Also in Slate, Annie Lowrey analyses the economics of kidneys
In most countries, a report by a respected international body that says your prime minister is the head of a mafia ring involved in organ smuggling might cause a bit of a political stir. But not in Kosovo.
According to a just-released Council of Europe report, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci is the “boss” of a “mafia-like” group involved in various criminal activities, mainly heroin smuggling. “[I]n confidential reports spanning more than a decade, agencies dedicated to combating drug smuggling in at least five countries have named Hashim Thaci and other members of his ‘Drenica Group’ as having exerted violent control over the trade in heroin and other narcotics,” the report says.
But the most sensational detail, which has garnered the most headlines, is Thaci’s alleged involvement in organ smuggling. Over the last decade, criminal groups from Kosovo and neighboring Albania have reportedly set up a transnational organ-smuggling ring, either murdering victims to harvest their organs or tricking them into “donating” the body parts on false promises of payment. In Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, seven defendants, including a Turkish surgeon and an Israeli organ broker, are currently standing trial for their involvement in a “clinic” named Medicus. (The case was broken, the Guardian reports, when a young Turkish “donor” fainted while waiting in line for his flight from Pristina to Istanbul. Police investigated and found a fresh scar on his abdomen. His kidney had been removed to be sold to a 74-year-old Israeli man.)
Thaci isn’t involved in that trial, but the Council of Europe report implicates him. In the 1990s, when Kosovo was under Serbian rule, Thaci was the political director of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which allegedly kidnapped “scores” of ethnic Serbs, moved them across the border with Albania into secret prisons, and killed them to steal their organs. The report says that Thaci and his alleged criminal associates “bear the greatest responsibility” for what happened in those secret prisons and that there are “credible, convergent indications” that the KLA organ-removal ring is “closely related to the contemporary case of the Medicus Clinic.”
You might think that Thaci would pay a political price for dabbling in the flesh trade, but in Pristina, even his political opponents have rallied to his defense, framing the allegations as an insult to Kosovo and the KLA. The head of another political party, former Prime Minister Agim Ceku, said, “Every accusation against the KLA comes from Serbia or its helpers. … It’s just an attempt to blacken our war and our victory.”
In fact, the birth of the state of Kosovo owes a lot to heroin smuggling. While the face of the Kosovo Albanians’ struggle against Serbian repression was urbane intellectual Ibrahim Rugova, behind the scenes the picture was much murkier. The KLA, the guerrilla force that fought Serbian troops and ultimately—with the help of NATO airpower—drove them out of the province, was intimately involved in organized crime. According to a U.N. report from 2008, half the KLA’s funding between 1996 and 1999 came from drug smuggling.
The leaders of the war with Serbia now make up the backbone of Kosovo’s government, and the country’s current police service is believed to be a direct descendant of the KLA. What’s more, in the Balkans, it’s not unusual for national leaders to have alleged ties to organized crime. Montenegro’s prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, was under criminal investigation by Italian police for his role in cigarette smuggling (the charges were dropped last year). Former Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader is currently in an Austrian jail, having fled his country on Dec. 10, just before the Parliament lifted his immunity from prosecution for a variety of corruption-related charges.
Kosovo, the youngest country in the world (it declared independence on Feb. 17, 2008), is still flush with newborn national pride, which could explain the lack of response to the Council of Europe’s allegations. The 2008 U.N. report notes that Kosovo’s position in the World Bank’s rule of law rankings is the lowest in the Balkans, while popular satisfaction with the government is the highest in the region.
Internationally, however, the response could be more damaging. The European Union maintains a “Rule of Law Mission” in Kosovo, charged with combating organized crime. A representative says that the organization will be reading the council’s report closely. “If they have got chapter and verse … then obviously we would like to hear from them more formally so that we can deal with it,” the mission’s deputy head, Andy Sparkes, told Reuters.
The Council of Europe report notes that Thaci was emboldened by his support from the West, which considered him its favored interlocutor in Kosovo:
The Western countries that engaged themselves in Kosovo had refrained from a direct intervention on the ground, preferring recourse to air strikes, and had thus taken on the KLA as their indispensable ally for ground operations. The international actors chose to turn a blind eye to the war crimes of the KLA, placing a premium instead on achieving some degree of short-term stability. In effect the new Kosovo has been built on the existing structures of the Kosovar Albanian homeland movement. It follows that the successive international administrations put in place, as well as the US Government, which is generally regarded as playing an important role in the affairs of the new Kosovo, have had to maintain good relations with their de facto allies on the ground, as the latter have become the new masters of the local political scene. This situation … has ultimately foiled the prospect of our getting to the bottom of the crimes committed.
Sparkes’ desire to “deal” with this situation notwithstanding, the influence of the European Union and United States in Kosovo is declining as Kosovo’s government consolidates its independence after nearly a decade of U.N. rule. The E.U. Rule of Law Mission is one of the few remaining international institutions with any authority in Kosovo, and it is increasingly unpopular among Kosovars.
On Sunday, Kosovo held its first post-independence general election, and Thaci’s party won handily. The West helped create the situation in Kosovo today. And now it looks like it may be stuck with it.