Kosovar PM: Our Independent Nation Will Not Be Islamic

Just days before declaring Kosovo's independence, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, the "Ben Gurion of Kosovo," called on Israel to recognize his nation's independence. "We would like and we expect Israel to be on board with all those democratic countries of the world which will immediately recognize Kosovo's independence," says Thaci in an interview with Haaretz. And he also wants to reassure us: Under no circumstances will independent Kosovo be an Islamic nation.

Next Sunday, February 17, is the date on which, according to most indications, Thaci will declare Kosovo's independence. It will put an end to hundreds of years of Ottoman, Yugoslavian and Serbian rule, which saw oppression and ethnic cleansing in the region. The bloodshed ended only in 1999 after NATO's bombing campaign against Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian forces.

Independence Day celebrations are already underway. As is the declaration of independence. "The declaration of Kosovo's independence is inspired by the Kosovar people's will.," says Thaci. "Regarding the issue of flag, anthem and other national symbols, there are specific committees set up for these purposes. Kosovo's state symbols will all be ready on Independence Day."

Israel is also a source of inspiration. "I love Israel," said Thaci in December 2007 to a JTA reporter. "It's a wonderful country," said the man who used to be the tough political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), sounding to the journalist like a child recalling his last trip to Disney World.

His impressions were apparently influenced by the network of contacts he made here. Dov Weisglass, former prime minister Ariel Sharon's adviser, was involved in a recent trip he made to Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu's former adviser, American Arthur Finkelstein gave him political advice, and the former governor of the Bank of Israel, David Klein offered him economic advice.

Common ties

Subsequently it might not be surprising that Thaci considers Sharon a "great leader." He has the same opinion of Benjamin Netanyahu. Actually it is surprising: Sharon was one of the few leaders who supported Slobodan Milosevic, and in 1999 came out against the separatist Albanians. As foreign minister during the Kosovo war, Sharon warned of the establishment of "Greater Albania," which would become a center for spreading Islamic terror in Europe. Because he was afraid of creating a precedent whose consequences were liable to affect the Middle East as well, Sharon added that belligerent intervention of the kind used by NATO in Kosovo should not be legitimized.

The Serbs say they are very close to Israel due to a "common history and common heritage." In some circles in Jerusalem, there are those who compare Serbia to Israel, and on the other hand, compare the Kosovars to the Palestinians who aspire to their own independence. Thaci is put off by these claims. "The arguments for the abovementioned comparison are false. I cannot speak for Israel or for Serbia," he said, "but I can speak for my country and my people. Kosovo cannot be compared with any other country elsewhere, Kosovo is a unique case."

"I don't know what kind of support Milosevic was given (by Israel - A.P.) ," says Thaci in a dig at Israel, "but I know very well that the whole democratic world has punished Milosevic for genocide, not only for the crimes committed in Kosovo but also in other former Yugoslav republics. And I don't have to remind anybody about his ultimate fate as a war criminal indicted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague."

Thaci also denies the "Greater Albania" scenario: "Albanians living in Albania live in their own independent country. Kosovars [90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians] will also live and build their future in their independent Kosovo. The phrase of the so-called 'Greater Albania' is also false and Serbian propaganda. The future of Kosovo and Albania together with the rest of the Western Balkan countries lies within the European Union and this is the only point which brings all of us together."

The argument that Kosovar independence would create an Islamic state in the heart of Europe, a state that would rely on Saudi and Iranian support, is even more insulting to him. "This question does not even deserve a comment," he says, and nevertheless decides to reply. "If there is any model in the world that illustrates the good coexistence of various religious communities, it's Kosovo. These false arguments have been launched by the Slobodan Milosevic regime and belong to the past."

At a time when in Turkey, which also wants to join Europe, the battle over the religious character of the state is heating up, Thaci promises: "Kosovo is going to be a democratic and secular state of all its citizens, and the freedom to exercise religion without any hindrance is granted by the Kosovo Constitution."

Experts on the Balkans believe that Kosovo can in fact become a unique model. The Kosovars tend to emphasize their nationality far more than their religious identity, which was forced on them by the Ottomans in the 15th and 16th centuries. Even today, it is claimed, one can find many more radical Islamists in London or Brooklyn than in all of Kosovo. Kosovar society is mainly secular, its Islam is moderate and will remain so, one reason being that the new state will not be able to survive outside of the European arena.

Thaci, 39, was born in the Drenica Valley - a bastion of Albanian nationalism in Kosovo and the focus of the armed struggle against Serbian rule. He studied philosophy and political science at the University of Pristina, and was one of the student leaders in the years 1989-1991.

He was involved in organizing demonstrations against Belgrade and in clandestine training of armed groups. In 1995 he continued his studies in Switzerland, where he was also involved in raising money to fund the rebellion. When he returned to Kosovo, Thaci assumed the nom de guerre "the Snake," and within a short time became the political leader of the KLA - "the Gerry Adams [former leader of the political arm of the IRA] of Kosovo," was the nickname given to him in some Western capitals.

His abilities and his political cunning were first revealed at the Rambouillet Conference, which was held in France in 1999, and during which he represented Kosovar interests against Serbia. He was then under heavy pressure from his colleagues in the leadership of the KLA, who refused to support any arrangement that did not grant full independence to the district. His insistence on signing the document led to the isolation of the Serbs, who refused to withdraw their forces from the province as required of them in the agreement. That was the signal that launched the NATO bombings of Kosovo, which lasted for 78 days and during which the Serbian forces expanded the campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Albanians. Thousands were murdered and hundreds of thousands became refugees.

'Snake' turned moderate

There are some who see similarities between the Snake, who in the past was involved in acts described as "terrorist," between the tough fighter who removed his uniform, became a moderate politician and won the elections - and former Israeli prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, who rebelled against British rule.

The comparison seems to embarrass Thaci. He uses it to downplay his role and to point out that he was only a link in a chain. "I was lucky and at the same time very proud that I had my chance to serve my country and my people. The struggle for freedom has long roots in the past and many of my fellow citizens have sacrificed their lives for that. When our turn came, we did our part also and we succeeded because we got the support of all the Kosovo people and the support of the biggest military alliance: NATO."

When asked to share his feelings with the readers of Haaretz, a moment before the global spotlights are turned on him, he declares: "Well, I had three main objectives in my life. The first one was to mobilize and organize my people in the struggle for freedom. This goal was achieved on June 1999 with the support of NATO. My people today breathe freely. The second goal, immediately after the war, was to convince the democratic world to recognize the legitimate right of the Kosovo's people for independence. In very few days, Kosovo will become the newest independent democratic state recognized internationally. My third goal is to make Kosovo economically developed. Kosovo has great potential and has both the human and natural resources to achieve this goal."

Thaci's associates say his warm attitude towards Israel is based on four components: what he sees as the similar fate of the two nations; the state-building model he wants to adopt; his total reliance on the United States and its international policy; and the assistance that he hopes to receive from Israeli and Jewish investors to fulfill his third objective - economic stability. "All the necessary prerequisites for safe and successful investments are in place" here, he says, turning to Israeli investors.

The speculation that the independence of Kosovo will create a "domino effect" that will undermine regional stability and will lead to the outbreak of new and existing conflicts and to global deterioration, does not change his assessments: "I consider these threats as pure rhetoric used by Serbian politicians for domestic consumption in Serbia."

And as for Russian intervention? "The Cold War is over, and in any case together with UNMIK [the UN Civil Administration] and KFOR [the NATO peacekeeping force] we have undertaken all necessary steps to be able to respond promptly to any kind of situation."

"Kosovo is a unique case," he claims repeatedly, without elaborating. "It should not represent any precedent. Kosovo's independence will be the cornerstone for the peace and stability in the Balkans. This excludes completely the possibility of any negative domino effect. Kosovo's independence will usher in a long period of peace and cooperation."