Early on Wednesday morning, October 13th, Kosovo’s police raided several targets across the country, including Mitrovica. During and after the raids against suspected smugglers, they arrested eight people and issued arrest warrants for another ten. Six of the arrested people are of Albanian nationality, one is Serb Serbia, and another is Bosnjak. Eight out of the ten people who received arrest warrants are Albanian while two are Serbs.
The police’s actions have triggered protests, to which the police have responded using tear gas to disperse protesters.
While Serbia and Kosovo are trying to find common ground and improve their relations, those on the other side of the law seem to be doing it way better. And they’ve been doing it for decades.
Strong words, nationalistic chants, and ethnic divisions all seem to disappear when it is time to divide the spoils. And the stakes are high: in return, Serb and Albanian criminal groups have control over one of the most prominent regions when it comes to organized crime in Europe.
The implementation of the 2013 Brussels agreement between Belgrade and Pristina has been too slow and Kosovo’s still disputed status — and the lack of police cooperation between the two countries — has contributed to a fruitful ground for criminal organizations in the region. Criminals of both ethnic groups have found a safe haven in Kosovo and have been able to escape from justice due to law-enforcement agencies' disputes over jurisdiction as well as their mutual distrust. The absence of direct cooperation between Serbia’s and Kosovo’s police and judicial authorities in a vast number of cases makes these bodies paralyzed and unable to fight criminals.
Ethnic Albanians are the majority of Kosovo’s population of almost two million, and there are around 100,000 Kosovo Serbs, with about 40 percent of them living in the north where they account for the absolute majority.
The four municipalities in the North of Kosovo, governed by Srpska Lista (the only Belgrade-backed Serb party in Kosovo and remote-controlled by Serbian Progressive Party) in somewhat lawless conditions, are seen as a hotspot for both Serb and Albanian traffickers who use the grey zone to smuggle goods illegally. There are a number of ‘alternative crossings’ (dirt roads), which are used for illegal passage to and from Kosovo, as well as for smuggling. Vehicles transport the widest variety of smuggling goods on a daily basis and seem to avoid the authorities that are supposed to stop them.
A few locals still living along the administrative border claim the criminals have people on the ground alerting them in case of law enforcement patrols the area.Sources say the so-called observers earn as much as 10 euros per scout, while smugglers receive some 100 euros for transportation.
Kosovo’s central government has very little control over the territory, while the institutions in the north have limited power due to the slow pace of self-administration.
As such, what started as a need in times of war and sanctions has become a lucrative business for all counterparts. Smuggling peaked in the ‘90s with the trafficking of hard drugs and tax-free oil from a Serbian refinery.
In the summer and autumn of 2011, Serbs from northern Kosovo erected barricades at the Jarinje and Brnjak administrative crossings with the intention of preventing EULEX from transferring Albanian customs officers to those crossings. Media reports and witnesses’ testimonies said the nationalistic pride of the organizers was just a cover for the real concern — tighter customs regulation and its potential to harm criminal and business interests.
Ethnicity seems to playan insignificant role when it comes to money, and Albanians and Serbs have proven capable of overcoming ethnic divisions and language barriers on top of adapting to a fast-changing situation on the ground.
The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime noted: “Criminal networks can forge bonds across borders and overcome cultural and linguistic differences in the commission of a transnational crime […] Organized crime is not stagnant, but adapts as new criminal markets emerge and as relationships between criminal networks become more flexible and more sophisticated, with ever greater reach around the globe. In short, transnational organized crime transcends cultural, social, linguistic and geographical borders, requiring a global and concerted response.”
With a fragile economy and high unemployment rates, many in the region — the young ones particularly — are prone to engaging in illicit activities. In 2019, youth unemployment rates in Kosovo were as high as 55 percent. Trafficking of illicit drugs is the most recorded organized criminal activity and it dominates the illicit market in the territory of Serbia’s former province.
According to the United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2020 report, between 2013 and 2017 participation in an organized criminal group was the crime with the most prosecutions while other, often prosecuted crimes linked to organized criminal groups included the smuggling of migrants, human trafficking, firearms trafficking, and money laundering. In recent years, Kosovo has also emerged as a new regional hub for cigarette distribution. Loads are smuggled there from Serbia, North Macedonia, and Bulgaria, and then transported to Montenegro through the porous border.
A 2020 UNODC report emphasises that despite a large number of prosecutions, only a few individuals were convicted. The reason could be a combination of several factors: ineffective investigations and/or prosecutions, lack of evidence to prove linkages to organized criminal groups, obstruction of justice, and corruption.
The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime 2019 report shows that smuggling in North Kosovo became so rampant that it is considered “a regular economic activity.” The report estimates that the weekly financial losses to Kosovo’s budget amount to around €750 000, made up of €400 000 in fuel duties, followed by €200 000 in construction materials, and €150 000 for all other goods.
“Many of these goods do not stay in the Serb-dominated north but are moved further south into parts of Kosovo where ethnic Albanians are the majority. This shows that, at least for smuggling networks, ethnicity, and geographic and administrative boundaries are not an impediment to cooperation among criminals”, the report finds.
The lucrative grey zone of North Kosovo has been of interest to many parties, and as such has been a constant battlefield over control of the territory. The usual trio — business, political and criminal elites — have all been cooperating to maintain the status quo.
In 2019, the Balkan Investigative Reporters Network (BIRN) catalogued 74 attacks on Kosovo Serbs involving guns, grenades, arson or explosive devices since 2014, the year Srpska Lista first took power after landmark local elections.
In 2018, the Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic was killed in North Mitrovica outside his party headquarters. Almost three years later, the trial of six people accused of participating in the murder is still ongoing in Kosovo.
The alleged leaders of the organised criminal group that killed Ivanovic are two Serb businessmen who have long been suspected of criminal activities: Milan Radoicic (Srpska Lista’s leader) and Zvonko Veselinovic. Although named as leaders of the criminal group, the two have not been indicted in the case of Ivanovic’s murder.
In Ivanovic’s last interview with BIRN, Radoicic was described as a “dark ruler” and a “key figure in an intimidating system of power in northern Kosovo”.
Radoicic, a former football player, and Zvonko Veselinovic became known to the public during the 2011 barricades in northern Kosovo. At the time, KFOR identified Veselinovic as one of the organizers of the riots in that region of the country. However, he was already a well-known name to law enforcement. In the early 2000s, Veselinovic was arrested several times for various crimes. The first arrest happened in 2003, when the police found three kilograms and 190 grams of heroin in the car he was driving. The drugs were allegedly meant to be distributed within the Belgrade area. According to the media, Veselinovic was cleared of allegations.
In October 2011, the New York Times linked him with the Albanian businessman Mentor Beqiri, with whom he allegedly smuggled oil. At the time, he owned two gas stations in northern Kosovo. According to the NYT, the two men cooperated to distribute smuggled oil across the country. One of the investigators told the NYT that Veselinovic and Beqiri would typically meet in a wooded Serb enclave which, at the time, was a secluded zone with no phone reception.
According to the investigative outlet Insider, while local Serbs were at the barricades Zvonko Veselinovic's machines, trucks, and excavators dug new, alternative roads on the administrative line that were later used to smuggle goods between Serbia and Kosovo.
In 2015, BIRN uncovered evidence that Veselinovic transported materials for a firm owned by prominent Kosovo Albanians linked to the Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK. The goods were sold to the US construction giant Bechtel and its Turkish partner Enka, the main contractor hired to build Kosovo’s biggest ever infrastructure project, the Pristina-Tirana highway.
BIRN has discovered Veselinovic also ferried rocks from the Arena Invest quarry in northern Kosovo until routes were blocked by the barricades he helped create. Arena Invest is owned by three prominent Kosovo Albanians: Pristina’s former ambassador to Washington, Kosovo’s then-Prime Minister Hashim Thaci’s landlord, and a former Kosovo Liberation Army commander – as well as a Kosovo Serb politician.
Veselinovic enriched himself after Serbia’s decision to remove VAT on goods sold in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo, beyond Pristina’s control. His family owned two petrol stations and are alleged to have been involved in the smuggling of fuel, cigarettes, and alcohol, according to BIRN.
As per KRIK’s 2019 report, Serbia’s Security Intelligence Agency (BIA) labelled Veselinovic as the leader of a criminal group that deals with drug trafficking, arms and oil smuggling, greening and money laundering.
In the drug business, Veselinovic worked closely with Kosovo criminal Ismet Osmani aka Curi. His best man, Radoicic, took the drugs from Osmani and transferred them to central Serbia, the report finds. At the end of that year, both were arrested in Kopaonik, and, after several months in detention, an indictment was filed against them: however, it was not in the connection to drug dealing but for the abuse of office when buying a leased truck. After three years of trial, they were acquitted. Radoicic was convicted of falsifying documents and was also tried for kidnapping, but he was later acquitted.
For decades, criminals of different nationalities, cultural, and linguistical backgrounds have managed to share the prey by taking advantage of the constant blame game between Kosovo and Serbian authorities. The current grey zone seems to suit them well, and it won’t be the first time they act to protect their interests. As long there is no real cooperation between the authorities, it appears there will be no real progress in fighting organized crime. Considering the ties these criminals have with the political élites in both Kosovo and Serbia, it looks like an impossible mission.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ISPI and BCSP.