Confusion and Corruption in Kosovo The Slow Birth of a Nation


Part 2: More Greed Than Pioneer Spirit

Grateful graffiti, after Kosovo's independence in February.

Grateful graffiti, after Kosovo's independence in February.

It's estimated that 20 percent of Kosovars are illiterate, while more than 90 percent have a minimal education. The consequences of Serbian colonial policy under Milosevic have left their mark. Kosovo's three-percent economic growth is insufficient to provide adequate employment for the new crop of young people entering the labor market every year.

According to economist Muhamet Mustafa of the Riinvest Institute for Development Research in Pristina, the black market economy is responsible for 30 to 40 percent of Kosovo's gross national product. The path up the economic ladder is as good as blocked for the country's youngest and most hopeful.

"We must keep our best people in the country, but we lack young elites," says Harvard graduate Shpend Ahmeti, who heads the Institute for Advance Studies (GAP) and plans to establish an academy for future business leaders. Kosovo's main export is still scrap metal, but Ahmeti mentions what politicians intend to ask for at an upcoming international donors' conference -- a subway in the small industrial city of Ferizaj, for €36 million ($58 million), and an opera house dedicated to the now-deceased former president, Ibrahim Rugova, for €25 million ($40 million).

What embitters the idealists among international aid workers and democratic lone wolves among Kosovo's ethnic Albanians is that the UN mission tends to encourage greed, rather than a pioneering spirit. "Ninety percent of the people here come for the money," says a police official with the UN's organized crime division in Pristina. "The motivation (among UN workers) is moderate, people are constantly rotated, and we don't get the really good ones, anyway." Tours of duty in Kosovo, he says, are detrimental to careers at home.

Ten-Figure Sums and No Electricity

The UN mission is variously described as anything from a "paper tiger" to a "bureaucratic monster" to a "colonial administration," while much of its international personnel has the reputation of being in Kosovo either to pursue an adventure or for personal enrichment (From a 2007 study completed for the Bundeswehr)

In the upper management echelons at UNMIK, in the Kosovar government and in international consortiums, ten-figure sums of money are thrown around. For the planned Kosovo C brown coal heating power plant, a bidding war has reached €4 billion ($6.4 billion). The new plant is needed because the existing sections of the power plant, despite €1 billion ($1.6 billion) in investments in the power grid, can't deliver enough energy. Daily power outages last up to eight hours. Many people use diesel generators. But who's responsible for this electricity fiasco? Ethem Çeku is CEO of the current electricity monopoly. He's also the cousin of former Prime Minister Agim Çeku and has close ties to UNMIK Director Rücker. Çeku has also served as chairman of the steering committee in the race for the new €4 billion project. One of his former colleagues is part of the favored consortium, while other companies bidding on the power plant project include German energy giants EnBW and RWE.

Çeku and his lot, together with UNMIK leaders, form "a sort of Cosa Nostra for Kosovo," says Avni Zogiani, who heads the anti-corruption NGO called ÇOHU! ("Wake Up!"), despite risks to life and limb. He has received threats because he prepares dossiers on the sins of members of parliament, and because he, to the dissatisfaction of Western ambassadors of democracy, utters sentences like: "So far, UNMIK has worked primarily with criminals and made deals with the devil, merely for the sake of stability in the country." Zogiani's claim, says UNMIK Director Rücker, "does not coincide with reality."

In early April, Zogiani's organization filed a complaint with the special prosecutor in Pristina alleging favoritism within Kosovo's privatization agency. The accused is 39-year-old Hashim Thaçi, who, as one of the KLA commanders in the guerilla war against the Serbian army, was known by his combat name, "Snake." He is now Kosovo's prime minister.

Will his past matter? German author Jürgen Roth cites a 2005 intelligence study (from the Bundesnachrichtendienst) which asserts that as far back as 1999, at the time of the Serb-Albanian peace negotiations, Thaçi controlled "a criminal network active throughout Kosovo." According to the report, he is also suspected of having hired a "professional killer." Thaçi himself has declined to comment on these accusations. The prime minister is busy with governing and dealing with his party, the PDK. Thaçi -- with the support of Germany's left-leaning Friedrich Ebert Foundation -- is trying to establish the PDK within Europe's spectrum of leftist parties, where his old comrade-in-arms and former Prime Minister Agim Çeku also wants to build ties.

Women and Heroin

It is assumed that a corporate structure of organized crime and corruption is behind every political party in Kosovo. (The UN's Directorate of Organized Crime)

The UN special investigators for organized crime work in a dilapidated collection of trailers on the edge of Kosovo Field (Kosovo Polje), the historic site of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo between Serbs and the Ottoman Empire. Rain echoes on the corrugated metal roofs of the trailers while the officials inside drink thin coffee. Their weary faces reflect doubt in the purpose of their assignment.

Europe's newest nation, still unfinished.

Europe's newest nation, still unfinished.

"We are fighting with wooden swords against an extremely well-armed opponent," says one of the investigators, who prefers to remain anonymous. "In 2005 and 2006, when the first locals were admitted into the Kosovo police, we suddenly found not a single gram of heroin. Our undercover investigators and informants disappeared. We know literally nothing since then."

According to law enforcement agencies, Kosovo is the most important interim destination for opiates and heroin coming from Afghanistan . It is believed that up to four or five tons of heroin are brought across Kosovo's borders every month. The drug then reaches the EU countries through Albanian distribution rings. (Rastislav Báchora, Notes from Southeastern Europe, 2008)

The central Balkans' drug smuggling route, under observation of international police since 1999, runs through Kosovo. According to Europol, ethnic Albanian organized crime groups now control 80 percent of heroin smuggling in some northern European countries, and 40 percent in Western Europe. Officials at UNMIK in Pristina are familiar with the reports, as well as the warnings of a "further aggravation of the security situation" -- now that the tiny republic's independence facilitates access to government business for the ruling clans.

But nothing is happening. The multinational apparatus is too large, too out of control and too involved with itself. The daily bureaucracy of compiling organizational charges, sending progress reports (known as "okay reporting") to New York, and preparing proof of activity, keeps people busy.

The UNMIK list of Kosovar brothels and bars suspected of promoting or tolerating illegal prostitution -- which are off-limits for UNMIK staff -- includes 138 establishments of various calibers. "Dodana," a dimly lit bar in the divided city of Mitrovica, sits just outside the French Kosovo Force (KFOR) barracks. It's not on the UNMIK list and, at first glance, doesn't seem to have any prostitutes, either. But the owner is a KLA veteran who did time in a German prison near Stuttgart for drug trafficking, and it doesn't take long for him to change his mind and say: "Come back tomorrow, and then you can get what you want."

At the Buze Ibrit across the Ibar River, Fatmiri, who leases the establishment, offers his rooms for €5 ($8) for two-hour "relaxation" periods. Turkish, Albanian and Moldovan women are available in the bars further east along the river.

Bajram Rexhepi has himself driven past the Buze Ibrit in a Jeep every day. He's a slim, gray-haired man who carries a Croatian nine-millimeter pistol concealed in his suit jacket. He knew Mitrovica as a coal-mining town, before there were KFOR troops, UNMIK police and the attendant brothels. He's a former prime minister of Kosovo and the town's current mayor.

Bajam Rexhepi, Mayor of South Mitrovica

Bajam Rexhepi, Mayor of South Mitrovica

To be more precise, he's the mayor of South Mitrovica, the Albanian section. But his villa is across the river, on the city's Serbian side. This puts it in the future Serbian special administrative zone. But somehow the powerful Rexhepi has managed to have his house -- surrounded by Serbian neighborhoods and with a panoramic view -- assigned to the Albanian south.

Rexhepi trained as a surgeon. He served as a doctor at the front during the guerilla war, and as personal doctor of KLA co-founder Adem Jashari until Jashari was murdered. After the war Rexhepi went into politics. As prime minister he gained particular respect by denouncing the anti-Serb pogroms in March 2004 which killed 19 people, injured thousands and destroyed or damaged monasteries, churches and cultural sites.

The Serbian Orthodox cemetery in South Mitrovica, which is now cut off from the Serbian neighborhoods, is still seen as a memorial. Its chapel was desecrated, gravestones were disturbed and cow manure and bits of clothing scattered among the graves. But violence tends to be the exception now, says Rexhepi calmly, pointing to nearby Serbian houses. "Those people over there," he says, "want to create parallel structures."

The Multiethnic Future

A multiethnic Kosovo does not exist, except in the written pronouncements of the international community. (From a study by the International Commission on the Balkans)

Students at the technical university in North Mitrovica wear T-shirts reading "Kosovo is Serbia." The administration of Kosovo's recalcitrant north, funded by Belgrade, now resides in a small, cobalt blue house along the river. North Mitrovica is a planet with its own orbit, a collection of drab neighborhoods with apartment buildings dating back to the days of former Yugoslav dictator Josip Tito. It has shop-window portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin and perhaps 30,000 Serbian residents, who are being used as spearheads in the struggle over Kosovo's future.

Those who work in North Mitrovica's hospital, court system, schools and university are paid two to three times the standard salary, as compensation for living here. By simply persevering, the idea is, they embody Belgrade's legal claim to Kosovo. The leader of Serbia's Radical Party, Tomislav Nikolic, is greeted like the Orthodox Messiah in North Mitrovica, with bread, salt and folk dancing. He can except to capture 70 percent of the vote in this neighborhood.

Experts from the Institute for European Politics consider the dreams of a multiethnic Kosovo a "grotesque denial of reality in the international community," triggered by a "politically mandated pressure to succeed." It is not difficult to reconstruct the source of this pressure.

Washington's influence has been decisive, from the NATO attack on Serbian targets in 1999 to its leadership role in the peace negotiations in Rambouillet, France, and the road map for Kosovo's declaration of independence. "The Spaniards didn't want a decision before March 2008, because of their upcoming elections, but the Americans wanted February," says a UNMIK employee. "So February 17 it was."

The resolute phrase "no way" -- spoken into a mobile phone by an official at the American diplomatic mission in Pristina -- which barely prevented Kosovar Prime Minister Thaçi from declaring independence two days early (from an American perspective), is now one of the most colorful myths surrounding the establishment of the young republic. The Americans have reaped the rewards of their commitment to Kosovo: the Camp Bondsteel military base, arms deliveries for the future Kosovo army and a loyal community of fans among the Albanian majority.

And the Europeans? Javier Solana, the EU's chief diplomat and a dedicated supporter of trans-Atlantic cooperation, did not attract much attention with his moderate appeals during the gallop to Kosovo's independence. EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso is already suggesting that Kosovo could be offered "EU prospects." UNMIK Director Rücker takes it a step further, when he says: "I see both Kosovo and Serbia a members of the EU in 10 years."

What steps need to be taken before that can happen? A few bastions would have to be worn down and bridges built.

The Serbs, in their blossoming, rural landscape in the north, bordering on the wild Sandzak region, and with their fields, pastures and beehives, would have to learn to find a common language with the Albanians in the south, in their sprawling settlements of unfinished buildings and streets littered with garbage.

The old and new residents of Prizren, at the center of the Kosovo controversy, a medieval residence of Serbian kings and the birthplace of dreams of a greater Albania, will have to find ways to reconcile once again. They will have to clear occupied houses, repair desecrated mosques and churches, and allow justice to prevail.

There are currently 38,000 pending lawsuits for the restitution of property in Kosovo -- mostly fields and meadows. EU experts expect to encounter 180,000 court cases that have not been processed yet. Among 40,000 criminal cases still pending, 700 are classified as "top priority," because they lead directly into the heart of the clan system.

It is that system, and not the people, which is still the source of power in Europe's youngest republic.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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