Kosovo: Home of the Organized Criminal Stray Dogs

In the perception of the world, Kosovo seems to be one thing in particular: a security risk. As one of the youngest states of the earth Kosovo has become a hub for organized crime, drugs, human trafficking and illegal weapons trade into the European Union. It is suspected that some of the Paris attackers received their weapons via Kosovo.

Story by: Robin Hofmann

Since the end of the Kosovo conflict in 1999, the international community has invested over 4 billion euros in development aid in this small country with approx. 1.3 million inhabitants. In 2011, Kosovo received 19 times more development aid than the average developing country. However, it wasn’t only money that was brought to Kosovo. In 2008, with the help of EULEX, the by far largest and most ambitious European civilian rule of law mission of all times was deployed to the country.

With what results? In early 2015, a migration wave from Kosovo emerged where over 100.000 asylum seekers, or nearly one tenth of the entire population, tried to find a better life in the EU and overseas. The result of this exodus in 2016: On the one hand, tens of thousands demoralized returnees whose asylum claims were rejected are left with nothing as they have sold all their valuables to finance their journeys. On the other hand, a devastating image of Kosovo as a country leaving its citizens with no other choice than to seek for asylum abroad was created. Only a fool would think that this situation would have no effect on the visa liberalizations and EU accession talks that the country currently strives for.

Moreover, corruption has infested large parts of the society. So has organized crime, believed to have deep roots in political elites. There were times in the years since the birth of Kosovo as an independent state in 2008 when experts estimated that two-thirds of its GDP was based on illegal activities. Simultaneously unemployment rates are skyrocketing, hitting particularly young people, among whom the rate is around 40%. The average income is between 300 and 400 euros per month. Nepotism is common in this society. In every coffeehouse of the capital Pristina there seems to be at least one waiter or waitress that holds a master’s degree.

So what to expect from a struggling country like Kosovo, constantly painted as it is in the darkest of colors? From a country that is considered as a crucial threat to EU security and which remains the most destabilizing in the Balkans? And what to expect from the communities, from citizens living under such obviously devastating conditions?

There seems to be a surprising and somewhat optimistic indifference towards the negative image and attributions.

Well, when talking to people, there seems to be a surprising and somewhat optimistic indifference towards the negative image and attributions. Mixed in there might be a dash of defiance of constantly being considered the problem child at Europe’s periphery not fulfilling the expectations of an EU that always had and still has high hopes for the country. Some people told me this form of positive fatalism is rooted in an ominous Balkan mentality, a concept I haven’t quite managed to fully understand yet. But then again this might take more than a couple of research trips to the Balkans. So far, though, the concept seems to be the biggest obstacle to a sustainable development while simultaneously reflecting an admirable ability of making the best out of a gridlocked situation.

This state of mind is also reflected in social surveys showing that the number one threat to the individual safety of Kosovars is not brutal terrorists or ruthless organized criminals; it is stray dogs. Stray dogs seem to be everywhere. They live in the shadows of the cities as much as openly in rural villages on the countryside. They feast on garbage or food provided by people. They can be aggressive and spread infections. However, most of the time they simply coexist with the humans.

The number two risk to security is traffic. It is indeed quite scaring to drive in urban areas as much as it is indeed scaring to drive on the countryside. Every driver seems to have a somewhat creative approach to traffic rules. This is reflected in the statistics: over 120 traffic related deaths per year. A high number for a small country but not overly unusual considering that for instance in Germany, with approx. 5000 traffic related deaths each year, means that a small city disappears on the streets and the German Autobahnen.

Although the EU considers organized crime to be probably the major security issue in Kosovo, it is of less relevance for the daily life of the civil society.

In contrast, the fear of falling victim to a crime is relatively low among Kosovars. Indeed, Kosovo has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe. A result of the good police work, Kosovar police officials proudly assured me. A result of the fact that a high number of criminals migrated to the more prosperous EU, unofficial sources argued. This is corroborated by official crime statistics from the German Federal Police Office (BKA), where Kosovars made up the by far largest group of criminals amongst refugees in Germany. At best, both explanations are however only half true. In Kosovo the low crime rates are also an indicator for strong organized crime structures. Crimes are bad for the real business of organized criminals, for drug or human trafficking, for corruption and economic crimes. Criminals are either on the payroll of the organized groups or driven out of the territory.

Yet, although the EU considers organized crime to be probably the major security issue in Kosovo, it is of less relevance for the daily life of the civil society. Here the problems lay elsewhere: Domestic and gender-based violence is a problem in urban as well as rural areas. The same goes for child trafficking and child exploitation. Thousands of children, particularly with minority backgrounds, are sent to the streets for begging. Violence in schools, among pupils but also between teachers and pupils, is at a considerably high level.

These problems are addressed by community-oriented policing (COP), a slowly but constantly growing branch of policing. The OSCE and the US Ministry of Justice have been very active in training police officers in COP. Also, EULEX has raised its engagement in that field. In some municipalities, this has been successful; in others, especially in the alienated Serbian areas north of Kosovo, the efforts have been less effective.

Mitrovica_Bridge.JPG
Mitrovica Bridge connecting the Serbian north and the Albanian south of the divided city. Photo: Robin Hoffman

Yet, although the EU considers organized crime to be probably the major security issue in Kosovo, it is of less relevance for the daily life of the civil society. Here the problems lay elsewhere: Domestic and gender-based violence is a problem in urban as well as rural areas. The same goes for child trafficking and child exploitation. Thousands of children, particularly with minority backgrounds, are sent to the streets for begging. Violence in schools, among pupils but also between teachers and pupils, is at a considerably high level.

These problems are addressed by community-oriented policing (COP), a slowly but constantly growing branch of policing. The OSCE and the US Ministry of Justice have been very active in training police officers in COP. Also, EULEX has raised its engagement in that field. In some municipalities, this has been successful; in others, especially in the alienated Serbian areas north of Kosovo, the efforts have been less effective.

But back to the number one security threat, the stray dogs. A high-ranking official deployed in the difficult northern part of Mitrovica, the city divided between Albanians and Serbs, told me about a quite surprising suspicion. The stray dogs all appear to be well nourished in the city. So well nourished that it cannot be explained by food they find in the garbage bins and on the streets. It is suspected that some people are secretively feeding the dogs. But why would they do that, considering that the dogs pose a considerable health risk to the people? The answer is as simple as outraging: Because organized groups use them as watchdogs. As soon as a foreign person, for example an EULEX officer, enters the territory of the gangs, the dogs will start barking and warn the gangsters to stop their illicit activities for a while. So in the end the organized criminals are indirectly responsible for the number one threat to the safety in Kosovo. This, in a way, reconciles the security interest of the EU and Kosovo again. Probably just not in the way we would have expected it.  In a broader sense it exemplifies one of the main challenges for international police missions: to bridge a gap between perceptions and expectations, between the security interests of the population and those of the International Community.

About the author:

Robin Hofmann holds a law degree from the University of Cologne and is a trained lawyer, is a researcher with Ruhr-University Bochum and ICT4COP, and writes his PhD thesis about EU crime policies.

 

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