanians, Serbs and Roma.” Former parliament speaker Kadri Veseli was also indicted.
Prosecutors said they determined it was necessary to issue the public notice of charges because of repeated efforts by Thaci and Veseli “to obstruct and undermine the work” of the office.
Serwer said Americans understand Thaci had been trying to prevent the indictment. Bieber said it had always been anticipated that the Specialist Chambers (as the office of the special prosecutor is called) would go after serious cases involving high-level officials.
“Everybody suspected at least Hashim Thaci was a prime candidate to be indicted and that he is also one person who has a great interest in preventing this indictment,” he said.
The accusations stem from the time when Thaci was a commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, a guerrilla movement fighting for independence from Serbia. More than 10,000 people – mostly ethnic Albanians – died, and 1,641 are still unaccounted for.
Serbia does not recognize Kosovo's independence that it declared in 2008 following a NATO campaign to stop ethnic cleansing from Serbia's forces in 1999.
Special Envoy Grenell says the meeting will be rescheduled. But Prime Minister Hoti, with a one-seat lead in parliament, has a weaker negotiating position than Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vucic, who celebrated an election win just last week.
Bieber said the cancellation by Hoti is no surprise.
“It would have been a very unbalanced meeting between a strong president and a very weak PM in terms of support in parliament. It throws the overall U.S.-led process in doubt, as it will depend on whether Thaci will remain president and if not, who would replace him,” he said.
Serwer said Hoti’s cancellation is understandable, saying Kosovo is young country with weak institutions that suddenly faces “a gigantic challenge.”
“But I would expect Grenell to try again. He wants to deliver a reason for a Rose Garden ceremony, for his own sake and for Trump’s,” Serwer said, echoing those who have said that the high-profile U.S. engagement is an effort to secure a foreign policy win for the administration before the November election.
Grenell wrote Thursday on Twitter that "our approach has always been to concentrate on jobs and the economy. We never believed this would be a quick win."
Lots of errors in this piece. And no wonder....the reporter never spoke to me.— Richard Grenell (@RichardGrenell) June 25, 2020
-our approach has always been to concentrate on jobs and the economy.
-we never believed this would be a quick win (a constant media narrative that is totally wrong and without any facts) https://t.co/DAaQPv22py
In his first comments after the news, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Friday in Brussels that Serbia "must show restraint" and that Belgrade has been very “cautious” in reacting to avoid fueling tensions.
"I have no problem to talk to whomever else or having one of our people talk to whomever else," he said.
VOA White House Correspondent Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.