Updated at 5:54 p.m. July 19.
Kosovo's Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj abruptly resigned Friday after being summoned as a suspect before a war crimes tribunal in The Hague, a development that could lead to snap elections and affect prospects for reconciliation talks with neighboring Serbia.
Haradinaj said he was called to appear next week in court as a prime minister or private citizen and chose the latter.
"I am resigning from the position of the prime minister of the Republic of Kosovo," a visibly shaken Haradinaj said during a government meeting in Pristina. "I want to thank you for your trust and support. The reason has to do with the invitation I have received from the Specialist Chambers in The Hague, as a suspect.
"Responsibility now goes to the president to start consultations to set the date of the [general] election," he said.
'I will defend myself'
"I will offer myself to the people again to gain their trust," he said, referring to prior war crime summonses; he has twice been prosecuted and was acquitted both times. "I am not accused, but [will be] questioned."
The Hague-based court hears accusations of serious crimes committed during and immediately after the 1998-99 Kosovo war. The Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor's Office, which was added to Kosovo's constitution in 2017 to try people suspected of serious violations of international law, allows prosecutors to relocate proceedings outside the country.
Haradinaj told reporters that while the situation was politically bad for Kosovo, "I will respect the legal request. I will go there. I will defend myself as a fighter of my country."
Kosovo's President Hashim Thaçi, whose relationship with Haradinaj has been strained over differences in dealing with Serbia, expressed regret about the court summons.
"I respect his decision, and as president of the Kosovo Republic, I assure you that I will act upon my constitutional and legal authority to keep citizens of Kosovo apprised in a timely manner," Thaci said on Facebook.
In an interview with VOA Albanian, Kosovar opposition lawmaker Mimoza Kusari-Lila criticized Haradinaj for choosing to step down. Although not a supporter of Haradinaj, her statement reflected a widely held public opinion, which is shared across party lines, that war crimes courts have unfairly targeted Kosovo more than Serbia.
"Of all reasons for which Mr. Haradinaj should have resigned, and for his government to have fallen, this should have been the last to bring government change," she said.
According to Serbian media news reports, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic was, like many officials in the region, caught off guard by the announcement and plans to address the nation tomorrow on possible implications of Haradinaj's resignation.
U.S. analyst Daniel Serwer, who is in Kosovo and met with Haradinaj on Wednesday, told VOA he was surprised.
"I am quite certain he had no idea he was going to resign on Friday," he said, adding that it was the proper thing to do.
Early elections 'more likely now'
"It remains to be seen whether this will lead to early elections, which the opposition has wanted in any case, and which I guess is more likely now than it was yesterday," he said.
In addition to leaving the internal situation in limbo, the latest development creates even more uncertainty about what lies ahead in terms of a dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia that has been stalled for a long time.
There has been a renewed push from the United States and the European Union for the talks to resume, with White House national security adviser John Bolton tweeting after a meeting on Thursday with Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic that the dialogue needed to go forward.
It was a pleasure to host FM Dacic of Serbia today. We agreed that the Dialogue with Kosovo needs to move forward as neither side benefits from the status quo. The time for both sides to act is now. pic.twitter.com/GIrWhAEDsO— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) July 18, 2019
In recent interviews with VOA's Albanian and Serbian services, James Hooper, a former U.S. diplomat and executive director of the Washington-based Balkan Action Council, had described Haradinaj as an impediment to resolving Serbia's independence dispute with former province Kosovo.
"What [Haradinaj has been] asking for is for Serbia to give at the beginning of the negotiation what is supposed to be agreed on at the end," Hooper said this week. "He knows there is zero chance that Serbia will do this. That is not negotiations ... [but] just listing your maximum demands. That's an effort to block negotiations and prevent a deal."
Last year, Haradinaj imposed a 100% tax on imported Serb goods until Belgrade recognized Pristina, which has been roundly blamed for scuttling talks.
Haradinaj has since resisted entreaties from the United States and the EU to lift or suspend the tax, and his resignation does not mean the tax can be lifted soon.
"If they are going for elections — in fact, even if they are not — changing the government is clearly going to lead to further delay in the dialogue with Serbia," Serwer said.
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.
Haradinaj’s resignation was his second. In 2005 he gave up the prime minister’s post, turning himself in to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. He was acquitted of wartime crimes in 2008 because of a lack of evidence.
He was then acquitted a second time by the U.N. tribunal in November 2012.
A State Department spokesperson told VOA's Albanian Service the United States "commends Mr. Haradinaj's compliance with the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers summons for interviews."