ANALYSIS - West may tolerate Kosovo crime for sake of stability

BELGRADE Wed Dec 15, 2010 10:04pm IST

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BELGRADE (Reuters) - A Council of Europe draft report alleging Kosovo's prime minister is a Mafia-style boss lays out a truth diplomats privately acknowledge: the West in Kosovo has favoured stability over justice.

The crime and corruption given succour by such an approach over the past decade has deterred foreign investment and left Kosovo among the most destitute regions in Europe.

"The international organisations ... in Kosovo favoured a pragmatic political approach, taking the view that they needed to promote short-term stability at any price, thereby sacrificing some important principles of justice," Dick Marty, rapporteur for the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly committee on legal affairs, wrote in his draft report.

Diplomats say recent history in a country that remains an international protectorate shows a Faustian bargain for a new state in an unstable region wracked by ethnic wars in the 1990s.

"You have to deal with those who wield the power," said a veteran EU diplomat with long experience in Kosovo. The strategy is "stability first, and then we look at all the other elements of creating a society".

After communist federal Yugoslavia disintegrated in the early 1990s, the West only gradually intervened to stop the fighting. By the time they brokered a peace treaty in Bosnia exactly 15 years ago this week, 100,000 had died.

During the 1998-99 Kosovo war, the international community took a more interventionist role which included a NATO bombing of Serbia. A decade of United Nations administration followed.

Kosovo has received four billion euros in international aid since the war. That, plus proceeds from privatisations, along with drug trafficking and other scourges, created huge opportunities for crime and corruption in a country of two million, most of whom are ethnic Albanians, without an effective rule of law.

"There's a lot of thugs around, a lot of criminal activity," said William Walker, a former U.S. diplomat who headed the Organization for Security and Cooperation mission in Kosovo in the late 1990s.

"I fault the international community as much as the Albanians. They feel that the PDK represents stability," he said of Prime Minister Hashim Thaci's party, which came first in Sunday's first post-independence election with a third of the vote.

Marty's report said Thaci served as a mafia-like crime boss during the war, leading a group that committed assassinations, beatings, trafficking in organs and drugs and other crimes.

STABLE BUT POOR

This summer, Kosovo's European Union police and justice mission (EULEX) arrested the central bank governor on charges of money laundering, tax evasion and accepting bribes.

"EULEX needs to step up its activity and deliver long-promised arrests of high-ranking corrupt public officials," U.S. Ambassador Christopher Dell said in a confidential cable earlier this year released last week by Wikileaks.

Otherwise, "we risk that our rule-of-law reforms will fall flat and leave the public with a perception that the government is little more than a kleptocracy," he wrote.

Andy Sparkes, deputy head of EULEX, said the 1,800-person strong organisation was aware of the criticism but had limited resources. "We can't cover absolutely everything. EULEX would like to score more successes, make more of an impact," he said.

Tolerance of official crime and corruption has left the small, southern Balkan country mired in poverty, with nearly half the population officially unemployed.

"It is very serious: we have a decrease of FDI (foreign direct investment), we have a serious decrease of private sector development," said Muhamet Mustafa, an economist who ran for parliament for one of the smaller opposition parties.

"We need a growth rate of more than seven percent to take off with the economy, but it is impossible without FDI and more serious investment in the private sector."

Diplomats who do not want to be named say they know of many allegations of high-level crime and corruption in Kosovo, but see far fewer high-level convictions.

"Kosovo has a very poor reputation internationally, therefore can't attract international investment," said a senior international diplomat.

Thaci has raised eyebrows by building an 800-square metre house just outside the capital Pristina. Earlier this year he told Reuters he had taken out a bank loan to fund the project.

Like other countries emerging from Yugoslavia's collapse, Kosovo aspires to join the EU but is expected to be the last to make the cut. In its 2010 progress report on Kosovo last month, the European Commission was blunt on crime and corruption.

"Available information revealed discrepancies between the income and properties of senior Kosovo officials," the report said. "This indicates widespread corruption at high levels in Kosovo persists. This fact has not been followed up by public debate or investigations of the relevant bodies, showing a distinct lack of political will in fighting corruption."

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