The International Court of Justice's recent ruling in favor of Kosovo's right to declare independence has opened the door for Kosovo to enter the family of sovereign states. Now Kosovo must show that it's ready to assume that responsibility.
The task falls to Kosovo's powerful Prime Minister Hashim Thaci. With no political opposition and firm US and European backing, he must turn Kosovo from a casino in limbo to a functioning state. Is he the chosen one or is he the only candidate left?
Thaci's key challenge is to stem corruption, which has dogged Kosovo since the war ended in 1999. The EU rule of law mission in Kosovo, EULEX, has recently arrested a number of top government officials. The Governor of the Kosovo Bank was arrested for money laundering; the Senior Adviser to the Minister of Health was charged with tax evasion; the director of the state-owned telephone company is under investigation for corruption; and Minister of Transportation and Telecommunication, Fatmir Limaj, has been accused of money laundering and taking kickbacks from contractors. EULEX is expected to announce additional indictments in the coming months. Both local and international officials suspect Thaci of having a finger in the so-called 10% cost for doing business in Kosovo. But with no other candidate to take Kosovo to the next level, it appears the West for now is willing to forgive Thaci's lapse in judgment.
During a visit to Washington in mid-July the Kosovo media reported that Vice President Biden referred to Thaci as the George Washington of Kosovo. While Thaci enjoyed the accolades of Washington, his arch rival, Ramush Haradinaj, ex-Prime Minister of Kosovo, former Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) commander and the founder and leader of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), was being whisked away to a Hague prison to be retried for war crimes committed during the 1999 conflict. Thaci returned to Kosovo sanctified by Biden, with pockets full of IMF and World Bank funds and to a weakened if not eliminated opposition.
With Hardinaj in the Hague, Thaci and his party, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), are almost ensured to win a majority in the 2011 parliamentary elections. Their current coalition partner, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), is a fragment of what it was before the death of its leader and former President of Kosovo Ibrahim Rugova in 2006. Rugova led the passive resistance movement against Serbia from 1989 until 1999 when NATO bombs finally brought Belgrade to the negotiating table. During Rugova's reign, the LDK enjoyed overwhelming popular support. But fractionalized by competing interests among its leaders, the current LDK has been resigned to ride in Thaci's sidecar for now.
Within his party, Thaci's only serious rival is Fatmir Limaj... that is, until recently. The young duo came on the political scene together during the Kosovo conflict. Limaj rose to public prominence after he became one of the first KLA commanders to publicly appear in full uniform in 1998. Thaci, one of three KLA spokespersons, on the other hand rose to power when Western leaders hand picked him to be the face of Kosovo during the 1999 EU and US-led Rambouillet negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo. The failure of Slobodan Milosevic to accept the terms of a proposed settlement for Kosovo led to NATO's three-month bombing campaign. Although Limaj remains one of the more popular political figures in Kosovo, the EULEX corruption investigation against him has led to his marginalization by the international community and, consequently, by his own party until further notice.
For now Thaci sits alone at the top as the main partner for the West. Is this new found position a result of hard work or luck at the expense of others? The US and key EU member states are leading the charge for recognition of Kosovo's independence after the ICJ decision, and more than 100 countries are expected to recognize Kosovo soon. The type of state Kosovars will present to the world largely depends on Thaci. Will Kosovo be a state rooted in the rule of law or a state that needs law? This will determine if history will see Thaci as George Washington or just another François "Pop Doc" Duvallier.