Kosovo’s new president says Serbia must answer for ‘genocide’
Vjosa Osmani says EU-brokered talks offer Belgrade a chance to seek forgiveness
Newly elected Kosovo president Vjosa Osmani is sworn in at the parliament in Pristina. Photograph: Valdrin Xhemaj/EPA
Kosovo intends to sue Serbia for genocide and wants its leaders to atone for crimes committed during a 1998-9 war and for the systematic oppression of Kosovar Albanians that preceded it, the country’s new president has said.
Vjosa Osmani says justice for the 13,000 people killed in the conflict, the one million displaced or expelled and the 1,600 who are still missing, must be the foundation for a long-sought deal to normalise relations with Serbia, which is a condition for both Balkan states to eventually join the European Union.
The US-educated lawyer also accuses her counterpart in Belgrade, Aleksandar Vucic, of sharing the expansionist mindset of Slobodan Milosevic, the nationalist Serbian leader whose belligerence was a catalyst for the wars that destroyed Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and whom he served as information minister.
Osmani’s stance will raise hackles in Serbia, but she says Kosovo is ready to wait years if necessary for a “quality” deal that secures Belgrade’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence without any changes to its current borders.
“Our main job is to speak on behalf of the victims and their families. So the missing persons are our number one priority,” says Osmani, who as a teenager trekked hundreds of kilometres with fellow Kosovars to seek safety from a brutal Serbian crackdown on separatist rebels fighting to end Belgrade’s rule over Kosovo.
“Also war reparations for all the destruction that Serbia caused in Kosovo, and not just during the war but since 1989, when Milosevic came to power and led an apartheid-like system in our country,” she says. “And finally justice, which is a precondition for peace.”
Kosovo’s parliament elected Osmani (38) as president last week, with the backing of prime minister Albin Kurti and his Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) party.
Their alliance in February’s national election and focus on “jobs and justice” for Kosovo’s 1.8 million people secured a landslide victory, and Osmani’s own tally of 300,000 votes has confirmed her status as the nation’s most popular politician.
She says Kosovo’s leaders are now analysing the history of its EU-brokered talks with Serbia, so as to gear future negotiations towards improving the lives of Kosovo’s people and securing “the key component” – mutual recognition between Kosovo and Serbia and their current borders.
“There is no price and no pressure that would make us give up or give in with respect to those principles ... We are going to sit at that table [with Serbia] precisely so we can look in their eyes, so that they can ask for forgiveness for crimes that were committed,” she says.
Claims of genocide
She is convinced that those crimes, which she describes as “beyond human imagination”, constitute not only ethnic cleansing but genocide: “The will and intention of Serbia to exterminate, to destroy a people based on their nationality, was clear.”
“So we will be preparing as a country for a genocide case against Serbia as soon as we are ready for that, legally and in terms of the evidence ... The witnesses, most of them are still alive, and the evidence is there and it’s clear-cut,” she said.
Osmani does not say which court could hear such a case, and legal experts note the difficulty of proving that a state committed genocide.
An international court convicted Bosnian Serb military and political officials of committing genocide against Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995, but the United Nations’ highest court ruled that while Serbia had failed in its duty to prevent genocide there, it was not directly responsible for the massacre.
Serbia’s official commemoration of the Kosovo war focuses on Serbian victims of Nato bombing that forced Milosevic to end his crackdown in June 1999, and left Kosovo under UN administration until it declared independence in 2008.
Serbian courts have not launched a significant new trial related to the Kosovo conflict in several years, existing cases are beset by long delays, and Serbs convicted of war crimes by international tribunals are often welcomed home as heroes.
“So when the time comes for the Kosovo delegation to sit with the president of Serbia, our very first question will be: where are our loved ones?” Osmani says of the 1,600 people still missing from the Kosovo war.
Vucic has admitted making mistakes in his political past without clearly denouncing Milosevic and his dream of “Greater Serbia”. In 2018, he said Milosevic “was a great Serbian leader whose intentions were certainly for the best, but our results were very poor”.
Vucic and Kosovo’s previous president, Hashim Thaci, were widely reported to have considered a “land swap” as part of a Serbia-Kosovo deal, despite warnings that changing borders in the Balkans could ignite violence. Thaci, who was a leader of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, is now awaiting trial at a war crimes court in the Hague.
Osmani says an exchange of territory is impossible, and believes Vucic “is yet to prove that he has broken away from the past mindset of Milosevic”.
“I think he is pursuing a similar strategy through different means; obviously not through war and destruction and violence but through a different strategy, which still aims at grasping more territories and doesn’t really care about the fate of the people.”
A first meeting with Vucic may be some way off, and Osmani says her current priority is to source Covid-19 vaccines for a country that has received just 24,000 doses.
“The message I’m conveying to all international partners is that we cannot focus – and neither should they – on the [Kosovo-Serbia] dialogue while people are dying. We need vaccines right now, not the dialogue.”