Creating a state of denial

Published on April 3, 2007, International Herald Tribune

Category: Organized Crime in Kosovo

By Svante E. Cornell and Michael Jonsson

UPPSALA, Sweden: After almost eight years of sustained efforts and billions of dollars, Washington and Brussels are determined to create an independent state of Kosovo.

What they are ushering into existence, however, looks set to become a heavily criminalized state in the heart of Europe, with far- reaching implications.

When the international community intervened in Kosovo in 1999, it had the right intentions but the wrong friends. The United States and its allies did not reward the popular Kosovar leader Ibrahim Rugova for eight years of patient resistance against Serbian maltreatment, but only acted decisively after the paramilitary Kosovo Liberation Army provoked the Yugoslav military into a major crackdown, which led to the Kosovo war.

This was understandable, probably unavoidable, but also unfortunate. Much of what ails Kosovo today stems in part from the failure to deal with the side-effects of the intervention and with the continued power of the now-disbanded KLA.

The war gave the KLA increased legitimacy, following and funding. But the KLA was hardly a poster child for high-minded guerrilla warfare. Considered a terrorist organization by the United States and other Western governments, during the war it used lethal force against competing Kosovar political movements and Kosovars suspected of collaboration with the Serbs.

It received extensive funding from drug trafficking and engaged in serious human rights violations. In spite of this track record, once the war finished, the KLA was allowed to reinvent itself into a political party, the PDK, and to form most of the Kosovo Protection Corps as well as the police force.

The consequences were entirely predictable. Several members of Rugova's popular LDK party were attacked and killed, creating a situation in which the two leading parties in Kosovo developed their own semi-official "security services."

Albanian organized crime cashed in on alliances created with leading Kosovar Albanian politicians and today control much of the heroin traffic to Western Europe.

Remnants of the KLA -- and its funding network -- were involved in fomenting unrest in southern Serbia and northern Macedonia, twice bringing the latter to the brink of full-blown conflict. Members of the Kosovo Protection Corps have also been arrested on charges of killing civilian Serbs.

The KLA legacy groups have created a major problem for the UN Mission in Kosovo and the multinational Kosovo Force.

In March 2004, KLA-affiliated groups organized riots against the detention of their leaders on war- crime charges. Massive unrest over the following days killed 19 and injured hundreds. Many Kosovar policemen -- also with roots in the KLA -- did nothing, while others took active part in the rioting.

In private, members of the UN police force acknowledge that they and the multinational forces in Kosovo have become reluctant to target former KLA members involved in organized crime.

After a year of negotiations on Kosovo's status, the special UN envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, has stated that "the potential for negotiations is exhausted." Ahtissari's plan, which would grant Kosovo de-facto statehood under limited European supervision, is currently before the UN Security Council.

Serbia has rejected the plan and Russian officials have hinted that they may use their veto. On the other hand, Kosovar groups have threatened extensive riots if Kosovar aspirations for indepedence are further frustrated, in effect blackmailing the international community.

Even if this impasse is successfully resolved, the Kosovo problem will not be. The leadership of the new state would at best be under heavy influence from organized crime, and at worst in direct collusion with criminal groups.

In June 2003, a spokesman for the UN police said that Kosovo "is not a society affected by organized crime, but a society founded on organized crime."

Some European officials insist that things have improved since then, but local analysts disagree. As a local expert told the authors, it is more appropriate to speak of "state institutionalized crime" than "organized crime" in Kosovo.

As the record in many post-Communist countries shows, the salience of corruption and organized crime has the potential to thwart all forms of political and economic development and to turn countries into failing states.

Clearly, the Kosovo question offers few positive policy options. Handing the province back to Serbia would hardly solve any problems. Neither would continuing to hold it in limbo.

But unless decisive steps are taken to clamp down on organized crime and its linkages to Kosovo's political elite while the international community still has jurisdiction over the territory, there will be many opportunities to regret the mistake and few to amend it.

Svante E. Cornell is research director, and Michael Jonsson a researcher, at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a joint center at Johns Hopkins University-SAIS and Uppsala University, Sweden.

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