BY ANDREW RETTMAN

 

North Kosovo is said to be run by Serb organised crime gangs and is a no-go zone for ethnic Albanian police (Photo: jonworth-eu)

North Kosovo is said to be run by Serb organised crime gangs and is a no-go zone for ethnic Albanian police (Photo: jonworth-eu) – The EU commission has started talks on visa-free travel with Kosovo. But huge problems – from regional politics to organised crime – stand in the way.

EU justice commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom went to Pristina on Thursday (19 January) to deliver the good news. She also visited a shelter for trafficked women and met with Kosovo leader Hashim Thaci.

“Whether and how soon citizens obtain the privilege of visa-free travel will … depend entirely on the government of Kosovo’s continuing efforts to implement reforms,” she said in a communique. “Moving stories from victims of modern slavery. Shelter gives them strength to move on,” she later tweeted on the trafficked women.

Kosovars feel hard done by on visas. The cost of an EU permit is between €35 and €60 in a place where the average wage is €200 a month and 40 percent of people do not have jobs. Rates of refusal are high.

Meanwhile, all their former Yugoslav neighbours already have visa-free travel.

The Malmstrom announcement is a breakthrough which indicates the five EU countries that do not recognise Kosovo – Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain – want to have normal relations and do not want to see it fail.

The EU has already designed a way round the legal quandary of non-recognition. In 2009 it put “the territory of Kosovo” on a list of entities that need visas. A future EU Council decision can move it onto a visa-free list while saying this is “without prejudice” to its status.

Despite the goodwill, Kosovo’s talks are set to take much longer than the two and half years it took, say, Bosnia to switch lists, however.

With border security among EU visa conditions, a major issue is north Kosovo.

Smugglers’ paradise

The enclave of 40,000-or-so ethnic Serbs is – according to Nato – run by organised crime groups who make big money from cigarette and people smuggling. It is a no-go zone for ethnic Albanian police. Crossing points to Serbia are operated by Nato soldiers and EU policemen. But almost nothing goes through official checkpoints in practice.

The smugglers’ paradise will be hard to shut down because it is highly political.

EU countries say Serbia supports the local strongmen precisely in order to hamper EU-Kosovo integration.

Many observers believe it will normalise only if it gets some form of autonomy. But this diplomatic feat will be hard to achieve because it risks prompting similar claims by ethnic Albanians and Serbs in Bosnia, Macedonia and Serbia.

Kosovo’s envoy to Brussels, Ilir Dugolli told EUobserver north Kosovo should not impede the visa talks: “Otherwise we would have the paradoxical situation that the same problem did not stop Serbia from getting visa liberalisation but for us it is a problem.”

But a Serb diplomat saw things differently.

“Officially they have opened talks, but there will be a lot of discussions on these issues inside the EU,” the contact said. Talks about “the political solution” for north Kosovo will begin shortly he added.

For their part, rank-and-file Kosovo customs and police have a good reputation.

But EU diplomats say the courts have far to go and that judges often let suspects off the hook or “put their case to the bottom of the pile” due to external influence.

Bad apples

Allegations of organised crime have tainted the highest levels of government.

EU police is currently investigating Thaci himself after the Council of Europe said he ran an organ trafficking gang and that witnesses still fear for their lives. Nato documents leaked in 2004 called him “a big fish” in the arms and people trafficking business.

Kosovo’s line is that all the accusations are “political” and aim to deligitimise the state. “The attitude of the Kosovo authorities has always been full openness and readiness to collaborate with any investigation,” Dugolli said.

Meanwhile, the international soldiers are sometimes part of the problem.

In 2010, Macedonian police caught 16 Romanian EU police officers smuggling large quantities of cigarettes and liquor.

Asked by this website if they were ever punished, a spokeswoman for the EU police mission said: “They were pulled back [home] by their authorities.”

The culture of impunity is not new. When Romanian UN soldiers killed two ethnic Albanians with rubber bullets back in 2008, they were also pulled back home.

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