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Charismatic leadership theory - or how to turn a terrorist into a respectable diplomat. ( 0) Printer friendly page Print This
By Andreea C. Zugravu*. Axis of Logic.
Axis of Logic
Tuesday, Nov 10, 2009


Hashim Thaci, former terrorist -current US-backed PM of Kosovo

This is the story of a young, brave man named Hashim Thaci. Hashim is the Prime-Minister of the newest state in the world, Kosovo. But this has not always been the case for Hashim. He had to face a lot of obstacles to get where he is, sell a lot of cocaine and occasionally kill a lot of people. Thank God, he had the Clintons by his side...

Theoretical constructs- Weber and Tucker on charismatic leadership

Sociologist Max Weber designed a tripartite division for forms of legitimate authority: traditional, legal-rational, and charismatic.[1] According to Weber, a charismatic leader has a recognized rare gift that sets him apart from the followers, something unique that allows him to position himself among his peers almost as a savior. Weber's theory has the strong merit of taking the concept of charisma from its religious context and applying it to the world of politics. Though filled with invaluable insights, the concept of charisma developed by Weber presents no adequate operational framework to be applied in the realm of political leadership. Now, why is this important? There are numerous reasons, but the one of particular interest in the matter under discussion relates to charismatic leaders in non-state armed groups: terrorists, militias, insurgents or members of organized crime units.

Identifying leaders with charisma among such groups can help determine which of these generals, revolutionaries or criminals have the potential to successfully transition into a role within a legitimate, established political system. Being able to identify which of these individuals are most likely to be able to operate under international legal standards while maintaining their charisma among the population, shapes the way state actors use “diplomatic tools”[2] to bridge dialog, engage in talks and offer support to the "right" individuals. Questions are raised: Is supporting revolutionaries, generals and other non-state actors, a smart decision? Can one actually make the distinction between these individuals, determining those who might become a successful political leader? These are interesting questions that will be left for another time ...


Parallel of theoretical constructs and Hashim Thaci’s story

In order to operate with the concept of "charismatic leadership”, Robert Tucker[3] argues that one has to look, not at the current position of power that the subject occupies, but at the way he acceded to power, as well as the social, economic and political context in which he did so. This is where it starts to get messy for poor Hashim. He was born in 1968, in Brocna, a municipality of Srbica. He got a BA from the University of Pristina in philosophy and history and attended postgraduate studies in the University of Zurich, with a focus on International Relations and History of South-East Europe. Good job, Hashim! So what if some of your former classmates don't remember you as a “model student”![4] They must be biased against you for whatever reasons and they're just giving you a hard-time! After all, who didn't go around fighting and stealing in college?

Thaci with his criminal gang in 1993

While in Switzerland, Hashim Thaci flirted with Marxism-Leninism and was one of the founders of the People's Movement of Kosovo (LPK), aiming to revive the century long dream of Greater Albania. It is this point of Thaci’s life that we can understand by applying Weber’s analysis on charismatic leadership. According to Weber, a charismatic leader is the head of a new social movement whose mission and vision inspire others and who is often credited with having divine or supernatural powers. Charisma is alien to the daily routine. A charismatic leader often says very controversial things, rejects old rules and demands change.

For example, Thaci’s rise was in contrast with Ibrahim Rugova’s temporary decline. Rugova, often referred to as "The Ghandi of Pristina”[5] , was the leader and founder of the Democratic League of Kosovo (1989), and he demanded the independence of the province. However, when the war in Yugoslavia erupted, Rugova insisted on maintaining a non-violent strategy, against those who were advocating for a more aggressive attitude. After seeing thousands of refugees in Croatia and Bosnia, he feared that starting a war would induce the same fate to the Kosovo-Albanian population. Instead, he was determined to pursue the solution of a parallel state. Of course, this was not the path Thaci deemed reasonable.

Thaci committed his first terrorist act in 1993 when together with Rafet Rama, Jakup Nuri, Sami Ljustu and others, he attacked the Serbian Police at Glogovac and killed two police officers and wounded five others. Through such actions, he speculated that a politically-passive approach would produce disillusionment among the population, and in 1996 founded the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). In the organization his skills were indeed “divine”: he projected daily financial statements and computed additional finance needed for the KLA to sustain its operations. In addition to his budgeting skills (which proved successful), he also excelled in securing armaments and recruiting paramilitaries.

A young Hashim Thaci as a civilian
with a group of Kosovo soldiers

It is interesting from a charismatic leadership perspective to analyze Thaci's war-name: Gjarperi (The Snake)[6]. Weber consistently advocated for the perception of a divine skill that positions a certain leader above his followers. Does the nickname “Snake” suggest the courage of Thaci or perhaps another trait of his personality? It's highly different than Massound's "Lion of the Panjshir"[7], isn't it? Thaci himself gives us a hint about his extraordinary leadership abilities. When he published his memoirs in 2000, he admitted having intentionally and consistently provoked Serbian police forces, hoping they would retaliate. Make no mistake, they did! And they certainly did not pass O'Brien's "Just and limited war"[8] test, i.e. “the proportion of the attack should equal the proportion of the retaliation” - when doing it. But the strategic thinking, or simply put shrewdness, and the modus operandi Thaci inspired within KLA positioned him as the leader of the Kosovar-Albanians, in the midst of their movement and quest for independence. It should also be mentioned that there were some who believe that he was the movement. He identified the distress factors of the Kosovo Albanians (poverty, discrimination, and fear) which he promised to relieve. No doubt, Hashim Thaci would have made Max Weber proud.

Legitimization and routinization of his charisma

In March 1999, Thaci participated in the Rambouillet negotiations as the leader of the Kosovar Albanians. At the time, our Thaci was tightly hugged by Madeline Albright and respected for his quest for freedom and self determination for the Kosovars. Now how honest and real was this Peace Agreement? And what was Bill Clinton’s purpose behind it? In the agreement it was proposed that within three years Kosovo would have the freedom to hold a referendum on independence (and if decided, possibly even annexation to Albania). However, the interesting part of the agreement was hidden in the appendix! More precisely, in Appendix B which gave NATO the right to deploy forces on the whole of Serbia, not just Kosovo (including usage of air space and waters).

Hashim Thaci and Madeline meet at
the Rambouillet negotiations in 1999

Thus, if we have to call it by its name, signing this agreement was actually an act of accepting occupation.

The negotiations failed, but his presence was of immense strategic importance. First, it legitimized KLA and more importantly, it legitimized Thaci in the eyes of the international community. Leaders perceived him as a "rational" actor, and his openness towards the negotiation, at a time when others regarded independence as the only acceptable solution, was admittedly a brilliant strategy. He emerged from the negotiations as the strongest leader, and backed by the United States[9], he rapidly capitalized on this momentum, naming himself, Prime-Minister.

In the same year, Thaci played with a few Stalinist-practices and eliminated all his competition within KLA. At the end of the hostilities, Thaci transformed his ad-hoc charisma into a traditional, legal talent. According to Weber, charismatic authority can be “routinized” in a number of ways: orders are traditionalized, the staff (followers) change into a legal or “estate-like” (traditional) staff, and/or the very meaning of charisma may undergo change. In the case of Thaci, he and his former KLA members, reinvented themselves into respectable positions of statesmen, occupying roles in the newly formed regime.[9] He first upgraded the organization to a resistance movement and afterwards, a political force, paving his way from terrorist to diplomat and statesman.

Kosovo under Thaci

Hashim Thaci completed his journey from criminal/terrorist to the US-backed PM of Kosovo when he won the election in 2007.

Now, at this point, one might think that the story is over. Of course not. Remember, we are dealing with “The Snake” here! It’s very interesting to see what happened in Kosovo under Thaci. At the end of the Clinton-led NATO strike against Yugoslavia, the Serbian army had left Kosovo. On the other hand, 40 000 NATO troops came in order to restore peace and order. Were they successful? Certainly! - if by peace and order one means ethnic purification. The KLA started a terror campaign against all non-Albanians in Kosovo: Serbs, Romanians, Jews, Turks, Slavic Muslims and Croats.[10] The ethnic cleansing was not only aimed at the people themselves, but also to their history and culture. For example, about 70 churches and monasteries were destroyed while NATO was acting as a spectator.[11]

US interest in Kosovo

Until 1998, the KLA was on United States’ list of the most dangerous criminal and terrorist organizations in the world. But the Clinton administration decided to switch horses in mid-stream and remove these labels. Now, there is a great deal of debate regarding Clinton’s motivation and US interests in Kosovo. There is the clean approach that suggests Clinton was driven to make the U.S. a global player on issues relating to enforcing peace. Then there is a second view which is more conspiratorial which is beyond the purview of this article. However, if we decide to judge the war based on the first approach, i.e. moral grounds, it logically follows that we should also judge the results of the war on the same moral grounds.

On one hand, one of the main reasons for the military offensive, as stated by Clinton, was the massacre in Racak. Later on, reports cast doubt on the nature of those killings, and some argue that they were likely staged by KLA to get the support from American public opinion. On the other hand, the desire to punish Milosevich went beyond international law, and resulted in many civilian casualties. During the bombing campaign, Serbian forces retaliated and punished Kosovo-Albanians and after the war, the KLA did the same to the Serbs who remained in Kosovo.

Is this result consistent with the high moral ground, claimed by the US at the time? Was either, the cause of peace or the interests of the United States best served by Clinton? Well, the results 10 years later are a Kosovo state (highly unstable, barely even qualifying as a state) and a Serbian state, which refuses to renovate the NATO bombed buildings in order to remind its citizens who their enemy really was. For his strong support of KLA, Thaci and the Kosovars consider Clinton a hero, proof being his 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) high statue in Pristina[12] , inaugurated and unveiled by Clinton himself just few days ago. In Serbia, he has managed to alienate the US completely. His efforts are indeed heroic…

Clinton unveils a statue built for him by the Thaci regime.

Another story the West avoids mentioning[13] is Hashim Thaci’s involvement in criminal organizations. Thaci is known as the organizer of the Drenica Group, one of the most known transnational criminal organizations in Western Balkans, with ties in Albania, Macedonia and the Czech Republic. The organization is extensively linked with weapons smuggling, human trafficking, prostitution, automobile theft and cocaine and heroin traffic. Kosovo and Albania are major heroin transit routes into Europe. According to a 2008 US State Department annual report on international narcotics traffic, several key routes pass through the Balkans. Kosovo is mentioned as a conduit in the route from Afghanistan through Turkey to Western Europe. All this happens "under the watchful eye of the Thaci government.”[14] In 2005, a 67 page German BND report labeled “Top Secret”, which has been leaked to the public, stated among other things: "Through the key players....Thaci, Haliti, Haradinaj- there is the closest interlink between politics, the economy and international organized crime in Kosovo". Other Interpol and the US Congress documents link KLA with terrorist camp training run by Osama bin Laden. Those reports[15] stated that Bin Laden's organization has both, trained and financially supported the KLA.

This tight nexus of politics, criminal organization and terrorism, casts doubt on the Prime-Minister's agenda. Will he be able to maintain his leadership authority over the Kosovar Albanians now that the "aura" of the rebel has been replaced with that of a respectable diplomat? In my view, it will not last. Without the presence of an external threat, Thaci will most likely face the same decrease in legitimacy every corrupt government faces. Would that be enough to make him "reinvent" himself? Will that be enough to remove him from power? Either outcome is highly doubtful.

Thaci is the live personification of an academician's struggle to define and label non-state actors. What is he? A terrorist? An insurgent? A freedom fighter? Or a mere criminal with guns and power...and international support? I’m frankly not sure which one is to be feared the most.

ANDREEA C ZUGRAVU is a native of Romania. She is currently a student in the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in MA where she enrolled in advanced studies in Law and Diplomacy with a concentration in International Security Studies and International Business Relations. She graduated from West University in Timisoara, Romania with a concentration in International Relations and European Studies. She is the founding member of the Group for University Reform and The International Relations Club. Her graduate thesis was on Aspects of Democratization in the Former Yugoslavia: Elections and Electoral Behavior in the Republic of Macedonia. She a founding member and president of the Volunteers Club of The Association for Promoting Women’s Rights in Romania. Professionally, Andreea has worked for Corel Constructions Ltd in Timisoara, Romania and Skopje, Macedonia where she coordinated four major construction projects in Timisoara, Romani and develped business opportunities and strategic partnerships. She is proficient in 6 languages and has working knowledge of Arabic.


  1. Max Weber, Theory of social and economic organization, New York, 1947

  2. Casey Johnson, Charisma in Modern Islamic Revolutionary Movements: The Case of Ahmad Shah Massoud, Fletcher al Nakhlah, Fall 2007, pp 35-45

  3. Robert Tucker, The theory of charismatic leadership, Daedalus, 1968, pp. 731-756

  4. Can Karpat, Hashim Thaci or When the Little Red-Cap’s Wolf is Tamed, Global Challenges Research

  5. Can Karpat, Life of Ibrahim Rugova: Victory in Politics, Defeat to Cancer, Global Challenges Research

  6. Mark Tran, Profile: Hashim Thaci, The Guardian

  7. Ahmad Shah Massoud, Afghan National Hero

  8. William O’Brien, The Conduct of Just and Limited War, New York, Praeger 1981

  9. In April 2000, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright "ordered The Hague chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte to omit from the list of war crime suspects Hashim Thaci. In July 2003, he was arrested in Budapest on an Interpol warrant, but was immediately released following a request of the UN Mission in Kosovo

  10. Kosovo Clashes 'Ethnic Cleansing", BBC; Serbs are now victims of ethnic cleansing, Converge

  11. Nato in the Balkans: Jews and the Kosovo Crisis, Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Raska and Prizren

  12. Clinton Larger than Life in Kosovo, Boston Globe

  13. Let’s just say that the US and major powers, as well as the UN, do not like it when they are portrayed as supporting criminals.

  14. F. William Engdahl, Kosovo and Washington’s Strategic Agenda for Europe and Eurasia , Geopolitics - Geoeconomics

  15. Kosovo: The US and the EU support a Political Process linked to Organized Crime. Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci is part of a criminal syndicate, Global Research


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