Kosovo: Souring view of EU mission

"While on the surface the angst is directed against the apparent EU acquiescence in what Kosovars consider a “made in Serbia” EULEX mandate, the real issue at hand is the narcotics operations that constitute Kosovo’s only true lucrative resource."

Stratfor Source: Stratfor

EULEX, the European Union’s 2,000-strong law-and-order mission in Kosovo, will postpone its deployment until Dec. 9, EU officials said Dec. 1. The delay comes alongside anti-EU protests in Priština and amid reluctance by Kosovo’s politicians to support the EULEX mandate, which was finalized by the UN Security Council (UNSC) on Nov. 26.

The struggle over EULEX is really a struggle for control over Kosovo’s nascent independence from Serbia, gained in February. Belgrade had officially asserted its control over the former Ottoman province in 1912 — or reasserted it, depending on how one views the issue — but never truly managed to exert its sovereignty fully due to the refusal of the ethnic-Albanian Kosovo population to assimilate or submit to centralized rule.

Belgrade eventually lost its de facto control over the province due to the combination of a successful guerrilla campaign by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in 1998-1999 and a NATO air campaign — waged under the aegis of a humanitarian intervention — that forced Serbian military and Interior Ministry troops out of Kosovo in 1999.

Ironically, however, the struggle is now no longer primarily between Priština and Belgrade. Kosovo’s government is facing off instead with Brussels, which until recently seemed to be a firm ally. However, now that independence is all but entrenched, Kosovo’s interests are diverging from those of the European Union (and, incidentally, the United Nations). Priština wants to claim sovereignty over its entire territory — including the restive Serbian-majority provinces — while Brussels wants to begin clamping down on the rampant narcotics- and human-smuggling operations in the newly minted country.

Kosovo sits on an elevated plain surrounded by imposing mountains, right in the middle of one of the most lucrative drug - and human - smuggling routes in the world. The region is isolated enough to be practically unconquerable, and certainly untamable, and yet is near enough to historical trade routes (through the North-South Vardar River Valley and the nearby Adriatic coast) to be a perfect smuggler’s haven.

Slaves, mainly young girls from Moldova and Ukraine, are transported through the Balkans regularly — and Kosovo is part of that route. The transportation of heroin, however, is Kosovo’s main source of income. Heroin from Afghanistan and Central Asia enters the Balkans through Turkey and is distributed through Kosovo to various points in Europe. One of the main smuggling routes goes to the Italian port of Bari on the Adriatic Sea, where the Italian Mafia distributes the product to the rest of Europe. However, the most lucrative distribution method for Kosovo is via its own diasporic networks in Turkey, Greece, Italy, Germany and Switzerland. In particular, Switzerland — where the diaspora numbers more than 100,000 and where the Kosovo mafia handles up to 90 percent of all incoming heroin — is key for further distribution through Europe, particularly now that the Swiss have joined the Schengen treaty of open European borders.

European authorities, having dealt with the Kosovo mafia for decades, are well aware of the strategic value of Kosovo to smuggling operations. The Kosovo mafia is brutally efficient and is difficult to penetrate due to Kosovo’s clan - and family-based networks. (There is also an added language barrier: Albanian, although of Indo-European origin, is unrelated to all European languages and practically impossible to master by non-native speakers.)

At the heart of the problem, however, is the fact that Kosovo does not have material or resource alternatives lucrative enough to support other viable industries that might rival smuggling. Making matters more difficult, many in Kosovo’s current leadership are directly related to the drug-trafficking operations. Much of Kosovo’s current leadership, including Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, has a history in the KLA, which was mainly funded by the drug trade. Indeed, many Kosovars see the narcotics trade as having been justified in light of what they consider illegitimate domination by Serbia, the explanation being that it was the only way to raise funds to combat alleged oppression.

EULEX was originally conceived as an institution-building and law-enforcement mission, and was originally favored by Priština because it would lessen pressure from the United Nations (and thus the UNSC, in which Serbia’s ally Russia holds a veto). Kosovo has since soured on EULEX, however. Independence has been achieved and Kosovo sees NATO as a sufficient security guarantee against a return of Serbian aggression. Priština therefore considers the EU law-enforcement mission unnecessary to maintain its sovereignty - and EULEX most certainly is not welcome from the perspective of the drug trade and its facilitators. The Europeans understand this, and member-states have already upped their intelligence operations against smuggling operations inside Kosovo (and their possible links to Kosovo’s government).

The Serbs, ironically, now do want EULEX because they are confident that they can influence its mission through the United Nations. It is Belgrade’s one last-ditch effort to obstruct Kosovar independence through official lines.

The stage is therefore set for a considerable confrontation between Brussels and Priština, only hinted at lately by protests against EULEX in downtown Priština and by a Nov. 14 grenade attack at EU headquarters in the capital. A new Kosovo paramilitary group calling itself the “Army of the Republic of Kosovo” took responsibility for the bombing and claimed that it would continue attacks against EU facilities (and the Serb minority inside Kosovo as well). While on the surface the angst is directed against the apparent EU acquiescence in what Kosovars consider a “made in Serbia” EULEX mandate, the real issue at hand is the narcotics operations that constitute Kosovo’s only true lucrative resource.

This report originally appeared on the Strategic Forecasting website

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