Chaos in Kosovo

Kosovar gangs pick up where the Serbs left off.


Laura Rozen
August 3, 1999 2:00PM (UTC)

With 37,000 NATO-led peacekeeping troops patrolling it, Kosovo may not be the
first place one thinks of as a smugglers' paradise.

But it is.

Two different worlds converge here in Kosovo, utterly unrelated to each
other. Heroin and cocaine come cheap at parties. Mercedes and BMWs, sparkling new
and without license plates, cruise through the capital at dusk, packed with young
men talking on cell phones. When they stop in front of key office buildings, a
couple of men get out, crossing their arms as if armed and not to be messed with,
while another goes inside to conduct business. The rumbling oversized tank of a British KFOR patrol turns the corner at an intersection less than 10
feet away.

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Kosovo sits between two European countries overrun with organized crime. Albania,
the poorest country in Europe, sits along a well-trod drug and arms trading route
between Asia and Europe. The northern part of Albania, which borders Kosovo, is
almost entirely in the hands of armed gangs.

To Kosovo's northeast, Serbia, after a decade of international economic sanctions
and isolation, is also rife with corruption, arms smuggling and state-sanctioned
theft of public funds to private bank accounts (some 300 cronies of Yugoslav
president Slobodan Milosevic have recently had their Swiss bank accounts frozen
and been banned from travel to the European Union and the United States).

Organized crime loves a vacuum. Interpol now estimates that 40 percent of the
heroin supply in Western Europe travels through Kosovo.

In addition, Kosovo has a past which makes it an ideal breeding ground for
organized crime. For the past 10 years, since Milosevic revoked the province's
autonomy, most Kosovo Albanians have been pushed out of the state sector, and forced
to look for work in private ventures and abroad. Many Kosovo
Albanian men went abroad to work in Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia and the United States -- some in construction and other above-board professions, others in the underworld of drug trafficking -- to earn money to send back to their extended families. An
extensive network of travel agencies helped traffic money from Europe and the United States back to relatives in Kosovo.

But certain conditions of the post-war period make Kosovo even more ideal as a base for
organized crime. There is an almost complete lack of civil authority
here, despite the presence of KFOR soldiers. Have your apartment broken into, car
stolen, neighbor murdered, and there is no one to call. KFOR soldiers dutifully come
to make a report if someone's been killed. But you can call the police emergency number
in Kosovo all you want, and no one comes, because for the moment there are no
functioning police. To date, some 600 U.N. international police have arrived, but
the international police commissioner does not plan to deploy any of them until
he has most of his 3,000 men.

In the meantime, there are virtually open borders. The fact that Serbian police
destroyed many Kosovo Albanians' identity papers and license plates as they were
deporting them means that KFOR allows almost anyone back in, without or without a
passport. To date, there are no functioning customs officers on Kosovo's borders.
KFOR soldiers check cars for weapons, but do not prevent entry for people who are, for instance, importing an enormous supply of cigarettes.

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General Fritz von Korff, the commander of German KFOR forces, told journalists in
Kosovo last week that his troops frequently come across smuggled items, such as
massive amounts of cigarettes, when they are checking cars for weapons. But as
von Korff understands it, KFOR's mandate does not permit his soldiers to confiscate
any item except for weapons, and consequently the smugglers are permitted into
Kosovo with their loot.

After 10 years of the most oppressive Serbian rule, the current lack of civilian
authority in Kosovo is a shock, a kind of unbearable lightness of being.

The resultant crime wave threatens to make life uncomfortable not only for
Kosovo's dwindling ethnic minorities, but for its long-suffering ethnic Albanian
majority. NATO spokesman Jamie Shea estimated this week that some 30 people are
murdered in Kosovo every week.

One of the biggest crime problems overtaking the capital Pristina is the seizure
of apartments by gangs of Albanians claiming close ties to those high up in the
Kosovo Liberation Army. The gangs are taking over apartments, real
estate, businesses and cars from both Kosovo Albanian and Serbian owners, who have
little recourse to justice.

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"[The United Nations] is completely unprepared to take over law and order. In the
absence of a police force and legitimate rules and legislation, a huge vacuum has
occurred," said a British KFOR official in Pristina involved with civil-military
relations, who asked not to be named. "That vacuum is being filled by organized
crime. Representatives of Albanian gangs are inviting Kosovo Serbs to leave their
apartments. Now Kosovo Albanians are being invited to leave their apartments by
other Albanians."

While no statistics are available from KFOR or the United Nations on the number
of property seizures, anecdotes suggest it is a growing problem. And while
initially it seemed that seizures were ethnically motivated and targeted at
Kosovo Serbs in the capital of Pristina, increasingly Kosovo Albanians are the
victims as well. KFOR reports there have been several complaints from Kosovo Albanian residents of the Sunny Hill neighborhood of Pristina, who say their apartments were seized by Albanians from outside Kosovo.

A U.N. police commander who asked not to be identified said his force's intelligence suggests most of the organized crime in Kosovo is backed by Russians,
Albanian nationals and gangs linked to the Kosovo Liberation Army. Some Kosovo analysts suggest that the KLA is doling out the seized apartments and other goodies as payment to those it owes favors -- arms procurers, financial backers and important
soldiers and their relatives.

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U.N. officials defend themselves from criticism that the organization's slowness
in deploying police and civil administrators throughout Kosovo is in part
responsible for the growing crime problem. One top U.N. commander said that
unlike KFOR, which has been preparing for a Kosovo mission since February, the
United Nations wasn't told it was to take over civilian operations in Kosovo until June.

Excuses aside, however, it may already be too late. An American involved in the international police force, who asked to remain
anonymous, says by the time the U.N. police are deployed, criminal gangs will
already have their networks set up.


Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

MORE FROM Laura Rozen

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