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Kosovo on a knife-edge

By Michael O'Reilly - posted Thursday, 23 December 2004

Certain sections of the international media have been convulsed in recent days over the election of Ramush Haradinaj, a former KLA commander, as Prime Minister of Kosovo. Perhaps one should not be too surprised given that the Hague Tribunal has recently questioned Haradinaj about events alleged to have occurred under his command in 1998 and 1999.

On the face of it, Mr Haradinaj would not seem to be the ideal choice of leader at a time when Kosovo is heading into talks to determine its final “status”. As often happens, however, things are not quite what they seem.

Talks on the final status of Kosovo  will begin in earnest in 2005. Belgrade knows that Kosovo is lost, but its symbolic importance is still a huge factor in internal Serbian politics, where nationalist tendencies are once again on the rise. The fact that Prime Minister Kostunica opposed Milosevic does not mean that he is anything other than an unreconstructed Serbian nationalist. The moderate wing of Serbian politics represented by President Tadic is proving unable to stand up to the lethal coalition of nationalism and organised crime that has bedeviled Serbia since the tragic assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in March of last year.


It is against this background that Belgrade has operated a campaign of vilification against Ramush Haradinaj and other former KLA figures who now play a leading role in democratic politics in Kosovo. Haradinaj, in particular has long been the object of their attentions: He is widely known to have been an outstanding military strategist who inflicted very serious casualties on the Serb military and paramilitary machine.

To those who actually know him, as opposed to reading about him in the international press, Haradinaj is a highly intelligent and personable man, an instinctive democrat and a skilled politician. As well as his native Albanian he speaks fluent Serbian, English and French. Since the war he has completed a law degree, played a leading role in the transition of the KLA into a civilian controlled force, formed a political party and has now, at the age of 36, become Prime Minister and thus the person chosen by the democratic process to lead Kosovo into independent statehood.

Even the most prejudiced cannot ignore the fact that Haradinaj’s government received 72 of the 100 Assembly votes in Pristina on December 3, 2004 with just 3 opposing. He had the unanimous support of the party of President Ibrahim Rugova, the leader of the peaceful resistance to Milosevic and Kosovo’s most popular politician in the West. One of the first to offer congratulations after the Assembly vote was a leading Kosovar Serb member of the Assembly.

This is the crux of the issue. Haradinaj is very probably the only Kosovo politician who can unite the various political strands of the majority Albanian population, but who has also earned the respect and trust of many Kosovar Serbs. He is therefore a major threat to Belgrade’s influence over Kosovar Serbs and thus the greatest threat to Belgrade’s unhealthy interests in the southern Balkans.

Coincidentally, the international community on the ground in Kosovo (as opposed to those sitting behind desks in Brussels and Washington) regards Haradinaj as the best hope for kick-starting the economy, rebuilding inter-ethnic relations and creating functioning institutions of State. The appalling vista facing Belgrade is that this will become the official view in western political circles before long; and then Kosovo is truly “lost” along with Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia and Macedonia.

The future of Montenegro, where a majority already favours independence, would then come very sharply into focus. The province of Vojvodina, deep within Serbia itself, could well be next. The moral disintegration of Belgrade politics has been inexorably and inevitably followed by political disintegration.


Many political observers believe that it is this combination of western anxieties about instability within Serbia and Belgrade’s long-running vendetta that lie behind the Hague’s recent interest in Ramush Haradinaj. All of the allegations against him have been in the public domain, and repeated ad nauseum by Belgrade and its allies, for years, yet the investigation by the Hague began only in September - a month before the Kosovo elections.

Observers also point out that on the very day that he was summoned to answer questions, November 3, the Hague’s chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte was boasting in a speech to the NATO Council that she would indict former KLA figures before the end of the year. There are few in Kosovo who do not believe that this was a warning shot by the international community against the election of Haradinaj as Prime Minister. There are even fewer who believe that an indictment of Ramush Haradinaj would not utterly destroy the significant political and security achievements of the past five years.

Five years after the end of the war, Kosovo is once again on a knife-edge. This time, an international community that refuses to allow democracy to take root, unless it controls the outcomes, has caused the crisis. It is a deeply worrying sign of our times.

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About the Author

Michael O'Reilly is a lawyer and political consultant. He was an advisor to former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton and has been a regular visitor to Kosovo in recent years as a consultant for the Washington DC based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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