Kosovo's dynamic leader aims to reform and stabilize his homeland. But a war-crimes indictment could stall progress — and end his career
BY ANDREW PURVIS | PRISTINA
When Kosovo Albanians first took up arms to free themselves from Serb domination in the mid-1990s, Ramush Haradinaj was working as a bouncer in a Swiss nightclub. He returned to his homeland and, on the strength of his battlefield wits and charisma, rose to become the most visible commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (K.L.A.), losing two brothers and surviving three wounds of his own. After the war, he launched a political party, the Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK), and following elections last October, at 36, he joined the ruling coalition as Prime Minister — completing the transformation from soldier to statesman in just over five years. But now the conflict that made his career is threatening to end it.
Shortly after Haradinaj's election, investigators from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague came to Pristina and questioned him as a war-crimes suspect. A few days earlier, the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, had told a NATO meeting in Brussels that she was preparing a "solid" indictment against "the K.L.A. leadership." Because Haradinaj is the most senior K.L.A. commander known to have been questioned since then, analysts in Kosovo speculate that he is next on the list of suspected war criminals to be invited to the Hague for trial. If they are right, the latest turn of the wheel of international justice will come at a price; Haradinaj is widely perceived as the most effective leader Kosovo has seen in its five years as a quasi-independent, U.N.-administered province — and the best choice to lead the government as it attempts to clear the final hurdles on the way toward full independence.
A tribunal indictment, if issued, would likely focus on incidents that occurred in Haradinaj's home region during the war. In one of these, 40 civilians were shot or clubbed to death and dumped in a ditch not far from Haradinaj's home village, in a region nominally under his control. In another case, following a Roma wedding party, several women were raped and four men shot to death. Though Serbian authorities have long accused Haradinaj of war crimes and demanded he be removed from office, no evidence linking him to these crimes has ever been made public. A Serb war-crimes court last month brought charges against Anton Lekaj, a close associate of Haradinaj's, in the Roma wedding case, but not against Haradinaj himself.
"This is Belgrade rubbish," the Kosovar Prime Minister told Time in Pristina late last month, just after wrapping up a budget meeting with senior U.N. officials. He denied any wrongdoing. "These are fabrications of the Milosevic regime, 'discovered' during the war and intended to discredit the K.L.A. I am very insulted. It is like asking you, 'Did you rape your mother?' I didn't fight for freedom in order to do these things." Haradinaj added that the only charges he heard from Hague prosecutors in the November interview were ones that had been posted "on the Internet for five-and-a-half years." He pledges to cooperate, if asked, and leave office if necessary in order to "take the opportunity to clear my name," but he expresses confidence that an indictment will never arrive.
In fact, thanks to the baroque mechanisms of the Hague tribunal, not even the people responsible for indictments can be sure whether one is on its way. The prosecutors' office confirmed last week that they have completed their work and are now awaiting a court ruling on whether their evidence is strong enough to warrant a trial. They do not know whether the court will accept their argument. And they are prohibited by law from divulging the identity of potential indictees until the court has ruled. Only one thing is certain: if Haradinaj is indicted, it will end a promising career.
In the two months since taking office, say U.N. officials in Pristina, Haradinaj has galvanized his coalition government with an impressive blend of energy, discipline and attention to detail. "He's someone who does not confuse declarations with accomplishments," says a veteran U.N. official familiar with the region. "He has built up a head of steam and has not let up. And he works well with the international community." Despite the public and noisy objections of his own coalition, for example, Haradinaj was able to push through a pilot project granting limited autonomy to a Serb-dominated area near Pristina. "He wants, and he gets, results," said the official. Even some opposition leaders are impressed. Veton Surroi, the respected newspaper publisher who now heads the Ora party, calls Haradinaj "hyper-intelligent and hands-on. You give him a list of 10 things and he will do them."
The next six months are critical for Kosovo. The U.N., which has administered the province since 1999, is in the process of handing over power to Haradinaj's provisional government, which has until August to demonstrate that it is implementing reforms ranging from fiscal transparency to security guarantees for the Serb minority. Passing this U.N. test would trigger "final status" talks on Kosovo's independence from Belgrade — the ultimate aim for Kosovo Albanians. Full sovereignty could follow as early as next year. If Haradinaj were indicted, analysts say, it is unclear how ordinary Kosovo Albanians would respond. Haradinaj is popular, but mainly in his home region of western Kosovo. Security experts predict "manageable" protests. The bigger fear is that a change in leadership could cause a breakdown in the reform program. That in turn could trigger a return to the violence that shook the region last March, when 19 died, dozens of U.N. staffers and peacekeepers were attacked, and thousands of minority Serbs were driven from their homes by Albanian mobs impatient with the lack of progress toward independence.
This is not the first time the tribunal has stirred controversy in the Balkans. In Croatia and Serbia, the prosecutor is reviled for targeting "war heroes." "The case had better be solid," says a senior diplomat. While some Kosovo Albanians resent having one of their own placed in the same dock as Slobodan Milosevic, others concede that the tribunal has brought their enemies to trial when no other court could. "The timing of the tribunal is never good," says opposition leader Surroi, "but you have to deal with it."
©TIME. Printed on Sunday, February 6, 2005