Redemption in Kosovo

“The signs of collusion between the criminal class and the highest political and institutional office holders are too numerous

“The signs of collusion between the criminal class and the highest political and institutional office holders are too numerous and too serious to be ignored,” concluded the report submitted to the Council of Europe in December, 2010. The name of Hashim Thaci, then prime minister of Kosovo and former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), was mentioned 27 times in 27 pages.

Hashim Thaci is still prime minister of Kosovo. Indeed, he has just been re-elected to the job, although the turnout was a feeble 42 percent. The European Union and NATO, the two organisations that helped the Kosovars free themselves from Serbian rule, seem quite happy about his victory – and even the Serbian government urged the Serbian minority who still live there to vote in Kosovo’s election. So redemption is possible, after all.

Thaci might have turned out to be a mild-mannered accountant if he had been born in a different era, but he came to adulthood just as the independence struggle of the Albanian-speaking majority in Kosovo was coming to the boil. He joined the KLA, and after several rivals suffered unfortunate accidents he emerged as the undisputed leader.

Revolutionary movements need money, especially if they include an armed wing, and since they have no legal sources of income, they must resort to crime. They rob banks; they blackmail people and kidnap them for ransom; they smuggle stuff, including drugs. Whether their cause is good or bad, they have almost all done it: the Taliban, the Irish Republican Army, Boko Haram, ETA, FARC and the KLA.

Hashim Thaci certainly did it all. In fact, you could argue that he overdid it. After NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999 forced Slobodan Milosevic’s government to evacuate all the Serbian troops from Kosovo and a United Nations administration backed by NATO peacekeeping troops took over, the time for fighting – and illicit fund-raising methods – was over. But Thaci just kept going.

The KLA was renamed the Kosovo Protection Corps, and used intimidation and occasional assassinations to gain control of almost all the municipal governments in the country. A recent report on corruption in Kosovo by BND, the German intelligence service, noted that “The key players (including…Thaci) are intimately involved in inter-linkages between politics, business, and organised crime structures in Kosovo.”

The Council of Europe report of 2010 says bluntly: “In confidential reports spanning more than a decade, agencies dedicated to combatting drug smuggling in at least five countries have named Hashim Thaci…as having exerted violent control over the trade in heroin and other narcotics. Thaci and [other former KLA members] are consistently named as ‘key players’ in intelligence reports on Kosovo’s mafia-like structures of organised crime.”

That report, commissioned after the chief prosecutor for war crimes at the Hague, Carla Del Ponte, said she had been prevented from investigating senior KLA officials, also contained details about the KLA’s fund-raising methods just after the fighting ended in 2000. The most shocking was the allegation that some Serbian prisoners held by Thaci’s faction of the KLA were killed in order to harvest their organs for sale abroad.

The report found that Thaci’s people held Serb captives in six detention facilities in Albania, and that a “handful” were transferred to Tirana, where they were killed for their kidneys. “As and when the transplant surgeons were confirmed to be in position and ready to operate, the captives were brought out of the ‘safe house’ individually, summarily executed by a KLA gunman, and their corpses transported swiftly to the operating clinic.”

The human rights rapporteur who wrote the Council of Europe report, the Swiss lawyer Dick Marty, subsequently admitted that he had no evidence directly linking Thaci with the organ trafficking, but if you’re the boss, you have to accept at least a share of the blame. So why is this suspected war criminal and big-time crime boss being welcomed as Kosovo’s legitimate leader by all the European countries, including even Serbia?

Two obvious reasons are that he won the election, and that he doesn’t actually face any outstanding criminal charges. But the deeper reason is that Serbia wants to join the European Union.

The European Union wants it too: it’s important to bring the Serbs into the club and not leave them feeling bruised and resentful about the Balkan wars of the 1990s, even if they were largely responsible for them. However, Serbia cannot join the EU until it accepts that the breakaway province of Kosovo is gone forever and recognises its leader as legitimate. The EU does not accept applicants with unresolved border disputes. (Ukraine please note.)

And this also means, by the way, that the EU has to accept Kosovo as a legitimate candidate for membership even under its current leader. Both the EU and Serbia would certainly prefer the prime minister of Kosovo to be somebody a bit more presentable, but the Kosovars keep electing Hashim Thaci, albeit with a small and dwindling turnout of voters. And maybe he really has changed.

Sometimes you just have to put the past behind you, and maybe even some of the present too.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles on world affairs are published in 45 countries.

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