Report: West tolerated Kosovo mafia

EULEX Kosovo.jpg

A Council of Europe draft report alleging that Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi is a Mafia-style boss spells out a truth that diplomats privately acknowledge: the West in Kosovo has favoured stability over justice.

The crime and corruption given succour by such an approach over the past decade has deterred foreign investment and left Kosovo among the most destitute regions in Europe.

"The international organisations […] in Kosovo favoured a pragmatic political approach, taking the view that they needed to promote short-term stability at any price, thereby sacrificing some important principles of justice," Dick Marty, rapporteur for the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly committee on legal affairs, wrote in his draft report.

Marty is a Swiss Liberal Democrat, who gained notoriety as Council of Europe rapporteur on US rendition flights and secret prisons, including in Europe.

Diplomats say recent history in a country that remains an international protectorate shows a Faustian bargain for a new state in an unstable region wracked by ethnic wars in the 1990s.

"You have to deal with those who wield the power," said a veteran EU diplomat with long experience in Kosovo. The strategy is "stability first, and then we look at all the other elements of creating a society".

Kosovo has received four billion euros in international aid since the 1999 war. That, plus proceeds from privatisations, along with drug trafficking and other scourges, created huge opportunities for crime and corruption in a country of two million, most of whom are ethnic Albanians, without an effective rule of law.

"There's a lot of thugs around, a lot of criminal activity," said William Walker, a former US diplomat who headed the Organisation for Security and Cooperation mission in Kosovo in the late 1990s.

"I fault the international community as much as the Albanians. They feel that the PDK represents stability," he said of Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi's party, which came first in Sunday's first post-independence election with a third of the vote.

Marty's report said Thaçi served as a mafia-like crime boss during the war, leading a group that committed assassinations, beatings, trafficking in organs and drugs and other crimes. Reportedly, the organ-trafficking ring operated also in Albania, when forced removal of organs was taking place.

"Thaçi and these other 'Drenica Group' members are consistently named as 'key players' in intelligence reports on Kosovo's mafia-like structures of organised crime," said the draft report.

The 'Drenica Group' is named after a valley in Kosovo, traditional heartland of ethnic Albanian resistance to Serb oppression under Slobodan Milosevic, and birthplace of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

"We found that the 'Drenica Group' had as its chief – or, to use the terminology of organised crime networks, its 'boss' – the renowned political operator and perhaps most internationally recognised personality of the KLA, Hashim Thaçi," said the report.

Serbia questioned whether Thaçi could politically survive the allegations.

"I don't know what sort of future this person has," said Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremi?, speaking in Moscow.

EU invites Marty to provide evidence

Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said on Wednesday that the Union's services "take allegations on war crimes and organised crime extremely seriously".

"If the rapporteur, Mr. Marty, has any concrete evidence we invite him to bring this forward to the relevant authorities," she said, later specifying that this included the EU's police and justice mission EULEX.

Kocijancic also indicated that Thaçi was not "untouchable", as his own entourage suggest, hinting at the US support for the former KLA leader.

Kleptocracy rules?

This summer, Kosovo's European Union police and justice mission (EULEX) arrested the central bank governor on charges of money laundering, tax evasion and accepting bribes.

Also, a European Union prosecutor recently named seven suspects in connection with an international organ trafficking network. According to press reports, at least one of them held a high position in Kosovo's health ministry.

"EULEX needs to step up its activity and deliver long-promised arrests of high-ranking corrupt public officials," US Ambassador Christopher Dell said in a confidential cable earlier this year, released last week by Wikileaks.

Otherwise, "we risk that our rule-of-law reforms will fall flat and leave the public with a perception that the government is little more than a kleptocracy," he wrote.

Andy Sparkes, deputy head of EULEX, said the 1,800-person strong organisation was aware of the criticism but had limited resources. "We can't cover absolutely everything. EULEX would like to score more successes, make more of an impact," he said.

Tolerance of official crime and corruption has left the small, southern Balkan country mired in poverty, with nearly half the population officially unemployed.

"It is very serious: we have a decrease of FDI [foreign direct investment], we have a serious decrease of private sector development," said Muhamet Mustafa, an economist who ran for parliament for one of the smaller opposition parties.

"We need a growth rate of more than 7% to take off with the economy, but it is impossible without FDI and more serious investment in the private sector."

Diplomats who do not want to be named say they know of many allegations of high-level crime and corruption in Kosovo, but see far fewer high-level convictions.

"Kosovo has a very poor reputation internationally, therefore can't attract international investment," said a senior international diplomat.

Thaçi has raised eyebrows by building an 800-square metre house just outside the capital Pristina. Earlier this year he told Reuters he had taken out a bank loan to fund the project.

Like other countries emerging from Yugoslavia's collapse, Kosovo aspires to join the EU but is expected to be the last to make the cut. In its 2010 progress report on Kosovo last month, the European Commission was blunt on crime and corruption.

"Available information revealed discrepancies between the income and properties of senior Kosovo officials," the report said. "This indicates widespread corruption at high levels in Kosovo persists. This fact has not been followed up by public debate or investigations of the relevant bodies, showing a distinct lack of political will in fighting corruption."

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

The Albanian judiciary should conduct the investigation in Albania, while in Kosovo the European Union mission should take the lead, Human Rights Watch said.

"The international community can no longer ignore credible allegations of serious crimes in Kosovo and Albania," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "The US and European governments must demand prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations, with prosecutions of those responsible."

"The US and European governments should give EULEX their full financial and political support so it can pursue these difficult investigations," said Roth. "And Washington and Brussels should make clear to the Kosovo and Albanian authorities that closer ties will depend on their commitment to justice."

Kosovo, the smallest Balkan nation, seceded from Serbia in 2008, nine years after the end of a 1998-1999 war between Belgrade's security forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas. In the following years, Kosovo was an international protectorate patrolled by NATO peacekeepers. 

After Kosovo declared independence on 17 February 2008, the two million-strong republic, 90% of whose population is ethnic Albanian, established many of the trappings of statehood including a new constitution, army, national anthem, flag, passports, identity cards and an intelligence agency. 

Most EU countries, except Spain, Greece, Romania, Cyprus and Slovakia, have recognized the independence of Kosovo. From all UN members, 69 have recognized Kosovo so far.

On October 2009, the United Nations approved Serbia's request to ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) whether Kosovo's secession from Serbia was legal. On 22 July 2010 the ICJ delivered its ruling, which was ambiguous in many ways, but still said that Kosovo did not violate international law when it claimed secession from Serbia.

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