Mired deep in the mud of Kosovo's corruption


Several international groups have warned of a lack of political will to tackle corruption, writes MARY FITZGERALDin Pristina

OVER DINNER at one of Pristina’s best-known restaurants, Artan takes a notebook and pen and starts drawing several circles in red ink to illustrate how deeply corruption and its first cousins, nepotism and cronyism, run in this, the world’s second youngest state.

Artan, not his real name, is in his 30s and works to improve local governance in Kosovo. His anger over corruption is obvious as he maps how it touches so many facets of life here – from student grading to big business, from the corridors of power to the village – creating a toxic mix that has badly tarnished the country’s name. Yet Artan bristles over recent public comments by the US ambassador in Pristina, who declared that Kosovo was “sinking” in corruption.

“We all know there is a problem but statements like this give the impression everyone is to blame which is not fair,” Artan says. “There are many people like me who want this issue addressed urgently.”

In the four years since Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, it has made only plodding progress when it comes to establishing rule of law. From this springs a host of other challenges, including the organised crime, corruption, drug-trafficking and money-laundering that continue to plague the country.

Kosovo’s president, former police commander Atifete Jahjaga, knows only too well the difficulty of countering perceptions that this is a state mired in graft and how damaging such a reputation can be when it comes to wooing the foreign investment Kosovo’s limping economy so desperately needs.

“I have zero tolerance when it comes to corruption, this is one of my priorities as president,” Jahjaga says, sitting in her offices in central Pristina. “I will not allow corruption hold hostage the future of our country and the future and wellbeing of its citizens.”

Such tough talk though is destined to founder when all attention is focused on the recent arrest on suspicion of bribery of the head of Kosovo’s anti- corruption taskforce.

Nazmi Mustafi, who led the unit established within the special prosecutor’s office by Kosovo’s prime minister Hashim Thaci in 2010, was detained as part of an inquiry into allegations that he took backhanders to drop corruption charges against certain individuals.

“You couldn’t make it up,” one Pristina resident remarks bitterly.

The inquiry into Mustafi is being conducted by the EU rule of law mission in Kosovo known as Eulex. It has the power to take on cases considered too sensitive for the local judiciary.

Kosovo’s leading newspaper Koha Ditore reported that Mustafi “dealt with the highest-profile cases for corruption, the majority of which failed or ended with suspended sentences”.

It said Mustafi’s biggest case centred on Hashim Rexhepi, the former governor of Kosovo’s central bank. The case unravelled in December when a court threw out the indictment against him, citing lack of evidence. Separately, Koha Ditore quoted a businessman who alleged he once bribed Mustafi with tens of thousands of euro to escape investigation.

Civil society groups say the Mustafi scandal has raised further suspicions among the public regarding the extent of corruption within Kosovo’s establishment, as well as undermining efforts to anchor the rule of law.

The Kosova Democratic Institute said the arrest showed that “super-mechanisms” were being set up by the government “only for show and for domestic political consumption” instead of any serious intention to tackle graft.

Several international organisations have repeatedly warned that Pristina lacks the political will to fight corruption. Persistent rumours alleging high- level involvement lead many to conclude that the problem goes right to the top.

Earlier this year, four health ministry officials were arrested on suspicion of misuse of official positions, tax evasion, money laundering and organised crime related to tenders.

In a report last year, Transparency International outlined the factors that hamper efforts to tackle the issue, including deficiencies within the judiciary and lack of capacity within governmental bodies.

It added: “Civil servants have little training, political interference in the recruitment process is rampant and low wages function as disincentive to attract qualified personnel.

“In addition, there is a lack of transparency in public procurement, which has raised suspicions over corruption in a number of recent contracts.”

Kosovo’s anti-corruption agency, an independent body tasked with implementing policies to combat and prevent corruption, recently published its annual report which said it had received tips about 121 people alleged to be involved in graft last year.

Agency chief Hasan Preteni revealed that they included five serving and former mayors of municipalities across Kosovo as well as other officials. He said corruption is estimated to cost Kosovo, a country of just two million inhabitants, more than €10 million a year. Others put the price of graft much higher.

“What are the consequences?” asks Pieter Feith, a Dutch diplomat who has spent several years in Kosovo as head of the International Civilian Office – the main international supervisory body for the fledgling state.

“The economy cannot develop because there will be no foreign direct investment. If a nation has a bad international reputation, there will be no investment.

“There is a problem in the norms and values that people here feel attached to. This comes from years of oppression, years of discrimination and years of violence that the Kosovars have endured in the past. People have not learned to accept that there must be rule of law and rules and regulations that need to be respected, otherwise society cannot function properly,” Feith adds.

“This is not unique to Kosovo, you see it elsewhere in the Balkans and the wider region. It is a phenomenon that will take more time to eradicate completely.”