The sentencing of an organised crime boss from Kosovo to six years in prison will undoubtedly come as welcome news to a region in which his gang’s activities have wreaked havoc for over a decade. However, the mandate of the EU body responsible for bringing him to justice is due to end next year, meaning the policing of these crimes will be left in the hands of the Kosovan authorities alone.
One can only hope that once Kosovo is left to its own devices in these matters, it proves itself to be better at handling them than some of its regional neighbours.
Naser Kelmendi, a Kosovan-born ethnic Albanian with Bosnian citizenship, was arrested in 2013 and charged with drug trafficking and murder along with other crimes as the suspected leader of a network which distributed heroin from Afghanistan into Europe via Turkey. Judges appointed by the EU’s rule of law mission in Kosovo found Kelmendi guilty of drug trafficking but cleared him of several other charges including murder and leading an organised crime network.
As already mentioned, that EU mission, called EULEX – which was set up to handle cases seen as too politically sensitive or simply beyond the capacity of the fledgling Kosovan legal system to take on – is due to pull out of the country within the next couple of years. From that point onwards, the small Balkan nation, only ten years independent from Serbia and still riven by ethnic tension, will be expected to take full control over the administration of justice within its borders. In this sense, Kosovo will take on the profile of a “normal” country.
However, what passes for “normal” in that region of Europe leaves much to be desired when it comes to respect for rule of law. Since the end of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, which flooded the region with illicit weapons and allowed crime gangs to infiltrate every layer of the state apparatus, a poisonous nexus of politics and criminality has continued to flourish. Indeed, rather than winding down EULEX’s work in Kosovo, there is an argument to be made that it should have its mandate extended to Kosovo’s neighbours.
For example, perhaps if an institution like EULEX were operating in Serbia, fewer Kosovan criminals would simply slip over the border into that country to take advantage of Belgrade’s shockingly low rate of compliance with extradition requests. Safe in the knowledge that Belgrade is unlikely to send suspected criminals back to Kosovo, nor seek the return of Serbian criminals to face justice in Serbia, it has contributed to the feeling of immunity enjoyed by many criminals in the region.
While immunity as a result of a failure to apply the law is a huge problem, immunity that is perfectly in accordance with the law is perhaps an even a bigger one. This has been on display recently in Albania in the case of the former Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri, who stands accused of involvement with a large-scale cannabis smuggling network. When prosecutors presented evidence linking Tahiri to the network, including transcripts of wiretaps in which alleged drug smugglers talked about making payments to the politician, the Albanian parliament refused the prosecutor’s request to lift Tahiri’s political immunity so that he could be arrested.
But one can’t talk about smuggling and immunity from prosecution in the context of the Balkans without mentioning Montenegro and its perennial leader, Milo Djukanovic. The six-time former prime minister’s (and one-time former president) laissez-faire attitude to organised crime has turned the picturesque coastal nation into a veritable entrepot of criminal activity in southeast Europe. Indeed, much of the bloodshed from gangland shootings that stain the streets in neighbouring Serbia is spilled by Montenegrin gangs suspected of operating with the sanction of Montenegrin officials. In an interview with Al Jazeera about the spate of gangland killings in the town of Kotor, the Montenegrin opposition politician Vladimir Jokic, was unequivocal about what this means: “Ultimately, this comes down to one man. Without the approval of his circle you can’t do anything big here in business or politics – he is Milo Djukanovic.”
The list of accusations against Djukanovic is long: from cigarette smuggling, to cronyism, to vote rigging, he is emblematic of the challenges faced by a region where state capture and strong-man leadership are endemic. Avoiding this outcome in Kosovo once it takes over full control of its justice system after the departure of EULEX will soon be Pristina’s challenge, too.