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The Response of the Kosovar Leadership to the Violence

The March 2004 violence initially took the Kosovar political leadership by surprise, and few ethnic Albanian politicians initially grasped just how severe the attacks on minority communities were. In the initial period, many ethnic Albanian politicians vacillated between attempting to gain politically from the violence and calling on the population to calm down. Caught up with their own political frustrations—the lack of progress with the resolution of Kosovo’s final status, their fight against Serbian “parallel institutions,” and their demand for more governing powers—many politicians initially issued statements that may have helped legitimize the violence in the eyes of many Albanians.

On the first day of the violence, the Kosovo Parliamentary Assembly (the province’s parliament, and part of the PISG) suspended its work. The Assembly took no action to stop or contain the violence but instead issued a public statement that blamed the international community and the Serbs for the violence: “The Kosovo Assembly voices its disagreement with the lack of commitment by UNMIK to provide security for all Kosovar citizens. The tolerance for Serb parallel structures and criminal gangs that murder Kosovar citizens is a wrong policy that will destabilize Kosovo.”164  The speaker of the Parliamentary Assembly, Nexhat Daci, “speaking on behalf of parliament,” described the injured and killed Albanians from the fighting on March 17 as “people [who] died fighting for democracy and freedom.”165

The Kosovo Democratic Party (PDK)—whose leader, former KLA commander Hashim Thaci, was on a visit to the United States at the time of the attacks— issued an equally strong anti-Serb statement:

Serbs are misusing the Albanians’ goodwill to create an equal society for all. They don’t want to integrate in Kosovar society. Proof of this is yesterday’s [children’s drowning] and today’s [Mitrovica violence] events. Their will has remained in the previous five years only for violence against Albanians. This can no longer be tolerated.166

Many of the statements issued by the ethnic Albanian leadership steadfastly refused to condemn the violence or even mention the fact that Serbs had been a primary target. The response of Kosovo’s President Ibrahim Rugova was particularly weak. Rugova repeatedly failed to condemn attacks against Serbs and other minorities, restricting himself to passive and pro-forma statements of concern rather than taking an active role in stopping the violence. During his March 18 appeal for calm, for example, Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova expressed his “deepest regret” for the wounding of UNMIK police officer and KFOR soldiers, but made no mention of Serb victims.167  During another statement on March 19, Rugova condemned the violence against the international presence, and again failed to mention the violence against Serbs.168

On March 18, a joint statement was issued in the name of UNMIK head Harri Holkeri, NATO Admiral Gregory Johnson, the representatives of the Quint,169 Kosovo President Rugova, Kosovo Prime Minister Rexhepi, Kosovo Assembly Speaker Nexhat Daci, Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) chairperson Rramush Haradinaj,170 and the KFOR commander General Kammerhoff. The statement, which did not refer to attacks against Serbs, read:

There is no excuse for violence and it must stop immediately. Those who are engaging in violence are betraying all the people of Kosovo. The progress of the last few years is in jeopardy and with it prospects for a better future for everyone. We, the leaders of Kosovo, unite in denouncing those who practice violence. Now is the time for calm.171

Even this statement was too strong for some Kosovo politicians: reportedly, Jakup Krasniqi, the minister of Public Services and the representative of the PDK in Hashim Thaci’s absence, refused to sign the statement and walked out of the meeting. Krasniqi reportedly walked out of the meeting because “Albanians had collaborated too long with UNMIK and he chose to stand with the people.”172

As the impact of the violence became more apparent to the ethnic Albanian leadership—and, particularly, as they became more aware of the battering that Kosovo’s image was suffering internationally—some Albanian leaders issued stronger condemnations of the violence, but still appeared to refrain from directly condemning attacks on Serbs. Hashim Thaci, leader of the PDK, cut short his visit to the United States and issued a televised appeal for an end to the violence on March 18, stating:

Kosovo, NATO, and the West have not fought for a Kosovo only for Albanians or for a violent Kosovo. Violence is not the way to solving problems, violence only creates problems. …We must not forget that Kosovo has its freedom today thanks to the sacrifice of its people and the Western world.173

On March 20, Thaci became one of the first Albanian leaders to directly acknowledge and condemn the attacks against Serbs, stating that “those who set fire to Serb houses and to Orthodox churches are nothing more than criminals, who cannot be tolerated. Kosovo does not just belong to the Albanians.”174

The weak response of Kosovo’s interim institutions and political leadership prompted strong condemnation from the international community. During an April 22 visit to Pristina, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer stated that he had seen “no progress” since his post-violence visit in March. De Hoop Scheffer strongly criticized the Kosovar leadership, saying he had “expected to see more responsibility, rebuilding, stronger language, and more ambitions.”175 U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also criticized the “ambivalent” response of the ethnic Albanian leadership, stating in his report to the U.N. Security Council that they were “generally reluctant to condemn in a forthright manner the violence in general and later the violence against the Kosovo Serb community in particular. [Kosovo’s leaders] failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation and initially attempted to connect it to their own political objectives.”176 The European Union, while avoiding directly blaming the Kosovar leadership for the violence, called on “all leaders, especially the Kosovo Albanian leadership, to take responsibility for the situation and to ensure such acts and threats of violence are not repeated,” stressing to Kosovar Albanian leaders that “what is at stake is their credibility.”177

While the international community has strongly condemned Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leadership for its role during the crisis, it is important to recognize that some ethnic Albanian leadership did take strong action. While unspecified calls by Kosovar Albanian politicians for an end to the violence were apparently ignored, direct interventions by ethnic Albanian leaders appear to have had a positive effect on some occasions. On March 18, Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi personally went to the fierce clashes at Caglavica, accompanied by several other ethnic Albanian leaders, and convinced the crowd to go home within minutes, after promising that the Serb roadblock would be removed. Rexhepi had similarly gone to Mitrovica on March 17 to attempt to personally calm the situation, with less success. In Decani on March 18, the municipality head Ibrahim Selmanaj and the head of the local branch of the KLA Veterans Association, Avdyl Mushkolaj, personally stopped a crowd that was moving towards the historic Decani Monastery, intending to burn it down.178  The effectiveness of these sporadic actions begs the question of how much more destruction could have been prevented if the entire Kosovo Albanian leadership had taken a more proactive approach to seeking to end the violence, rather than initially justifying it as some politicians did.

After the violence ceased, many ethnic Albanian politicians continued to attempt to make political capital out of the violence, rather than take responsibility and seek to prevent future outbreaks of anti-minority violence. President Rugova, for example, continued to try and seek immediate steps towards independence for Kosovo, arguing that continuing the stalemate on independence would only allow “extremists” to gain ground .179

While various international officials were quick to condemn the Kosovar political leaders for their role during the March violence, they have failed to similarly critically examine the failures of the international organizations themselves. Virtually all of the Albanian and international actors interviewed by Human Rights Watch were of the unanimous opinion that UNMIK and KFOR structures, both at the political and security level, virtually collapsed during the onset of the crisis. Certainly, as this report amply demonstrates, KFOR and UNMIK were not able to provide effective security for non-Albanian communities throughout Kosovo. As one diplomatic representative explained to Human Rights Watch, “KFOR and UNMIK didn’t take control of the situation. In the end, the demonstrators had enough and decided to go home.”180  No representative of KFOR and UNMIK has publicly acknowledged the severe failures of their organizations during the March crisis, calling into question whether the international organizations have learned important lessons from the experience or are rather continuing with “business as usual.”

[164] Koha Ditore, “Assembly Members Stop Their Work; Accuse Internationals for Violence,” reproduced in UNMIK Media Monitoring: Local Media, March 18.

[165] “Kosovo’s three main parties say independence ‘only way out’ of crisis,” BBC Monitoring European, March 18, 2004.

[166] Translation of PDK provided to Human Rights Watch by international source.

[167] “President Calls for End to Violence, Says Protests Damaging Kosovo,” BBC Monitoring European, March 18, 2004.

[168] Following meeting with Prime Minister Rexhepi and the Speaker of the Parliamentary Assembly Nexhat Daci, Rugova stated on March 19: “We repeat that attacks against the international presence, both civil and military, are fully unacceptable and in direct opposition with the vital interests of Kosovo. On this occasion, I once again stress that destruction of religious and cultural monuments, of public property and houses, is unacceptable and condemnable for the people of Kosovo.”

[169] The “Quint” is made up of the members of the Contact Group minus Russia, i.e. the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy.

[170] Harudinaj is a former senior KLA commander.

[171] “UN, KFOR, Kosovo leaders issue statement calling for immediate end of violence,” BBC Monitoring Newsfile, March 18, 2004.

[172] ICG, Collapse in Kosovo, p. 25. Krasniqi, a former spokesperson for the KLA during the 1998-99 conflict, changed his position in the following days, stating on March 20 that “we were and are against the violence. Kosovo does not need the torching of houses and cultural property.”  “Kosovo government ‘profoundly disturbed’ by deadly inter-ethnic violence,” Agence France Presse, March 20, 2004.

[173] Zeri, “Thaci calls upon citizens to stop protests and not forget the help of NATO,” reproduced in UNMIK Media Monitoring, Local Media, March 19, 2004.

[174] “Former Albanian Leader Slams ‘Criminals’ Burning Serb Homes in Kosovo,” Agence France Press, March 20, 2004.

[175] Shaban Buza, “NATO criticizes Kosovo leaders’ response to fighting,” Reuters, April 22, 2004.

[176] United Nations Security Council, “Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo,” April 30, 2004, para. 2. U.N. Doc. S/2004/348.

[177] European Union Council of Ministers, “Conclusions of March 26, 2004 European Council Meeting,” March 26, 2004.

[178]Human Rights Watch interview with Father Sava, Decani Monastery, April 11, 2004. Mushkolaj was later arrested by UNMIK on suspicion of involvement in anti-UNMIK violence in Decani on March 17.

[179] RFE/RL Newsline, “Kosova’s President Calls on British Troops to Remain,” April 5, 2004;  UNMIK Media Monitoring, Kosovo Press Headlines, Koha Ditore, “Rugova: Without recognition of independence, extremists will gain ground,” April 6, 2004; Alissa Rubin, “Serb Province Simmers Amid Uneasy Quiet; Three Months After Deadly Rampages in Kosovo, Ethnic Hatred  and Uncertainty About the Future Remain an Explosive Mix,” Los Angeles Times, June 30, 2004.

[180] Human Rights Watch interview with diplomatic source, Pristina, April 18, 2004.

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