Yet the corruption should not be seen as “typically Balkan,” but rather intimately linked to the interests of the internationals. Conflict within Kosovo after NATO’s “liberation” would naturally have compromised the “success” narrative advanced afterwards. The determination to avoid this led the internationals to work with and tolerate the activities of criminal networks in Kosovo that emerged from within the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Given that the heavily armed criminal network would have violently resisted any attempts to curtail its power and activities, confronting it would have meant potentially jeopardizing peace in Kosovo—and thus Kosovo’s public-relations value. Therefore, since 1999, international actors in Kosovo have been engaged in an inherently paradoxical project: so as to maintain the image of efficacious liberal internationalism, the keystones of liberal democracy have been sacrificed.
After 1999 there thus developed what Andrea Capussela, former economic director at the International Civilian Office in Kosovo, describes as “an incestuous relationship” between the internationals and the criminal elites. While both exercised unaccountable power in Kosovo, the internationals turned a blind eye to the criminals’ practices so long as they tolerated the presence of the internationals and didn’t overtly jeopardize or oppose their attempt to present Kosovo as multiethnic and democratic. A 2016 internal enquiry commissioned by UNMIK into its own investigations of attacks against minorities found a “lack of adequate criminal investigations in relation to disappearances, abductions and killings,” and concluded that the process had been “a total failure” and a “sham.” EULEX, likewise, has suffered from repeated allegations about cowardice and corruption; its own internal review in 2015 noted that reforms were needed to address problems relating to its effectiveness and diminished “ credibility.”
This willingness to tolerate corruption to maintain the image of liberal internationalism is particularly apparent with respect to the perennial support afforded to Hashim Thaci, leader of the KLA during NATO’s intervention. While Thaci has joined President Obama for morning prayers at the White House and was described by U.S. vice president Joe Biden as “ the George Washington of Kosovo ,” in 2010 he was named in a Council of Europe report as one of the “key players” orchestrating “ mafia-like structures of organised crime ” from a base in Drenica. His group was accused of drug trafficking, people smuggling, protection rackets, political assassinations and, most horrifically, organ harvesting. Surely the most damning aspect of the report, however, was the evident dismay therein at the fact that the international actors in Kosovo must have known about these activities, yet chose not to act. The report noted ,
What is particularly confounding is that all of the international community in Kosovo—from the Governments of the United States and other allied Western powers, to the EU-backed justice authorities—undoubtedly possess the same, overwhelming documentation of the full extent of the Drenica Group’s crimes, but none seems prepared to react in the face of such a situation and to hold the perpetrators to account.
A 2014 report by a Special Investigative Task Force , led by U.S. lawyer Clint Williamson, found evidence that KLA operatives engaged in a campaign of “unlawful killings, abductions, enforced disappearances, illegal detentions . . . , sexual violence, . . . forced displacements of persons . . . , and desecration and destruction of churches and other religious sites,” which they concluded caused “ ethnic cleansing ” during the period when the international community was exercising complete control over Kosovo after NATO’s intervention. Williamson’s unflinching report led to the establishment of a Special Court mandated to examine war crimes perpetrated by the KLA. In February this year, however, Thaci became president of Kosovo in what many believe was a move designed to grant him immunity from prosecution at the court. As Thaci was installed, angry crowds surrounded the parliament, protesting what they saw as a triumph for corruption and intimidation. Curiously, in his response, the U.S. ambassador to Kosovo only condemned the tactics of the protestors.
Kosovo’s constitution promised that the newly independent state “will contribute to stability in the region and entire Europe.” Given the huge number of Kosovars seeking asylum across the EU, and the fact that the current president has been accused by the Council of Europe of leading a continent-wide criminal network involved in human trafficking, the sex trade and heroin distribution, this goal has clearly not been met.
Ultimately, Kosovo highlights the perils of unaccountable power and liberal zealotry. Beneath Kosovo’s veneer of “liberty” and “multiethnicity” there lies a disturbing confluence of corruption among and between the internationals and local criminal networks. Rather than reverting to lazy stereotypes about the Balkans and singularly blaming nefarious local factors, Kosovo’s current malaise must be seen as a function, at least to a significant degree, of the choices made by those external actors determined to preserve their own image at the expense of the ordinary Kosovars.
While the ever resourceful and stoic Kosovars have endured both the costs of Kosovo’s limbo and the effects of rampant corruption, it is unlikely that they will continue to do so passively. Voter turnout at the last elections was the lowest since before NATO’s intervention; 62 percent of Kosovars polled in 2016 either believe that their vote cannot help to improve the current political situation in Kosovo or are unsure of their ability to make an impact through voting. Kosovo thus evidences a potentially explosive mixture of widespread and deep social disquiet combined with a lack of faith in the democratic system; popular anger is building and more violent civil unrest is a distinct possibility. Kosovo may soon return to the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
Dr. Aidan Hehir is a Reader in International Relations at the University of Westminster; his research interests include humanitarian intervention, statebuilding in Kosovo and the laws governing the use of force. He is the author/editor of eight books. Follow him on Twitter: @FarCanals.
Image: Statue of Ibrahim Rugova in Pristina. Wikimedia Commons/@AgronBeqiri