Global Policy Forum

Interview: Ex-Rebel Leader Calls Time on UN in Kosovo


By Matthew Robinson

June 11, 2004

The United Nations has failed in Kosovo and should be phased out within months, an ethnic Albanian former guerrilla commander and now leading politician said on Friday. In a stinging critique, Hashim Thaci said the U.N. mission (UNMIK) had lost all credibility and should be limited to an advisory role after parliamentary elections in October.

"UNMIK has been a complete failure, particularly in the last two years," the former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army KLA said in an interview marking the withdrawal of Serb forces and the entry of NATO peacekeepers exactly five years ago. "They can continue until elections in October 2004, but after that we need a complete change in the relationship between the Pristina government and UNMIK, in favour of the institutions elected by the people of Kosovo."

More than 90 percent of Kosovo's roughly two million people are Albanians demanding total independence from Serbia, and Thaci's comments echo widespread discontent among them. The mission took control of the province in June 1999, after a 78-day NATO bombing forced former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to pull out his troops, ending the 1998-99 guerrilla war with KLA.

Kosovo Albanians expected to see independence and recovery quickly. But today, unemployment stands at 60 percent, poverty is rife and a privatisation process seen as crucial to kick-starting the economy is stalled.

Just Here to Sleep

The U.N. says independence talk is taboo until Kosovo meets a series of standards of democracy and human rights set by the international community. Until then, the protectorate formally remains part of Serbia.

The Albanian-dominated interim government, headed by a member of Thaci's Democratic Party, says it cannot implement reforms because the U.N. refuses to release its grip on power. The U.N. has slowly been ceding responsibility for municipal and social affairs to Kosovo's interim authorities since general elections in 2001. But it retains a veto over all legislation adopted in parliament.

Thaci said U.N. officials worked only to "protect the status quo". It was time to transfer all powers to local institutions and reduce the U.N. to the role of "advisers or monitors". "Most of them are here to sleep, to watch and to block our initiatives," he said, echoing Serbia's criticisms on the one point the two sides can agree on.

"The people of Kosovo voted us in to implement the promises we made in the election campaign. But we are unable to make reforms in education, health, social welfare...and the people have no jobs." Violence erupted in mid-March when angry Albanian mobs torched Serb homes and U.N. vehicles in a two-day rampage that killed 19 people and saw over 3,000 Serbs flee. Thaci said he did not believe the violence would be repeated, as many international observers fear, but warned that the people remained "very dissatisfied with the status quo".

"Everything is linked to political status. Without political status, we have all these projects but no direction." Increasing the sense of urgency, Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi said recently his government would declare independence or call a referendum if it sees no progress towards resolving Kosovo's final status by September 2005. Thaci said he did not favour any unilateral moves, "but if UNMIK has no vision, then we Kosovars do: for Kosovo to be a sovereign state integrated into Euro-Atlantic structures."

"I'm not a fan of setting dates", he said, "but if I win elections in October I will implement my vision of Kosovo as an independent and sovereign state".

(Editing by Charles Dick)

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