A confluence of events in and around Kosovo over the past few months has brought renewed scrutiny on the small republic and its neighbours. On January 16, moderate Kosovar Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic was gunned down outside his office in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica. The assailants remain unknown, but the shockwave caused by his killing was forceful enough to blow the lid off the murky underworld of politically connected organised crime that pervades the region. That this took place just one month before the tenth anniversary of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia cast a pall over the celebrations as did any honest assessment of how well – or rather how poorly – Kosovo has fared as an independent state. Finally, the release earlier this month of the EU’s Strategy for the Western Balkans, which suggested that Serbia and Montenegro could join the bloc as early as 2025, also served to focus attention on how well the Balkans are progressing towards that goal.
If the words of German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel are anything to go by, it is going to be a long road indeed before the region is ready to join the EU. His assessment of the political conditions in Kosovo during a recent visit was damning. “Here we have a situation where the public administration is nonfunctional,” Gabriel said in Mitrovica. “Organised crime holds the levers of power. They do not hesitate to kill people, and the international community cannot tolerate this anymore.”
Besides this politically-motivated violence, Kosovo continues to struggle with the leftover effects of the bloody war it suffered in the late 1990s – a frozen ethnic divide and Serbia’s adamant refusal to recognise its former province’s independence. Gabriel’s insistence that Serbia will never become an EU member until it accepts the reality of Kosovo’s independence earned him an icy riposte from his Serbian counterpart Ivica Dacic. “Farewell, Gabriel, and accept the reality that the current German government is outgoing,” Dacic shot back, referring to the coalition talks in Germany to form a new government, in which Gabriel may no longer serve as foreign minister.
Whether Gabriel remains in his position or not, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has committed to presenting his country’s proposal for solving the Kosovo situation by early April. However, even if the Albanian side were to wholeheartedly accept this Serbian proposal – which Vucic himself admits is unlikely – several major obstacles to Serbia’s EU ambitions would remain. For one, rule of law in the country is extremely weak, emboldening criminal groups to settle their scores with violence in the streets of Belgrade and other Serbian cities. The low rates of conviction and suspicion of collusion between some police and the criminals makes gangs feel that they can carry out underworld activities with impunity.
This same problem plagues Montenegro, which like Serbia has been given 2025 as a potential EU entry date. But if the EU is split as to whether Serbia will have its house in order enough to join the bloc by that date, there is just as much reason to be concerned about Montenegro. After all, here is a country whose own gangland turf wars are so wide-ranging that they regularly spill over into the streets of neighbouring Serbia. Like its neighbour, the shockingly low rate of convictions for such crimes leads to accusations of state collusion in gangland activity.
Even more worryingly, these accusations lead straight to the top. Montenegro’s on-again-off-again leader since the collapse of Yugoslavia has been Milo Djukanovic – a man who has never denied accusations by prosecutors that he was involved in a billion-dollar cigarette smuggling operation with the Italian mafia. Djukanovic’s family-owned bank extended loans at friendly rates to internationally wanted drug trafficker, Darko Saric and allegedly allowed the dangerous criminal to launder his cash through the same bank. When that bank eventually went bust, Djukanovic ensured that it was nationalised, saddling the Montenegrin taxpayer with the debts it had racked up while Djukanovic and his cronies were using it like their personal ATM.
And now Djukanovic is considering a return to power. Surely, if the countries of this region are serious about wanting to put their dark history behind them and move towards a European future, then the likes of Milo Djukanovic need to be consigned to the rubbish bin as well. But as the recent events in Kosovo have demonstrated, the Balkans are still haunted by the spectres of their past.
Image: Aleksandar Vucic by Medija centar Beograd