Kosovo’s ex-president Hashim Thaci, whose war crimes trial begins in The Hague on Monday, is a former rebel leader who fought for Kosovo’s independence and dominated the young nation’s democracy for years.
For over two decades, Thaci has played a central role on Kosovo’s political scene, making his name during the 1998-1999 war with Serbia as the political leader of the pro-independence ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).
The tall, silver-haired 54-year-old — who also served more than seven years as prime minister — saw his popularity soar when he helped oversee Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008, just three months after winning an election.
But his image was tarnished by a 2010 Council of Europe report that linked him to organised crime and politically motivated murders of Serb, Albanian and Roma civilians during and after the war.
In the years since, he has also faced accusations of corruption, clientelism and cynical politicking that have blighted Kosovo’s first decade of independence.
But it was the war-era allegations that abruptly ended his presidency and have seen him spend the past two years waiting behind bars to stand trial.
Thaci resigned as president of Kosovo in 2020, after a judge in The Hague confirmed an indictment against him for crimes including murder, torture, illegal detention, enforced disappearances and persecution.
“These are not easy moments for me and my family, and for those who have supported and believed in me in the past three decades of our struggle for freedom, independence and nation-building,” he said when he announced his resignation.
Born on April 24, 1968, in the Drenica region of western Kosovo — a hotbed of separatism among Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian community — Thaci was involved in passive resistance to the Belgrade authorities from the early 1990s as a student.
He later moved to Switzerland, home to a large Albanian diaspora, where he studied history.
Together with ultra-leftists in the diaspora, he became frustrated by the policy of peaceful opposition to Belgrade’s repression of ethnic Albanians followed by late Kosovo president Ibrahim Rugova.
Instead, he corralled other like-minded ethnic Albanians into an underground guerrilla army, the KLA, to take on the forces of then Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Thaci earned the nom de guerre of “Snake” during the conflict, when he served as the KLA’s political leader.
More than 13,000 lives, mainly ethnic Albanians, were lost in the war that ended after NATO intervened in 1999, ousting Serb forces and establishing United Nations administration over Kosovo.
Thaci then downed his guns and donned a suit to join politics, leading then US vice president Joe Biden to once hail him as the “George Washington of Kosovo”.
He only won elections in November 2007 after the death the previous year of Rugova, who was regarded as the father of the nation and had proved unbeatable in all post-war polls.
Three months later, under Thaci’s leadership, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia.
He has since remained at the heart of power in Kosovo, notably becoming president in 2016, despite accusations of corruption from his critics.
He has always denied any wrongdoing during the war, describing it as a “just” rebellion against Serbian repression.
“Political mistakes in peace I could have made, but war crimes, never,” he said in 2020, fulfilling his promise that he would “immediately resign” if an indictment against him was confirmed.
“I will not face justice from this office,” he said.