Although a popular prime minister, the ex-KLA commander could not shake rumours of criminal activity and involvement in civilian deaths.
By Stacy Sullivan in New York (BCR No 545, 11-Mar-05)
It is often said in the Balkans that one man’s hero is another man’s war criminal. That refrain could hardly be more apt to describe Kosovo prime minister Ramush Haradinaj, who resigned on February 8 after the Hague tribunal issued a war crimes indictment against him.
To many Albanians in Kosovo, Haradinaj is a hero cut from the classic mould – the rough-and-tumble village boy who made good by having the courage to fight for his beliefs.
But to Kosovo’s Serb population, Haradinaj is a symbol of violence and injustice. He is viewed as a ruthless thug - a killer who masterminded a reign of terror across Kosovo’s western Dukagjini region in 1998-99 and left a trail of civilian corpses in his wake.
The man who would come to command such respect among Albanians and arouse such rancour among Serbs was born in the village of Glodjane (Gllogjan) on July 3, 1968, the second of nine children.
Like nearly all Kosovo Albanians born in the Sixties, Haradinaj went to a mixed-ethnicity school and learned to speak Serbo-Croatian.
After graduating from high school in 1987, he did his mandatory military service in the Yugoslav People’s Army, showing enough military talent to be promoted to platoon commander - a rarity for Albanians.
After the army, Haradinaj initially wanted to study astronomy at the then Serb-run University of Pristina. But he claimed that he was prevented from doing so because several of his family members had fallen foul of the authorities.
Instead, he went to Lucerne, Switzerland, where an uncle had set up a construction business. During a visit home in March 1991, Haradinaj was caught in the middle of a wave of protests and rioting that had spread across the province in response to a series of anti-Albanian decrees implemented at the behest of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.
Haradinaj was detained overnight and questioned by Serb police. After his release, he returned to Switzerland, where he applied for and was granted political asylum.
From exile, Haradinaj watched as Milosevic set about further dismantling Kosovo’s autonomy by purging Albanians from the university and sacking them from state jobs.
He became involved with the National League of Kosovo, LPK, a radical group of Swiss-based Kosovo Albanian émigrés who had long been calling on Albanians to use any means possible - including armed insurrection - to secure independence for the province.
While in exile, he fell in love with a Finnish woman and moved in with her. And every once in a while, he sneaked into Kosovo illegally by trekking through the mountains from Albania, sometimes bringing weapons with him.
In March 1997, a series of fraudulent pyramid investment schemes collapsed in Albania, plunging the country into a state of anarchy. As the population there went on a vast looting spree - emptying the country’s arsenals of millions of Kalashnikovs, grenades, land mines, rocket launchers and ammunition - Haradinaj got on a plane to Albania and began amassing a stash of arms. He knew that Albania’s misfortune would provide the equipment for a Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA.
He assembled a team of people, including his younger brother Luan, to move the weapons across the border. In May 1997, Haradinaj’s team loaded weapons on their backs and crossed into Kosovo. But shortly after they sneaked across the border, they were ambushed by Serb troops. Luan was killed, and another of the men was badly wounded.
The team retreated and Haradinaj carried his brother’s corpse back across the border, buried him, then returned to Switzerland. “I was lost after that,” Haradinaj later told the media. “I felt responsible for my brother’s death. I wanted to carry on, but I couldn’t at that time.”
Two months later, Haradinaj regained his will. He returned to Albania, again trekked over the mountains into Kosovo and set up base in his home town of Glodjane. He turned his family’s home into a KLA base and helped build the Dukagjini group of the rebel army, transforming a ramshackle bunch of disorganised young men into a force that would jolt the Serbian regime.
In March 1998, in their efforts to eliminate the KLA, Serb troops launched an attack on the rebel compound at Glodjane, using with helicopter gunships and armoured personnel carriers.
Thanks to a series of lucky coincidences and confusion in the Serb ranks, the group survived the attack, though Haradinaj was shot several times.
Over the next two years, Haradinaj would lose another brother and several of his closest friends in fighting. But as the KLA mushroomed into an insurgency, he developed a reputation as a fearless fighter.
Soon he developed relationships with United States officials and became a valuable military and intelligence asset for them.
But although he was revered among the men who fought along his side and helpful to the Americans, he instilled fear into anyone who dared question his actions.
It is alleged that Haradinaj’s KLA unit kidnapped and murdered 40 Serb civilians who went missing in 1998 and 1999. Some of these corpses were discovered in various stages of decomposition in canals leading to a lake not far from Glodjane. The bodies of several other civilians were found stuffed down wells.
There are also allegations that Haradinaj’s unit murdered Albanians. In late December 2002, Haradinaj’s brother Daut was sentenced by a United Nations court in Kosovo to five years in prison for his role in the kidnap, torture and murder of four members of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Kosovo, FARK, which was a rival to the KLA during the conflict.
After the war, he was appointed deputy commander of the Kosovo Protection Corps, a force loosely modelled on the United States National Guard. Soon, however, Haradinaj resigned his post and founded his own political party, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK.
Fluent in French and English, the new politician made a good impression on foreign dignitaries and journalists, and while the leaders of Kosovo’s other political parties essentially ran on the single issue of independence, Haradinaj espoused the importance of building roads and schools.
But although many respected Haradinaj’s wartime record, his political party did not command widespread popular support, and remained a distant third behind Ibrahim Rugova’s Democratic Party of Kosovo, LDK, and KLA leader Hashim Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK.
“Ramush is not a man for politics,” one of his wartime associates told IWPR in 2000 when Haradinaj first entered the political fray. “When I talk to him, I can make him laugh one minute and want to kill me the next. You can’t be emotional in politics.”
Indeed, in the run up to Kosovo’s municipal elections in 2000, Haradinaj’s temper often got the better of him. In spring that year, Haradinaj got into a fistfight with Russian soldiers at a peacekeeping checkpoint.
A few months later, he committed an even bigger political blunder. After some of his wartime rivals – the Musaj family – confronted his father demanding to know where the remains of their missing relatives were, Haradinaj flew into a rage.
He and several of his supporters drove to the Musaj family compound in the village of Strellc at one in the morning, scaled the walls and confronted the family. A gunfight ensued, grenades were thrown, and Haradinaj was wounded.
After the incident, Haradinaj was flown by helicopter to the US military base in Kosovo, and was later treated for shrapnel wounds at a US Army hospital in Germany. In the aftermath, American officials in Kosovo would be accused of interfering with a UN investigation into the incident.
In the ensuing years, Haradinaj’s lifestyle raised eyebrows in the province. He split up with his Finnish partner, remarried and moved into a lavish house in Pristina. Although the house was reportedly given to him by friends, many Kosovo Albanians viewed it with disdain.
Meanwhile, rumours persisted that he had committed war crimes and that he was involved with cigarette smuggling.
But despite the numerous controversies, Haradinaj remained a popular figure. A two-part biography in extended interview format was produced by one of Kosovo’s top publishing firms, and was a bestseller in the province.
In western Kosovo in particular, he commanded a loyal following. “We have other people for politics,” villagers in the Dukagjin region would say. “But if the Serbs come back, we have Ramush.”
After last year’s elections, the AAK formed a coalition with the leading LDK and Haradinaj was named Kosovo’s prime minister.
The appointment infuriated Serbs and western diplomats alike, many of whom called on the UN Mission in Kosovo to block Haradinaj from taking the post. The New York Times lambasted the appointment in an editorial. But
Soren Jessen-Petersen, the head of the UN Mission in Kosovo, refused to intervene, stating, “If I were to say no to this appointment, I would be saying no to democracy.”
By all accounts, once he took office, Haradinaj proved a dynamic and effective leader, pushing through controversial pilot project granting limited autonomy to a Serb-dominated area near Pristina.
On March 8, shortly after the UN war crimes tribunal confirmed the indictment against him, Haradinaj announced his resignation and vowed that he would travel to The Hague to face the charges.
When he stepped down, Haradinaj appealed for calm and warned against violent protests.
But when he is called on to answer for his past as a guerrilla commander, many fear that Haradinaj’s more temperamental side could show itself, and lead to unrest that could and disrupt Kosovo’s fragile peace.
“He may be in tribunal custody, but his supporters are already making plans,” said one worried resident of Peja.
Stacy Sullivan is a senior IWPR editor in New York