Jun 24, 2020 - World

Kosovo president cancels White House visit after war crimes indictment

Hashim Thaci, president of Kosovo, in 2018.

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci in 2018. Photo: Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images

Kosovo's president, Hashim Thaci, has cancelled a visit to the White House this weekend after being charged with war crimes "including murder, enforced disappearance of persons, persecution and torture" by prosecutors in the Hague.

Driving the news: The White House meeting is part of an effort by the Trump administration to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough between Serbia and Kosovo. It will be led by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti, according to President Trump’s envoy for dialogue between the countries, Richard Grenell.

The backstory: The alleged war crimes took place during the 1998-1999 Kosovo War, in which Thaci was among the leaders of a guerilla campaign against Serbian forces under Slobodan Milošević — the first sitting head of state to be charged with war crimes.

  • Kadri Veseli, a former parliamentary speaker, was also charged by a special prosecutor investigating crimes during the war.
  • Both men deny the allegations. The prosecutor's office has accused them of attempting to "obstruct and undermine" the probe.
  • Thaci became prime minister after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but has been dogged throughout his political career by allegations of criminal activity.

Where things stand: Serbia and Kosovo have been locked in a territorial dispute since 2008.

  • More recently, Serbia launched a de-recognition campaign to undermine Kosovo’s international legitimacy, while Kosovo placed 100% tariffs on Serbian goods.
  • Those policies have been halted, and the Trump administration now hopes to engineer a deeper diplomatic breakthrough.
  • The political stakes are exceedingly high in both Serbia and Kosovo. Hoti's predecessor, Albin Kurti, criticized Grenell's efforts, claiming he wants a "quick fix between the two presidents, and he doesn’t care very much about the contents."

The big picture: While Kosovo’s main goal is mutual recognition and UN membership, Serbia will not recognize Kosovo without major concessions, Ryan Scherba of Balkan Insider tells Axios.

  • In an interview with AP, Vučić said he would reject a deal whereby Kosovo enters the UN and “we receive nothing in return, except EU membership.”

What to expect: Grenell has emphasized that this week’s discussion will center around economics, while the EU will focus on political aspects of the dispute.

  • He said land swaps would not be part of the discussion, and attributed "rumors" around that highly controversial idea to freelancing by former national security adviser John Bolton.
  • The discussions could produce smaller deals like those reached in February to restore air and rail links between Belgrade and Pristina, but don’t expect a grand, final deal at the White House, Scherba says.

The latest: Serbia held parliamentary elections Sunday that were boycotted by the opposition and saw Vučić’s party win 63% of the vote, giving him complete power over dialogue with Kosovo.

  • Vučić discussed the Kosovo issue with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Belgrade on Thursday, and he'll travel to Moscow days before his White House visit for the annual Victory Day parade. 
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