ANALYSIS | Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Kosovo’s Organized Crime Burden

Dec 20, 2010

By Ioannis Michaletos | In Kosovo, the main managers of illicit drugs are the so-called “15 families,” which represent the core power of the region, because of their financial clout and political connections.

In a 67-page report published in 2005, BND (German intelligence agency) analysts concluded that there is “close interaction between the leading members of the Kosovo-Albanian society and the domestic and international underworld currently domiciled in Pristina.” Moreover, “the criminal networks don’t support the creation of a stable political and economic environment, since that will reduce their clout.”

What is more interesting is the attest by BND of the “direct involvement of political figures in Kosovo with the Mafia.” Thus, the crime kingpins “want to acquire elevated positions within the apparatus of the provisional government and influence directly the politicians.”

The German analysts warned for “serious risks from the ongoing corruption in Kosovo in relation to other Balkan countries and the security of the region.”

An E.U. report in 2007 underlined the “inability of local officials to put pressure on criminal organizations and the serious risk of collapse of the social system because of the crime issue.” The main reason is “the lack of political will by the leadership,” which paradoxically is supported by most major European countries. The German report specifically mentioned the name Niam Behzloulzi, a Kosovo smuggler and a number two in the hierarchy of the former UCK.

The Italian newspaper La Republica reported on the Kosovo criminals of their ability to fully exploit the lack of “political culture” in the region and affect every key decision over and above the international force, which does not control the situation. The current leadership under Hashim Thaci is to emerge from the unholy alliance of traffickers in the region and the UCK. Michel Koutouzis, an expert analyst on security issues in Paris has long confirmed that the Pristina government has always been “subject to the power of the Mafiosi who were the largest donors of the KLA rebels and want to keep the region in their own sphere of influence.”

The former Commander of KFOR, the Italian General Fabio Mini, said in late February 2008 in the newspaper Corriere dela Serra, “Kosovo will become the new location for the laundering of black money coming from the East, and new financial institutions will be created that will take this role.” Similar reports have been made by the Canadian General Mackenzie, who served in Bosnia as peacekeeper official and has dealt closely with the situation in the Balkans over the last decade.

Reliable and highly informed sources at the Institute for European Policy based in Germany, in a 2007 report commissioned for the German Armed Forces, indicated that the three leading Kosovo politicians, Ramush Haradinaj, Hashim Thaci and Xhavit Haliti, are “persons protected by the international community although they are deeply involved in all of these affairs.”

It is important to mention at this point that the German report states that the U.N. contacts with Albanian politicians were part of the overall problem for the region. The infamous Wikileaks website has leaked dozens of U.N. reports dealing with high-level corruption in Kosovo that involves international employees from 1999 up to the present.

Local sources, including U.S. military personnel, indicate that at least 90 percent of the local economy derives from criminal networks—excluding Diaspora remittances and international assistance—and the society is unable to adapt into the conditions of a free and legal market because of the dramatic social consequences that would entail.

Presently, unemployment is estimated at 45 percent of the working-age population. Further, population increases with 35,000 births per year, more than three times the average Western European rate. The explosive mixture of crime, lack of employment opportunities and a significant youth segment in comparison with the total population is a ticking bomb that will explode in the not-so-distant future.

A very important report of the United Nations in 2006, in collaboration with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Britain, Netherlands, the United States and Sweden, revealed that “the people of Kosovo find as main threats to themselves corruption and organized crime” as well as the very likely possibility of a “full seizure of the state institutions by criminals.”

An issue directly associated with the European security architecture is the strong collaboration between Turkish, Kosovo and Middle Eastern narcotics smugglers. Already in 2000, according to Interpol Kosovo criminals, illicit profits of 2 billion euros were laundered through more than 200 banks. The current data show much higher earnings, and this without considering the investments in the building sector, the purchase of shares and other activities.

Marko Nicovic, the former chief of police in Belgrade and a recognized Balkan crime analyst, noted some years ago in the press that “about 500 Kosovo Albanians assume transport of 20 kilos of heroin across to Europe, while another 5,000 Albanians deal with lesser quantities.” In a Pan-European level perhaps two-thirds of the heroin sold in the streets is being distributed by Albanian criminal syndicates that are mostly established in Kosovo.

Between the Kosovo cities of Pec, Priznen and the city of Bayram Kouri there is an almost daily connection referring to the illegal narcotics trade and the arms trade, which is a main cause for alert for the international authorities because of the alleged existence of Islamic extremists that may want to take advantage of the market weaponry that has been created there.

Over the past three years a new phenomena has been observed by the international authorities, and that is the human trafficking from Kosovo to Greece via FYR Macedonia. It is estimated that smugglers charge 3,000 euros per head in order to organize a transfer from Kosovo to Greece, and they have formed an extensive network of collaborators including taxi drivers, small transport companies and corrupt border officials.

A Jane’s Intelligence Review report revealed that in May 2007 a group of 19 people were arrested in FYR Macedonia that were responsible for the transfer of more than 100 people and charged 5,000 euros for the services per person including the forgery of an entrance visa and the transportation with a taxi for the whole ride. Furthermore an international security operation apprehended another 16 Croatians and two Bosnian citizens who were related with the previous group, and they were responsible for managing the transportation of immigrants from the Central Balkan region.

It is estimated that in Skopje a nascent market for forged passports is being created. For instance, in July 2007 17 Kosovo Albanian immigrants were arrested carrying fake Swedish passports on their way to that country, which they bought for approximately 4,000 euros. Further throughout most of 2009, the Greek police authorities noted a considerable increase of illegal immigration by incoming Kosovo-Albanians through the axis Tetovo-Krusevo-Bitola and onwards to the northern Greek mountainous borders.

In relation to the drugs issue, according to the Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, in an interview in 2009, the Albanian mafia in Kosovo chiefs “dream” about turning the province into “a European Colombia.”

“In order to achieve this, they wish to genetically engineer a type of coca plant that would grow in Kosovo’s climate. In this way, the Albanian mafia would have a monopoly over the cocaine trade. They need 20 years to achieve this,” he said, and added that “then, Kosovo will without a doubt become the new Colombia.” The explosive mixture of massive caches of weapons, widespread poverty, contraband culture and the strong hand of the local drug kingpins ensures that.

The Kosovo experience has been a great disappointment for the international community. Kosovo in reality struggles against the influence of the organized crime networks. Despite numerous acts of violence and a very high homicide rate, very few convictions have been handed out to culprits, and none to notable members of the organized crime either.

Nowadays the existence of regular heroin supply from Afghanistan, and the control by the “Albanian Mafia” of the Balkan route, has enabled it to obtain a large capital base that is laundered mainly though the construction sites in Kosovo and Albania and the use of offshore financial centers. Actually the largest enterprise in terms of sales and profits in South Eastern Europe is the Albanian organized crime, and in an overall picture that is unfortunately the case for other neighboring states that derive a large portion of their GDP from similar activities.

Kosovo is in a very delicate position regarding its role as a European crime hub, and the efforts of the international community over the past decade have been in the wrong direction. The subversive nature of organized crime has either been dismissed or not understood by the countless international bodies that were supposed to assist the democratization process in Pristina.