The new year is already off to a rocky start for the Republic of Kosovo, with the Kosovar President pledging to sign into law a proposed abolition of a special war crimes court set up at The Hague. The U.S. Ambassador has dubbed the move a “disgrace” and a “stab in the back”, highlighting that the court’s dismantling is a sign that the West’s influence may not be as reforming as was once thought.
The declaration comes soon after the “War Wing”, led by the same center-right Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) that got its chops during the Kosovo war of independence, won a snap parliamentary election in June 2017; in the months since, the governing coalition has been pushing for a vote to dismantle the court established under EU pressure in 2015 to prosecute the countless accusations of war crimes against ethnic Serbs at the hands of Kosovar militias during the 1998-1999 independence war.
The court was established under Kosovar law, but based in The Netherlands and staffed with independent (read: foreign) judges. At the time of its establishment, the court received high praise from a number of government bodies and international human rights organizations. In the years prior, the EU had established an investigative body called the Special Investigative Task Force (SITF) to investigate alleged crimes; the court was to carry the baton and prosecute incidents of abductions, illegal detentions, unlawful killings and sexual violence.
But as the court announced it was readying for its first indictments in late November, calls for its dismantling mounted. That shouldn’t be surprising since leading figures from the current government—such as President Hashim Thaci, Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, Parliament speaker Kadri Veseli—have been suspected of war crimes. According to sources, the Netherlands-based court was expected to target all three former guerilla leaders.
But no matter how aggrieved Washington and Brussels feel, Kosovo’s abandonment of Western values is hardly a new phenomenon for the country. It’s not even the first time this happened: Eulex, the EU’s €1 billion mission to combat organized crime and corruption in the country has been exposed for repeatedly shunning or dropping investigations that implicate senior politicians; new analysis puts the team’s average output at just 2.5 indictments and one major conviction annually throughout the six-year mission. Given the pervasiveness of corruption in the new republic, which famously lost almost 10% of its GDP on a single poorly implemented public works contract, the results are embarrassing.
Despite the billions poured and the countless EU experts sent to help the country create a functioning state, Kosovar leaders have long enforced an oligarchic system of power. While egregious, this climate is not unique to Kosovo, and speaks volumes about Europe’s consistently clumsy approach to foreign policy and rushed embrace of political leaders. Just look to Albania, Serbia, or Montenegro, countries that have sought close EU ties for decades. While the accession process for the Western Balkans had been pushed to the backburner, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker made the issue a priority in the State of the Union address last year. As many Europeans still reel over the premature admission of Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia, Brussels’ light touch approach to worrying governance trends in the bloc’s border states should be raising eyebrows across the continent.
Take, for example, Montenegro. The country is widely seen as the frontrunner in joining the EU but, after decades of rule by EU-darling Milo Dukanovic as Prime Minister and President, the country is in shambles. The country’s electoral record is dismal as the opposition has been boycotting the parliament since the October 2016 elections, deemed not free and fair by its members. For more than a year, Dukanovic’s party has essentially governed alone a country that Juncker would like to build closer ties with and finalize accession negotiations.
And much like Kosovo’s elite, Dukanovic has a spotty record, to say the least. A 2003 Italian police investigation of tobacco smuggling revealed recorded conversations between Dukanovic and Italian mafia bosses; prosecutors have declared Montenegro a “haven for illegal trafficking” between 1994 and 2000; one of the Balkan’s most wanted drug traffickers, Darko Saric, was allowed to conduct his business out of Montenegro with impunity. Crime, corruption and violence have spiraled out of the control, attacks against free press are unending, while Dukanovic’s seat of power barely wobbles. Instead, he intends to run for the presidency (again) later this year, and Brussels has opened the doors for EU accession by 2025. Meanwhile, the opposition’s calls for snap parliamentary elections have fallen on deaf ears.
In Kosovo, Hashimi’s intention to dismantle the Specialist Chamber in The Hague, and Dukanovic’s continued resilience at the top of Montenegro’s politics is not an isolated development, but rather a predictable by-product of an EU determined to turn a blind eye to the deep roots of corruption and crime along its eastern border. If accountability continues to be set aside in favor of expanded borders, it is not only Kosovars who will suffer, but the stability of the EU as a whole.
About the author: Frank Maxwell is a competitive intelligence correspondent based in Warsaw, Poland.