Petar Ristanovic: Leaders of the „KLA“ – Untold biographies

Foto: Sunčica Andrejević

KoSSev: Hashim Thaci, Kadri Veseli, Rexhep Selimi and Jakup Krasniqi were arrested in early November on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999. Part of the public has been expecting these indictments since 2008, when the book of the former chief prosecutor of the Hague Tribunal, Carla del Ponte, entitled „Hunting. Me and war criminals!” was published, which contained the first public allegations that there is evidence KLA members were involved in the abduction of civilians in Kosovo and human organ trafficking.

Del Ponte’s allegations were later investigated by two prosecutors – Swiss Dick Marty, whose report „Investigation of allegations of inhuman treatment of people and illicit trafficking in human organs in Kosovo“ was adopted in the form of a Council of Europe resolution in 2011, and later by American Clint Williamson.

After the end of the investigation of Williamson’s Special Investigative Task Force, he announced that enough evidence had been collected to file an indictment, but that a competent court must first be formed.

That court was formed in 2015, and the first indictments were confirmed in the summer, i.e. autumn of 2020.

The indictment issued against Thaci and others triggered an avalanche of reactions, and the Kosovo presidency was left without a leader when Thaci resigned.

KoSSev will publish two texts – one penned by Petar Ristanovic, who holds a Ph.D. in history, and the other by Anna di Lellio, a professor of international relations and security at the New York University, on the historical context leading up to the events described in the indictment.

BIRN, Ana di Lelio: Kosovo Wartime Leaders’ Indictment is Inaccurate and Biased

By Petar Ristanovic; Source: Izgubljeni raj i potraga za njim

The long-heralded indictment against former KLA leader Hashim Thaci has finally been filed. In addition to Thaci, Kadri Veseli, Jakup Krasniqi and Rexhep Selimi were indicted before the Special Court in The Hague under six counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of war crimes.

The indictment covers the period of the intensification of the KLA armed uprising – from March 1998 to September 1999. The prosecution alleges that the accused carried out a „widespread or systematic attack against the civilian population“ during a „joint criminal enterprise“ aimed at “gaining and exercising control over all of Kosovo by means including unlawfully intimidating, mistreating, committing violence against, and removing those deemed to be opponents.”

Indictments, trials, and verdicts will have far-reaching consequences on the development of the Kosovo issue. The first, direct consequence was the resignation of the President of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci, which, in all likelihood, announced new elections in Kosovo and the start of a period of deep uncertainty. Thaci’s resignation and voluntary departure to The Hague were greeted by many (not only in Pristina and the West but also in Belgrade) with loud praise, and described as a „moral“, „democratic“ and „statelike“ move, which is quite hypocritical, bearing in mind that Thaci and the other indictees have been disrupting the work of the Special Court in all possible ways and trying to abolish it for years.

In addition to the political consequences, which will be felt more deeply in the coming months, the indictment and future verdict will have another, extremely important, long-standing consequence. During the previous two decades, Albanians have turned the 1998-1999 war into the founding myth of Kosovo statehood. The KLA struggle is viewed as „faultless.“ Fallen fighters are celebrated as „martyrs,“ while veterans represent an important social and political factor. Any kind of criticism of the KLA struggle or talk of the crimes committed is perceived as an attack against dogma, against the values that are sacred to Albanians.

An adviser to the then Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti, Shkelzen Gashi, was dismissed back in April because he said in a talk-show that individuals from the ranks of the KLA committed individual crimes. The claim triggered fierce attacks against Gashi, and he even received death threats. Kurti was then forced to dismiss him as his advisor even though they are privately good friends. The episode says a lot about the way the KLA struggle is treated among Albanians in Kosovo today.

The indictment filed against the four KLA leaders will inevitably spark a discussion about the nature of the KLA struggle and call into question many „truths“ from the narrative that has dominated the Albanian and international public for two decades.

Immediately after the news arrived that the indictments were confirmed and the accused were arrested, Albanian politicians made numerous statements announcing the attitude towards the court, the indictments, and the review of the righteousness of the KLA struggle. The leader of the Self-Determination movement, Albin Kurti said in a statement that the indictment was a „continuation of special injustice,“ over which only „former Milosevic associates“ in Belgrade are pleased about. He pointed out that „the court will judge now“ but that „history will judge the court,“ emphasizing that the KLA struggle is the foundation of the „state of Kosovo“ and „the freedom and well-being of its citizens“.

Enver Hoxhaj, the former Kosovo Minister of Foreign Affairs, wrote that the trial was not a prosecution of Hashim Thaci, but „freedom, independence and the Kosovo liberation war.“ Vlora Citaku, Kosovo’s former ambassador to the US and a potential next president of Kosovo, compared the KLA struggle to the struggle of the French resistance movement against the Nazis in World War II, and Thaci to Charles de Gaulle. Petrit Selimi, another former Kosovo foreign minister, wrote in a Twitter thread that the Court is unjust and anti-Albanian, and that the „Republic of Kosovo“ is a direct result of the struggle of the KLA and its leaders, which he referred to as heroes. One interesting detail can be observed in Selimi’s thread. He pointed out that the indictment places the four KLA leaders in the context of „criminal activities“ ever since they – as „young idealists“ -gathered at the end of 1993.

Indeed, in the introductory part of the indictment, in several points, a framework of the events leading up to the indictment is outlined. The „abolition of Kosovo’s autonomy“ in 1989, which produced substantial discontent among Albanians, was used as the starting point. The indictment further states that the dominant political force among Albanians in the first half of the 1990s was the „Democratic Alliance of Kosovo“ (in Albanian: Lidhja Demokratike e Kosovës shkurt – LDK), whose leader was Ibrahim Rugova. This party and its leader advocated a non-violent struggle for independence. At the same time, the indictment states that there was a „nationalist organization“ in Kosovo and among Albanians in exile – „People’s Movement of Kosovo“ (Albanian: Lëvizja Popullore e Kosovës – LPK), which advocated armed struggle to „liberate Kosovo from Serbia.“

At the end of 1993, a special sector was formed within the „People’s Movement of Kosovo“ which was tasked with coordinating armed units in Kosovo. The following year, the name „Kosovo Liberation Army“ – KLA (in Albanian: Ushtria Çlirimtare e Kosovës – KLA) was adopted, under which the unification of various armed groups began. The „General Staff“ was established, which included Azem Syla, Xhavit Haliti, Hashim Thaci, Kadri Veseli, Rexhep Selimi, Lahi Brahimaj and Sokol Bashota. Jakup Krasniqi joined them in 1997. The task of the „General Staff“ was to organize mass uprisings, which they finally succeeded in doing in the spring of 1998.

The indictment introduction summarizes well-known data. The currently dominant narrative among Albanians from Kosovo and the majority of the international public speaks to the fact that the KLA emerged in response to the repression of Serb state authorities („genocide“ – as Albanians claim) and the failure of pacifist methods of Ibrahim Rugova and his followers. In a Twitter thread, Petrit Selimi claimed that an „independent Kosovo“ and the „freedom of its citizens“ would not have come to be if the future KLA leaders had not gathered in 1993 and led a „David versus Goliath“ struggle.

There are numerous loose ends in this entire narrative, which is today considered as the undeniable truth. If we set aside the arguments on the situation in Kosovo during the 1990s and its causes, the fact remains that the roots of the KLA go much deeper than the 1990s and the time of Serbian domination. In fact, the roots of the Albanian armed rebellion were set in the early 1970s, at a time when the then Socialist Autonomous Province (SAP) of Kosovo was a „republic in everything but in name,“ as it is usually cited in literature. The foundations laid at the time were not just ideological. Numerous KLA leaders joined the illegal separatist movement, which was in favor of armed struggle, even during the time of communist Yugoslavia, in the years when Albanians had full political dominance in a practically independent Kosovo.

Following the constitutional changes of 1967-1971, SAP Kosovo was a federal unit – formally a province within the Republic of Serbia, but it was completely independent in practice. Kosovo had its representative in the Presidency of the SFRY, while the League of Communists of Kosovo had its representatives in the Presidency of the Central Committee of the LCY (cf. League of Communists of Yugoslavia). The most influential Albanian politician, Fadil Hoxha, was the vice-president of the Presidency of the SFRY in 1977/1978, whose influence in Yugoslavia could only be surpassed by Tito, while Sinan Hasani was the President of the Presidency of the SFRY in 1986/1987.

The province, like the republics, had its own constitution, government (Executive Council), an assembly that passed laws, police and secret service, the Supreme Court and a public prosecutor, over whom the Serbian judiciary and prosecutor’s office did not hold power. The fact that the republican authorities in Belgrade did not have control over part of the province’s border with other states (Albania), nor were they informed about the international activities of the provinces, visits and receptions they organized, but received that information through federal authorities testifies to Kosovo’s level of independence. The Constitution of the SAP of Kosovo was adopted in 1974 at a session that was not attended, even formally, by a single representative of the Republic of Serbia.

The province’s link to Serbia was formal, and it was defined via two articles of the republic’s constitution, which listed areas whose „basic principles“ were to be regulated by law for the entire territory of the republic. However, the „basic principles“ were not a clearly defined, legal term, so the position of the constitution could be interpreted in different ways. The provinces interpreted it in the narrowest sense possible. As a result, from the adoption of the Constitution in 1974 until the spring of 1977, the Assembly of Serbia adopted only 13 laws that were valid in the territory of the provinces. Two laws were valid in their entirety, and when it comes to the other 11 laws, only a few general, introductory articles were valid (there was only one article in one law).

During the 1970s, Kosovo got a university that became the second-largest in the country by the end of the decade. It got an Academy of Sciences, enormous funds were invested in development through the Federal Fund for Development of Underdeveloped… In addition to political, full national emancipation of Albanians was made possible, additionally encouraged by a federal-level permit allowing that institutions from the province to freely cooperate with institutions from Albania, although Enver Hoxha’s Albania refused to conclude an agreement on cultural cooperation with Yugoslavia at the state level, but limited cooperation exclusively to areas inhabited by Albanians and often abused it.

Throughout this period, which lasted until 1989 and constitutional changes, the political domination of Albanians continued in Kosovo, which could be sensed in all spheres of life. The fact that approximately 40% of Serbs emigrated from the province during those two decades testifies to the character of that domination.

Nevertheless, it was during this period of full national and political emancipation of Albanians in Yugoslavia that the foundations of the separatist movement from which the KLA emerged in the 1990s were laid. Jakup Krasniqi, one of the four indictees before the Special Court, described himself during his first appearance before the judges as an intellectual who was „forced to fight for the freedom of Kosovo.“ Krasniqi (1951) became politically active in the early 1970s, when he became a member of the „Kosovo Revolutionary Group.“ This illegal organization was founded in 1971, after the failure of the demonstrations of Albanians in Kosovo and western Macedonia where they demanded proclamation of the republic. The „Kosovo Revolutionary Group“ is based on the ideology of so-called „Marxism-Leninism“ – a kind of national-Stalinist version of communism, advocated by the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha. The program’s documents stated that „the revolutionary group is the forerunner of the future party“ and that their goal is to connect and work jointly with other parties „but only under the condition that they are led by a Marxist-Leninist theory and the teachings of the Party of Labor of Albania.“ They promoted three major goals: national liberation, social liberation, and national unification with Albania. These goals were to be achieved through strikes, rallies, and armed struggle.

Photo: Ristanovic/ The front page of „Zëri i Kosovës,“ an illegal newspaper printed by the „Kosovo Revolutionary Group.“ Classical communist iconography is clearly visible.

The „Kosovo Revolutionary Group“ was discovered and broken up by the Kosovo police in 1974/1975. A total of 39 people were brought before the court in Kosovo. They were sentenced to several years in prison for separatism and calls for subversion. In addition to Jakup Krasniqi, many of those who Kosovo Albanians today praise as heroes of the national struggle were also members of the „Kosovo Revolutionary Group,“ such as Mehmet Hajrizi, longtime organizer of the separatist movement, editor of illegal newspapers, a member of Rugova’s LDK during the 1990s, a member of the Albanian delegation to Rambouillet and the Deputy Prime Minister of the Kosovo Transitional Government after the 1999 war; Hidayet Hyseni, vice president of Ibrahim Rugova’s party, leader of the party’s militant „prison fraction“ (made up of members of the illegal movement sentenced to prison in the 1970s and 1980s), a member of the Albanian delegation in Rambouillet and a member of the KLA political administration; Skender Kastrati, another leader of the „prison fraction“ in Ibrahim Rugova’s party and KLA organizer; Hilmi Ramadani, a fellow KLA organizer; Kadri Osmani Mani, organizer of illegal groups and editor of the newspaper „Ethnic (Greater) Albania“; Xhafer Shatri, Minister of Information in the self-proclaimed government of Kosovo during the 1990s and a close associate of Ibrahim Rugova; Binak Ulaj, Selatin Novosella, Fatmir Salihu, Gani Sylaj… Rexhep Malaj was also a member of the group. He is celebrated as a „martyr“ today, after he committed suicide during an armed clash with the police in Pristina in 1984.

„Kosovo Revolutionary Group“ members who avoided arrest in the second half of the 1970s founded two new illegal separatist organizations, based on the same ideological foundations as this group. The ideological influence is evidenced by the names of the groups: „Organization of Marxists-Leninists of Kosovo“ –the accused Jakup Krasniqi is still a member even today, and „Movement for National Liberation of Kosovo and other Albanian areas.“ Both organizations advocated the extreme leftist ideas of Hoxha’s Marxism-Leninism and proclaimed the unification of parts of Yugoslavia inhabited by Albanians with Albania as the goal of their struggle, which was to be achieved by spreading propaganda among Albanians and preparing for an armed uprising. The organizations maintained contact with the Albanian secret service – Sigurimi – the entire time. In late 1970s, many of today’s celebrated „heroes“ and „martyrs“ joined them, such as the Gervalla brothers, Kadri Zeka…

These organizations are the direct predecessors of the KLA. Namely, after influential members of the separatist movement, Jusuf and Bardosh Gervalla and Kadri Zeka, were killed in Germany in February 1982 (presumably by the Yugoslav state security service), these groups and the strongest Albanian emigrant organization, the Red Popular Front, were united. The name alone suggests that it was another extreme leftist organization, supported by the Sigurimi, whose members carried out 13 terrorist attacks on Yugoslav officials, citizens and property, during which they killed one man and wounded three, in 1981-1982 in Belgium.

The alliance of the organizations was carried out under the patronage of Enver Hoxha’s Albania, through the Ambassador of Albania to Turkey, Bujar Hoxha. The new organization was named the „Movement for a Socialist Albanian Republic in Yugoslavia“ (Lëvizjen për Republikën Socialiste Shqiptare në Jugosllavi – LRSSHJ). Ideologically speaking, the movement was also based on the ideas of the Party of Labour of Albania. They advocated the complete collectivization of agricultural land and forming an independent and self-sufficient economy in relation to the world economy. Unemployment and housing shortages in Kosovo were to be addressed by the complete abolition of private property. They demanded the maximum pay gap to be 1-to-3. They advocated a ban on religion – like was done in Albania.

The movement operated illegally in Yugoslavia. The leadership of the organization was situated abroad. District committees were organized in the field, which were composed of several trusted members who then established smaller cells. The idea was that no member was supposed to know all the other members of the committee, thus reducing the possibility of being discovered by the secret service. Members and sympathizers of the movement were expected to carry out tasks when they were asked to do so, to further expand the organization and be ready for larger actions – such as demonstrations and uprisings, when such an order arrives.

Photo: Ristanovic/ Promotional poster of the „People’s Movement of Kosovo,“ with a clearly marked goal – the borders of Greater Albania

By the end of the 1980s, the movement changed its name several times. In 1985, it was renamed the „People’s Movement for the Republic of Kosovo“ (in Albanian: Lëvizja Popullore për Republikën e Kosovës – LPRK), and later on, at the end of the decade, it was renamed the „People’s Movement of Kosovo“ (in Albanian: Lëvizja Popullore e Kosovës – LPK). The KLA was formed in 1993 as the armed wing of this movement.

Key KLA leaders joined the separatist movement in the late 1970s, when Kosovo enjoyed broad independence within Yugoslavia and when the Republic of Serbia had virtually no influence on relations in the province. Jashar Salihu joined the movement in 1979. During the Albanian armed uprising in 1998, he headed the „Homeland Calling“ fund, which raised funds for the KLA struggle. Rame Buja, another leader of the militant „prison faction“ in Rugova’s LDK, and a member of the KLA political directorate during the 1998-1999 war, also joined the movement in the late 1970s. Bardul Mahmuti, a KLA spokesman in 1998, joined the movement in 1983. Gani Geci, the perpetrator of attacks against the police and Albanians loyal to Serbia since 1993, also joined the movement in the 1980s. He was tried for attempted murder in 1986. In the same period, Adem Jashari, the most famous KLA leader today and a cult figure of the Albanian national movement, joined the movement.

Photo: Ristanovic/A memorial plaque in Kicevo, Macedonia, erected at the site of a meeting of the leadership of the „People’s Movement of Kosovo“ on April 24th, 1993. At this meeting, the movement was renamed the „People’s Movement for the Republic of Kosovo“ and it was decided that they must fight for the republic by all means, including weapons. In that fight, it was necessary to cooperate with everyone, but not with those who were hesitant, which was a clear allusion to Rugova’s LDK. The conclusions from the meeting stated that assistance must be provided to the Albanians from Montenegro and Macedonia – who were unjustly torn from the motherland, and who were suffering under the „Serb-Montenegrin-Macedonian occupiers.“ The meeting was attended by Hashim Thaci, Azem Syla and other future KLA leaders.

In the late 1980s, Kadri Veseli and Hashim Thaci became members of the movement. Another member of the original „General Staff“ from 1994, Xhavit Haliti, also joined the movement. It is suspected that Haliti will soon be indicted before the Special Court, as well as Azem Syla, one of the organizers of the 1982 Albanian demonstrations and a participant in a terrorist attack on police in 1993 – during which two police officers were killed. Also, during the 1980s, Ali Ahmeti, the leader of the Albanian uprising in the 2001 Macedonian war, who was recently questioned by prosecutors of the Special Court in The Hague, jointed the separatist movement.

Photo: Ristanovic/Part of the response to the appeal of Gani Krasniqi, Hysni Thaci and Jakup Krasniqi to the verdict made before the court in Pristina in 1981, by which they were sentenced to several years in prison.

In addition to the main organizers of the armed KLA uprising in 1998, during the 1970s and 1980s, many future local KLA leaders and post-war local political officials joined the separatist movement. Gani Krasniqi, the KLA organizer in Malishevo and its surroundings, and the mayor of Malishevo after the war, was tried in 1981 along with Jakup Krasniqi. The indictment alleged that Gani maintained ties with the Sigurimi and received instructions for his illegal work from Albania.

Ismail Haradinaj, the organizer of the „Decani Committee“, the uncle of the Haradinaj brothers and the father of Nasim Haradinaj, the current president of the KLA veterans’ association, who was recently arrested for obstructing the work of the Special Court, was one of those convicted in 1981. His son Nasim was also convicted in 1981 for participating in the activities organized by the illegal separatist movement. He was a minor at the time of the trial and had been active in the movement for several years.

From the abovementioned, it is clear that the ideological foundations of the KLA were laid long before the institutions of the Republic of Serbia took control of the province of Kosovo in 1989. Numerous KLA leaders joined the separatist movement during the 1970s, when there were no public calls from Belgrade to change the constitution and when Albanian politicians in the province expected Kosovo to become a republic within Yugoslavia in the next round of constitutional changes. It was not enough for Jakup Krasniqi, Hidayet Hyseni, Skender Kastrati, Mehmet Hajrizi and others. Consumed with the Stalinist ideas of Enver Hoxha and intoxicated by nationalism, they wanted a single and exclusive creation of a Greater, or as they put it, Ethnic Albania. Such an ideology was embraced during the 1980s by the majority of future KLA organizers and leaders, including the four who now stand trial. With the collapse of communism in Albania in 1992, Stalinist ideas were pushed aside, as they used to say – the red flag was symbolically replaced by the US flag, but nationalist ideas remained.

These parts of the biographies of KLA leaders are no secret in Kosovo. On the contrary, the period of „illegality“ (1970s and 1980s) is proudly talked about, books are published and the struggle of national heroes is being extolled. International „experts,“ however, generally remain silent about these facts, while Kosovo politicians speak to the international public of the „young idealists“ who united in their resistance to the „occupier“ in 1993/1994.

In the numerous books written in English about the KLA struggle, the participation of its leaders in Marxist-Leninist organizations during the 1970s is withheld or referred to as Serbian propaganda, and the Stalinist ideology of these groups is relativized while an emphasis is placed on their struggle for national goals. The fact remains that one simply cannot speak of „young idealists“ who gathered in 1993, but we can only speak of extreme nationalists who have been preparing an uprising for years.

Due to the events which took place in Kosovo during the 1990s, the nationalist ideas of the need for an armed struggle to obtain Kosovo’s independence gained more supporters. We must not forget that the repressive regime that was introduced by Belgrade was largely a consequence of the earlier nationalist aspirations of Albanians (which do not justify or diminish the mistreatments and discrimination of Albanians). The KLA revolt was not a reaction to the „Serb genocide,“ but an implementation of a plan devised decades earlier. Jakup Krasniqi told the Special Court that he was „forced to fight for the freedom of Kosovo.“ In fact, Krasniqi fought for the ideas of Enver Hoxha and Greater Albania for two full decades. Hoxha died, communism collapsed, but the idea of a Greater Albania kept on living.

Petar Ristanovic is an historian and a research associate on the project „Material and Spiritual Culture of Kosovo and Metohija“ of the Institute of Serbian Culture in Pristina/Leposavic. He is the author of the award-winning book „Kosovo issue 1974-1989“ and several scientific papers on the Kosovo issue, published in national and international scientific journals.




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