Confusion and Corruption in Kosovo The Slow Birth of a Nation

Two months after Kosovo declared independence, thousands of foreign experts are ready to descend on its capital to shape Europe's youngest republic into a constitutional state -- although its status is still disputed. Soon the EU will take over, and its team can expect a country ruled by corruption and organized crime.


Protesters set fire to the replica of a judge's robe during a protest over the acquittal of Ramush Haradinaj, a former Kosovo prime minister who had been tried for war crimes in The Hague. In other parts of Kosovo, he was celebrated.

Protesters set fire to the replica of a judge's robe during a protest over the acquittal of Ramush Haradinaj, a former Kosovo prime minister who had been tried for war crimes in The Hague. In other parts of Kosovo, he was celebrated.

It's 8 p.m., and Joachim Rücker, the highest-ranking representative of the United Nations in Pristina, is heading out for a bite to eat. Past Bill Clinton Boulevard, past three mosques, Rücker's Japanese jeep zigzags through the darkened city. His Albanian bodyguards, speaking English, constantly rattle off the vehicle's coordinates into their radio.

But where, exactly, is Rücker? What country is he in?

According to international law, Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, still belongs to Serbian territory. Rücker's boss at UN headquarters in New York, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, has not said anything new to the contrary. Under UN Resolution 1244, adopted in 1999, Kosovo was placed under an interim UN administration, after enduring a 16-month war that claimed about 10,000 lives. The resolution makes no mention of Kosovo's right to secede from Serbia.

On the other hand, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence on Feb. 17. More than three dozen countries worldwide -- including the United States and Germany -- have recognized the tiny republic, whose population is 90 percent ethnic Albanian. There are now signs with the words "Republic of Kosovo" along the southern border and Kosovar customs officers at the Pristina airport.

But in the north and in the Serbian enclaves south of the Ibar River, separate elections will probably take place on May 11 -- for the Serbian parliament in Belgrade and for the local Serb government. Here, in the shadow of medieval monasteries, time seems to stand still. The Serbian dinar is the standard currency here, and wages, food and political directives come straight from Belgrade.

Kosovo's situation is complex. Two countries claim a territory that is about one and a half times the size of the US state Rhode Island (and has about the same population density). In the middle, acting as a UN referee in a diplomatic minefield, sits Joachim Rücker, 56, the former mayor of the small southwestern German city of Sindelfingen. At the request of the UN Secretary General and in response to pressure from Russia, Rücker is expected to continue behaving as if nothing had happened, as if Serbia's national borders had remained unchanged.

He's returning from a reception held by the newly appointed German ambassador in Pristina. Strictly speaking, according to diplomatic protocol, Rücker had no business there -- as the supreme UN administrator in Serbia's southwestern province. But he calls Kosovo's hermaphroditic condition "cohabitation," and manages to find complicated language to describe the future of this torn region.

In June, administrative duties are expected to change hands from the UN to the European Union, which plans to send 2,200 judges, prosecutors, police officers and customs officials to Pristina. But without the approval of the Russians and the Chinese in the Security Council, the UN will hardly be able to slip quietly out of Kosovo. Instead, says Rücker, it will have to maintain its presence, and its mission, "while keeping its status neutral." The UN will have to "reconfigure" itself and emphasize the "discontinuity" between the EU and UN mandates.

The UN will stay in Kosovo, in other words, and discreetly phase out its presence, hoping for a change of course in Moscow, Beijing and Belgrade -- so that the skirmishes over Europe's youngest state don't turn into a full-blown war.

For now, at least, life is still relatively good in Pristina. The penne arrabiata and chocolate tarts at "Il Passatore," an Italian trattoria, are exceptional. Rücker seems pleased as he leaves the restaurant.

Elephants at the Watering Hole

The UN's Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) is the largest show of strength in the history of the world body. Rücker has led it since 2006. The multinational administrators oversee everything -- government, police, judiciary, customs, the economy. The goal of the now nine-year operation is to transform Yugoslavia's former poorhouse into a home for more than two million people that deserves to be called a constitutional state.

Europe's newest nation, still unfinished.

Europe's newest nation, still unfinished.

The UN has the active support of the EU, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), each represented by its own substantial battalion in Kosovo, as well as several hundred non-governmental organizations. Like elephants at a watering hole, the giants of the global peacemaking trade huddle in this disputed corner of Europe and naturally step, now and then, all over each other's toes.

Kosovo's foreign rulers -- especially the French, Americans and Germans -- are wrestling for billions in reconstruction contracts, for key positions in the new government and for influence over the Kosovar parties and clan leaders. The region is awash with intelligence agents and soldiers of fortune, idealists and professional adventurers. This constellation could, of course, hinder the planned birth of democracy here, rather than help it.

The UN has spent an estimated €33 billion ($53 billion) for its mission in Kosovo since 1999, when a NATO bombing campaign drove out former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's murderous troops. This corresponds to €1,750 ($2,800) per capita, annually -- or 160 times the average yearly per capita aid for all developing countries combined.

Nevertheless, UNMIK isn't wanted by everyone here. The streets to UNMIK headquarters in Pristina have been known to be blocked by protest banners reading: "No access. Criminal zone." Stickers are affixed to some traffic lights in the city, displaying "No to EUMIK" when the lights are red and "Independence" when they turn green. At the Strip Depot café, a philosopher called Shkelzen Maliqi, surrounded by disciples lounging on couches, jokes: "Kosovo is a bastard country. You fathered it, and now it's your job to care for it."

Officially, close to half of Kosovo's residents live on less than €3 ($4.80) a day. Kosovo's per capita gross national product is lower than that of North Korea or Papua New Guinea. It has one of the worst balances of trade worldwide and Europe's highest fertility rate. Youth unemployment hovers at 75 percent.

But as long as Albania's young people, equipped with their bulky sunglasses and tiny mobile phones, can camp out in all of Pristina's cafés before the third call of the muezzin, poverty alone won't explain the local population's growing discomfort with the international presence. Studies by scientists, intelligence services and EU panels seek to examine the deeper-seated reasons for this phenomenon.

These Kosovo analysts have one thing in common: They paint a picture of a clan-based society in which a handful of criminal leaders controls the population -- and are tolerated by bureaucrats from Europe and the rest of the world, who have come here under the guise of enlightening the Kosovars.

'Leading Political and Criminal Figures'

The international community and its representatives in Kosovo bear a significant share of responsibility for the alarming proliferation of Mafia-like structures in Kosovo. As a result of their open support for leading political and criminal figures, they have harmed the credibility of international institutions in numerous ways. (From a study by the Institute for European Politics in Berlin, completed for the German military, the Bundeswehr, in 2007)

UN special envoy Rücker wants nothing to do with "leading political and criminal figures," at least not as long as they've been convicted by a court of law. But not one of the former heroes of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerilla force -- who liberated Kosovo in their battle with Serbian troops -- has so far been sentenced. Now they control Kosovo's politics and economy.

Ramush Haradinaj is a former KLA commander who later became prime minister of UN-administered Kosovo. His indictment in The Hague consisted of 37 charges, including murder, torture, rape and the expulsion of Serbs, Albanians and gypsies in the weeks following the end of the war in 1999. Carla Del Ponte, former chief prosecutor of the UN War Crimes Tribunal, called him a "gangster in uniform." He returned to Kosovo this spring, after his acquittal on April 3.

Haradinaj received a hero's welcome, complete with pistol shots and motorcades through a sea of Albanian flags. But there was also an announcement from UNMIK referring to reservations from The Hague: "The court was under the strong impression that witnesses in this trial did not feel safe."

Steven Schook, Rücker's American deputy at UNMIK's fortress-like headquarters in Pristina, was already out of office by then. The former American brigadier general said he left because he loved his job too much, but that wasn't the real reason. It also wasn't because of his supposed weakness for beautiful Kosovar women, or because he considered it useful to "get drunk with Ramush Haradinaj once a week," as described in a German situation analysis.

No, Steven Schook's contract was officially "not extended" after the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) investigated his administration and looked into (unproven) reports that the American had revealed the whereabouts of a man who had testified against Haradinaj. The man was living under a UN witness protection program.

Even before that, though, Schook's boss at UNMIK -- Rücker -- had given Haradinaj an exceptional private audience before his departure to a prison cell in The Hague. Rücker still insists this treatment was justified for a political alpha dog. "It's a completely normal order of business for a former prime minister and party chairman to pay me a visit before embarking on a longer journey."

As a result of his suspended sentence, Haradinaj's "longer journey" ended up being shorter than expected. During the trial he was even permitted to run as a candidate in the elections for the Kosovar parliament -- with UNMIK's blessing. Because of Haradinaj's background, this attracted attention far beyond the borders of his native region.

Wanting to be Boss

The family clan structure in the Decani region from which Haradinaj derives his power is involved in a wide range of criminal, political and military activities that greatly influence the security situation throughout Kosovo. The group consists of about 100 members, and deals in the drug and weapons smuggling business, as well as in the illegal trade in dutiable goods. (From a 2005 report by the Bundesnachrichtendienst, Germany's foreign intelligence agency)

These charges weren't brought up in The Hague. But now that Haradinaj, dressed in a suit and tie, has returned to the political arena, he can call for new elections and consider himself officially confirmed as the guiding figure of an independent Kosovo. The need for politicians with an untarnished name in Kosovo has grown considerably -- because according to a study completed last year, "mafia boss" is the most commonly cited dream profession among children in and around Pristina.


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