Kosovo lawmakers voted Wednesday to create a special tribunal, which will be tasked with trying ethnic Albanian guerilla fighters charged with war crimes committed during, or shortly after, the 1998-99 war. The vote comes three years after a 2011 Council of Europe report made chilling allegations that the Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army was responsible for abductions, summary executions, and even the trafficking of organs harvested from some 500 murdered prisoners, mostly ethnic Serbs or Roma.
The news will be welcomed by much of the international community, namely the European Union and the United States, both of which pressured Pristina to create such a tribunal. Yet, Wednesday’s vote was met tepidly in Kosovo’s highest quarters. Prime Minister Hashim Thaci called the court’s establishment the “biggest humiliation and injustice” for Kosovo. Thaci’s discomfort makes sense; the premier is named in the damning 2011 report, alongside other senior members of the ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo, as leaders of guerilla troops accused of war crimes.
Nonetheless, the prime minister looks to be endorsing the tribunal — albeit halfheartedly, noting that a special Kosovo tribunal is a better option than a U.N.-backed court that would be outside of Pristina’s jurisdiction. (In fact, the court will have two seats, one in Kosovo and a second, which will handle protected witnesses, in an as yet to be determined country.) There is a second pressing reason for Thaci and company to get behind the court, which was succinctly expressed by U.S. ambassador to Kosovo Tracey Ann Jacobson in early April. Jacobson warned that failure to establish the tribunal could be “potentially very damaging for Kosovo’s credibility” and enable those eager to question the legitimacy of the breakaway province’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia.
Indeed, by playing nice with Brussels now and establishing the special war crimes court, Pristina could boost its international standing, not to mention gain a valuable playing card in future European integration talks. (Kosovo and longtime foe Serbia are both eyeing eventual E.U. statehood, which is conditional on their normalized relations.)
True, rumblings of unrest are already apparent in Kosovo, where rebel war leaders are commonly regarded as heroes, Thaci included. (Kosovo’s war veterans association has called the vote “unacceptable.”) And more may be on the horizon once the tribunal’s investigation gets underway, led by U.S. prosecutor John Clint Williamson on behalf of the E.U. Analysts warn that any high-profile convictions could make even greater waves in Kosovo. Yet, as evidenced by Thaci’s tepid ensorsement, being in Brussels’ good graces looks to outweigh the risk of turbulence at home — until, that is, the premier himself gets called in by the special court.