PRISTINA, Kosovo—A former soldier whose nom de guerre was “The Snake,” Kosovar President Hashim Thaçi demonstrates both the easygoing demeanor characteristic of a combat veteran and the polished charisma of a politician as he explains how he has put old animosities aside for the sake of his country’s future.
“I want to achieve lasting peace with an old enemy,” Thaçi tells The Daily Signal during a recent interview at his offices in Kosovo’s capital city of Pristina. “I want to avoid more tragedies. I want to make peace for the benefit of future generations.”
Thaçi, 50, folds his hands on the tabletop as he waits for the interpreter to finish. Then, with a more somber tone—understandable in any language—and a head nod for emphasis, the Kosovar president continues.
“But honestly, every time I sit down with [Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic], all these memories, emotions come back into my mind,” Thaçi says. “I was, myself, convicted by the same regime that Vucic belonged to. But should we remain hostages of these past hatreds and animosities?”
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and is Europe’s newest country.
However, Kosovo’s leaders acknowledge that ongoing diplomatic skirmishes with Serbia have siphoned away time and energy from much-needed domestic economic reforms, underscoring how the legacy of the war still shapes political priorities.
Despite billions of dollars in international aid, Kosovo has the third-lowest gross domestic product per capita on the continent. And with an unemployment rate of around 30 percent and youth unemployment at roughly 55 percent, tens of thousands of Kosovars have moved abroad in search of work during the past decade.
“I’m proud of independence, but people are not happy with the postwar status,” says Arben Krasniqi, 24, who works at a café in downtown Pristina.
“Why should Kosovo have so many economic problems when we have the help of so many countries?” says Krasniqi, adding that he’s already applied for a German working visa.
A NATO air war in 1999 stopped Serbia’s ethnic cleansing campaign against Kosovo’s majority ethnic Albanian civilians. After the war ended in June 1999, a special United Nations mission administered Kosovo.
A NATO peacekeeping operation called Kosovo Force, or KFOR, remains in Kosovo today. It comprises 4,000 troops from 28 countries, including 685 Americans.
“America and NATO stopped the genocide here and made Kosovo free,” Enver Hoxhaj, Kosovo’s deputy prime minister, tells The Daily Signal in an interview.
“We are an independent state, and we will forever exist as an independent state, but the question is how to build normal relations with our neighbor in the north,” Hoxhaj adds, referring to Serbia.
Kosovo’s current generation of politicians generally came of age and rose to power during the war, when NATO’s military intervention spared Kosovo from catastrophe.
For them, consequently, the recruitment and maintenance of international support remains an existential priority. And when it comes to contemporary relations with Serbia, diplomacy is key.
“We would like to open a new chapter of cooperation between the two nations, and as a small democratic state, we think that dialogue is the only instrument,” Hoxhaj says.
However, some 20 years after the war ended and 11 years after independence, Kosovo’s relationship with Serbia remains at loggerheads.
For one thing, Serbia still doesn’t recognize Kosovo as an independent country, despite the fact that more than 110 countries have done so and the International Court of Justice ruled in favor of Kosovo’s independence in 2010.
Serbia also actively campaigned to block Kosovo’s admittance to international organizations such as Interpol, as well as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). For its part, Russia, Serbia’s traditional ally, has threatened to exercise its veto power on the United Nations Security Council to block Kosovo’s prospective bid to join the U.N.
“Today we have a status quo, which for me is not really a status quo. It means Kosovo is actually regressing,” Thaçi says. “We have a frozen conflict that poses threats for renewed conflicts and tragedies.”
In order to refocus attention on domestic economic reforms, Thaçi and his allies in government want to end the diplomatic deadlock in 2019—even if that means making unpopular compromises with Serbia for the sake of securing recognition as an independent country.
“I’m ready to face any accusations, any attacks, in order to achieve this peace,” Thaçi says. “If we make peace with Serbia … I see an opportunity for the transformation of Kosovo’s society.”
Several advisers flank Thaçi during his Feb. 14 interview with this correspondent. The Kosovar president speaks, for the most part, through an interpreter, although he interjects a sentence or two in English from time to time.
Thaçi has just emerged from marathon meetings with his own government regarding negotiations with Serbia for recognition of Kosovo’s independence.
“This is the year of the agreement between Kosovo and Serbia,” Thaçi says confidently. “We are already late; the right time was yesterday. Because the more we postpone this, the more we create the conditions for new tragedies, for new conflicts.”
Handsome, trim, with clean-cut salt-and-pepper hair and a charismatic demeanor, Thaçi is a natural politician.
During Pristina’s Independence Day celebrations Feb. 17, he mingles in the crowds, shakes hands, listens to children’s songs. He seems to be in his element—and his eagerness to interact with the masses leaves his retinue of bodyguards visibly uneasy.
During the war, Thaçi led the political directorate of the Kosovo Liberation Army. His wartime exploits spanned the gamut from gunrunning treks over mountain passes into Albania to hashing out peace plans with international leaders in the gilded halls of Europe.
Thaçi’s prominence in the Kosovo Liberation Army earned him Serbia’s ire. He has survived assassination attempts. In 1997, the Serbian government sentenced Thaçi to 10 years in prison—a sentence he never served.
Of all the lessons he learned in the war, Thaçi says, the most important was his education in the value of international support, even if it comes at the cost of tough domestic compromises.
“I had no illusion that we would be able to force Serbia to leave Kosovo, using those ancient weapons that we possessed,” Thaçi says, incredulously shaking his head. “I knew that I could not move mountains with my bare hands. But what I knew was that our actions will attract the attention of the international community.”
Building a Society
In the postwar decades, Thaçi—who previously served as Kosovo’s prime minister—has faced sometimes withering domestic criticism for his efforts at dialogue with Serbia. However, Thaçi and his allies in government say diplomacy with their former wartime adversary is the only option to break the cycle of violence.
“It’s not easy for me to be attacked on a daily basis about why I’m negotiating with Serbia,” Thaçi says. “But new generations will know about the war from history books. We cannot hold them hostage to the narratives of the war.”
Thaçi, too, lost friends and family in the war. He acknowledges that the war’s toll casts a long shadow over his own life, and it can be a challenge to put the past to rest:
This is, of course, at the personal, emotional level for me. Because my son, for example, in his phone he keeps a picture of his uncle who was killed in the war. So I face this on a daily basis. But I’m convinced that looking beyond my personal emotions, this is the most right, just, and strategic decision for Kosovo. And I’m convinced the future will prove me right.
Hoxhaj, Kosovo’s deputy prime minister, shares Thaçi’s assessment about the wisdom of dialogue with Serbia. For him, a durable peace would clear the way for Kosovo’s democratic society to flourish.
“Not staying in the status quo, this is how you always get the support and trust of the people, if they have a sense that things are moving forward,” Hoxhaj says. “The goal—why we would like to close the chapter on 100 years of conflict with Serbia—is to move Kosovo from state-building to society-building.”
Hoxhaj got his start as a leader in Kosovo’s underground resistance to Serbian rule as a university student during the 1990s. With a doctorate in history to his name, Hoxhaj went on to serve as Kosovo’s minister of foreign affairs and assumed the office of deputy prime minister in 2017.
“We’ve built peace here from scratch,” Hoxhaj says. “And in the last 10 years, we’ve created a state from scratch.”
As with Thaçi, the ongoing dialogue with Serbia consumes Hoxhaj’s daily schedule. However, he finds time at the end of a busy workday to speak with this correspondent, which he does without the aid of an interpreter.
The deputy prime minister possesses the consummate communication skills of a seasoned diplomat—he’s both engaging and purposeful with his words. Yet he goes beyond rehearsed policy talking points.
Hoxhaj, 50, explains that one of the formative experiences of his life was backpacking across Europe as a university student. He remembers the dynamism of Europe at that time, during the closing years of the Cold War, and he draws parallels to the current climate in Kosovo.
Today, Hoxhaj has a son, 17, and a daughter, 13. He says his children “don’t have the same clichés and the same legacy in thinking as me because I spent half of my life in former Yugoslavia, and then the other half of my life so far in transition from war to peace.”
“We’ve always had a strong culture of hope here,” Hoxhaj adds. “And, in my view, we are not the same society in 2019 as we were in 1999.”
One bright spot in the historically contentious relationship between Serbia and Kosovo is the current frequency with which the leaders of those two countries engage each other.
And not just at the presidential level. Behind the scenes, too, scores of diplomats and other officials regularly conduct panels and negotiations, hashing out the framework for a comprehensive deal by which Serbia would recognize Kosovo’s independence.
Kosovo and Serbia have painstakingly built a habit of diplomatic dialogue. This is a key step, many experts and officials say, toward reducing the risk of another war.
“The best thing to do is to sit down and talk. That’s better than hostile actions. As long as we’re sitting at the same table, that’s a good sign,” Thaçi says. “But there are also voices, both in Pristina and in Belgrade, that still want war.”
Kosovo has floated the idea of negotiated “border corrections” with Serbia. The hypothetical move would swap an ethnically Serb-majority enclave in Kosovo’s north for a swath of Serbian land on Kosovo’s southeastern frontier, which is predominantly inhabited by ethnic Albanians.
Thaçi says any potential adjustments to the currently recognized borders would not be a land swap, per se. Rather, the move would be a final agreement on where Kosovo’s borders exist.
“This is in no way an exchange of territories,” Thaçi explains. “Historically, Kosovo never actually decided where its borders are.”
President Donald Trump’s administration has suggested it is open to border corrections. European leaders, however, generally oppose the idea, arguing it could open a Pandora’s box of territorial grievances worldwide—particularly in the Balkans, a region that remains a tinderbox of ethnic conflicts.
Although Thaçi says border corrections have “never been on the table,” he cautions that Kosovo needs to “reach a border consensus with Serbia” for the sake of a long-lasting peace.
“Recognition of Kosovo by Serbia will not come as a present,” Thaçi says. “It has to be an agreement that balances the interests of both countries.”
Points of Friction
Despite all the dialogue, Kosovo and Serbia remain locked in a diplomatic tit-for-tat, which threatens to derail the two countries’ fragile relations.
After Serbia campaigned to block Kosovo’s request to join Interpol in November, Pristina retaliated with a 100 percent tariff on imports from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The move sparked protests from Belgrade as well as condemnations from Brussels and Washington.
For their part, Kosovar officials downplay the tariffs and reaffirm their overall commitment to diplomacy.
“Tariffs are just a mechanism to balance, but our policy toward Serbia is dialogue,” Hoxhaj says. “It’s a kind of chess match we’re playing.”
Pristina’s decision late last year to establish its own army drew a rebuke from Moscow. Serbian leaders went so far as to threaten the possibility of an armed intervention in Kosovo. Reaction from the West was split. The U.S. praised the move, while NATO’s head official called it “ill-timed.”
“Having an army is Kosovo’s sovereign right as an independent state,” Thaçi says. “It’s a done deal.”
Kosovo’s army, called the Kosovo Security Force, comprises 5,000 active-duty troops and 3,000 reservists. In comparison, Serbia’s army comprises roughly 40,000 active-duty troops and 50,000 reservists.
“Having an army that might protect us in the future is important for the people here,” Hoxhaj says. “Security is not only physical, it’s also emotional. It’s a perception.”
U.N. membership requires approval by the Security Council, on which Russia holds one of five permanent seats wielding veto power. If approved, Kosovo’s application for membership would move to the U.N. General Assembly, where an affirmative vote by two-thirds of member states is needed for final approval.
However, due to the threat of a Russian veto at the Security Council, Kosovo has not yet applied for U.N. membership.
“So far, Serbia has opposed our independence, but Serbia is just a member state of the United Nations,” Hoxhaj says. “But Russia, on behalf of Serbia, has threatened us to use the veto whenever we might apply for admission.”
Yet, there could be a way to break the impasse. Thaçi says he believes Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence would spur Russia to drop its opposition to Kosovo’s membership in the United Nations.
“Now we have a leadership in Serbia that is willing to sit at a table and discuss a final agreement between Kosovo and Serbia,” Thaçi says. “What is different now is that we have very encouraging signs from Moscow that Russia is ready to accept an agreement between Kosovo and Serbia.”
In a short meeting in Paris last November, Thaçi says, Russian President Vladimir Putin assured him that Moscow wouldn’t stand in the way if Serbia decided to recognize Kosovo.
I asked [Putin] very directly, ‘How will you and Russia react if Kosovo and Serbia reach an agreement?’ And his reply was that, ‘We will accept that agreement.’ My second question was, ‘What will be your reaction in the Security Council in case the agreement is reached?’ And again, his reply was, ‘We will accept it since we cannot be greater Serbs than the Serbs themselves.’
Thaçi acknowledges that Putin’s opinion on the matter could change, but the meeting in Paris left him hopeful, and determined, for a breakthrough this year.
“If Serbia accepts an agreement with Kosovo, I don’t think that Russia would go as far as to refuse the will of the two states,” Thaçi says.
Russia has not recognized Kosovo’s independence, but it maintains a liaison office in Pristina.
Kosovo has made some measurable progress since independence.
According to the World Bank, Kosovo’s gross domestic product grew by 4.2 percent in 2018. And that number is projected to grow by 4.5 percent in 2019—a significant improvement from 1 percent annual GDP growth in 2007, the year prior to independence.
Kosovar officials also point to key reforms in education and health care as other positive steps.
“There’s no denying that Kosovo has made progress,” Thaçi says. “But, again, this is not sufficient. This is not enough.”
Within a territory about the size of Delaware, Kosovo’s population of about 1.8 million is the youngest in Europe, with 53 percent under the age of 25. The war, therefore, is not a living memory for roughly half the country.
Unlike the older, war-hardened generations, whose gratitude for peace tempers the urgency of their economic expectations, Kosovo’s younger generations regard postwar progress as too slow. They aren’t satisfied with peace—they want prosperity, too.
“I’m happy, but not so much,” says Florentina Llapashtica, 19, a university student in Pristina studying to be a general nurse. “I’m happy because we’ve made some decent progress, but we don’t have the right economic conditions yet. Especially for students.”
When asked what she wants the most, Llapashtica replies: “I want a better future.”