Thug Life

Think Mubarak was bad? Kosovo's leaders are accused of being organ-smuggling, drug-dealing goons -- and the United States is looking the other way.

Amid fireworks and celebratory gunfire, Kosovo -- Europe's newest country -- turned three years old on Thursday, Feb. 17. But behind the scenes of revelry in the capital, Pristina, it's clear that it will take a lot more than flag-waving for the fledgling country to grow out of its terrible twos. For all the hope that was once showered upon this young democracy, it still faces an enormous uphill battle: the country has no international postal or telephone code; it cannot establish its own IP address; its athletes cannot partake in many international sporting events; thousands of NATO troops still remain as peacekeepers; and Kosovars can only travel visa-free to five countries -- one of which is Haiti. With only 75 out of 192 nations having recognized the new state, it remains in a purgatory of semi-sovereignty.

Meanwhile, it's been a big start to the year for new states and new orders. The regimes in Tunisia and Egypt have fallen. Southern Sudan claimed its independence with a near unanimous result. A wave of reform protests continues across the Middle East. After a bit of diplomatic wavering, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to self-determination and human rights, promising to support "principles, processes and institutions -- not personalities" in its engagement with the new governments taking root in North Africa.

Trouble is, a sobering assessment of the successes and failures of state-building since the end of the Cold War demonstrates that governance and development work best when a population rallies behind an enlightened leader -- and suffer when one does not emerge. Principles of democracy and human rights have to abide in a leadership and must be bought into by a population.

And here's the rub: While the United States grappled with its inability (whether for lack of a fulcrum or fear of meddling) to use leverage to remove the regimes in Tunis and Cairo, it actually does have the power to affect change and promote transparent and accountable governance in Pristina -- where a coterie of thuggish leaders, holdovers from a Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) unit accused of war crimes and weapons dealing, now run the country. But, thus far, Washington has been unwilling to exert the necessary pressure on Kosovo's leaders -- and in its impotence pours billions of dollars down the drain and risks condemning the state to thugocracy.

While much has been made of America's financial support of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime and other autocratic dictatorships in recent weeks, Kosovo's democracy has received far more direct American aid in recent years -- in 2010, Kosovo received more than twice the American bilateral foreign assistance per capita than Egypt. Yet, after more than a decade of immense international investment and the best-resourced humanitarian mission the world has ever seen, Kosovo enters its fourth year of independence amid its own internal turmoil.

Yesterday, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic requested that the United Nations Security Council investigate allegations of organ trafficking and other serious war crimes submitted to the Council of Europe by Swiss Euro MP and former prosecutor Dick Marty in December of last year. The human rights atrocities were allegedly carried out against ethnic Serbs and Albanians accused of collaborating with Serb forces during the 1998-1999 conflict in the former Serbian province. Those accused of carrying out the acts include senior members of Kosovo's central government.

As it turns out, U.S. support for the world's youngest democracy has been almost as bad for economic security, political stability and democratic principles as backing the globe's oldest autocracies. Kosovo remains the poorest country in Europe. Just under half the population is jobless and living in poverty, 14 percent in extreme poverty. The women of Kosovo produce Europe's highest birth rate while facing its worst maternal and infant mortality rates. Only one in five youth under the age of 25 are employed. Access to health care and education outside the major cities is limited. Electricity supply remains patchy across the country -- despite donor funding in excess of €1.1 billion.

Of course, human and economic development in war-torn societies can be a slow and arduous process. The world should not expect its investment to instantly bear fruit. But support for Kosovo has been premised on developing a politically stable, democratic country.

In actuality, it has entrenched deep political divisions in an already fragmented government and ensconced an elite that now operates above the law. Having failed to improve Kosovo's moribund economy and human development indicators, the former-KLA power brokers of the central government have somehow managed to accrue personal wealth vastly out of proportion with their declared activities. Their development and state-building policy has largely consisted of maintaining its own power over institutions of state, security, and law and order.

Until last year, keeping Kosovo stable -- or at least appearing so -- had been prioritized by the international community over pursuing clear evidence of increasing corruption among senior government officials. But, as the international money poured in throughout 2010, the veneer cracked. A wave of organized crime, war crime, and corruption allegations swept the senior membership of the Kosovo government and the leaderships of its major political parties.

On April 28, 2010, international police raided the offices and home of Transport and Telecommunications Minister Fatmir Limaj in connection with a corruption probe into a €700 million infrastructure project. Suspected of soliciting bribes and laundering up to €2 million from the public purse, the raid on Limaj was the result of a two-year investigation that started shortly after he took office in January 2008. At that point, he had only just returned in September 2007 from his second trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ICTY -- indicted but never convicted of illegal imprisonment, cruel treatment, and inhumane acts during the war with Serbian forces in 1998-1999.

At the time of Limaj's arrest, the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) announced he was only one of seven ministers being investigated for links to organized crime and corruption in office.

Two months after the raid on Limaj, on July 21, 2010 popular former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj was indicted for a second time by the ICTY to stand trial for war crimes including torture, rape, and crimes against humanity. His application for provisional release was denied and he currently awaits trial in remand at the United Nations Detention Unit in The Hague. On Jan. 31, it was announced that the opposition party he leads from his cell, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, placed fourth in the general election -- taking a substantial 11 percent of the vote.

Two days after Haradinaj's arrest, Kosovo police arrested central bank governor Hashim Rexhepi on charges of corruption, tax evasion, and money laundering.

But it was the leaking of a Council of Europe (CoE) report just days after Kosovo's first post-independence election on December 2010 that really put this criminality and corruption out in the open. On Dec. 12, human rights rapporteur Dick Marty submitted a report to the CoE containing serious accusations against the local leadership and international missions currently presiding over Kosovo.

The report alleged that the ICTY, United Nations, NATO, and individual Western governments had failed to thoroughly investigate serious war crimes committed by the members of a KLA unit known as the Drenica Group during the 1998-1999 conflict with Serbia. According to Marty's report, the unit had violently seized and operated the lucrative trading routes across the Prokletije mountain range on the Kosovo-Albania border. He alleges the group amassed considerable fortunes supplying weaponry to local forces -- and trafficked in human beings, heroin, and organs taken from Serb and Albanian prisoners of war.

Marty's report identified the leader of Drenica Group as a man called "The Snake" -- a.k.a. Hashim Thaqi, who two days earlier had been named prime minister re-elect of the Republic of Kosovo. He has officially taken office in time for Kosovo's third Independence Day celebrations.

All of the condemned leadership have been quick to accuse the international community of "political lynching," interfering with domestic affairs of state, and inappropriate investigations into an independent government. Hardly.

In fact, the most disturbing aspect of these events were the revelations that Kosovo's thugocrats owe their rise and continued impunity to the toleration or outright support of the international community -- particularly the United States.

From the outset of the NATO intervention into Kosovo in June 1999, it was an American-devised strategy that drove allied forces to combat Serb atrocities through a 78-day aerial bombardment. Explicitly eschewing a land assault meant control on the ground fell to KLA forces -- with dire consequences for the safety of their Albanian opponents and the ethnic minorities of Kosovo. The summer of 1999 saw violent retaliatory attacks claim the lives of some 50 Serb and Roma civilians a week before the international forces regained control.

This strategy also set the terms for a co-dependent relationship between the West and the former KLA leadership to maintain a stability that took far too long to establish in the aftermath of the 1999 intervention. During the time it took for NATO and the U.N. to deploy in the wake of the bombing, the presence and actions of the KLA generated a perception among the local community that they were supported by the American and international forces.

American officials later did little to change that perception: It was their lobbying and support that gave the KLA the legitimacy they needed to transition from armed gang to political powerbrokers.

In 1999, the U.S. endorsement of Thaqi as hero was sealed with a kiss planted on his cheek by then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on her post-intervention visit to Kosovo. In 2004, every American staffer at the U.S. Embassy was invited to attend Haradinaj's wedding -- and, despite his links to organized crime and impending indictment on war crimes, they went. Most recently, the night after the raid on Limaj's home and offices, U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Christopher Dell was seen laughing and chatting with the minister at a well-attended party in Pristina.

It is difficult to see how democracy or respect the rule of law could develop and flourish amid such overt displays of American support for a corrupt and criminal leadership. As in Egypt and across the Middle East, this policy of impunity comes at significant cost to the objectives and perceptions of the United States and its Western allies. This backing for Kosovo government officials has undercut efforts to pursue indictments for war crimes and investigate high-level corruption. The war crimes taking place throughout the 1998-1999 conflict and in the immediate aftermath have never been fully investigated -- in fact, in some cases they have been covered up.

International judicial experts complain that the United Nations internal war crimes process "has always been very political," and that some "UNMIK cases were sent to [U.N. Headquarters in] New York rather than decided on the merits of the case." They allege international political interference stopped some cases from going before a court because "the political ramifications would have been too great." And only days before the independence celebrations, their accusations were given considerable weight with the leaking of classified U.N. documents that show UNMIK ran an incomplete investigation into the organ trafficking case brought to light by Marty in late 2010. The documents date from 2003 -- when UNMIK was in full control of the internal war crimes investigations and prosecutions.

So, that Kosovo holds elections should be small consolation to those in U.S. foreign policy who advocate championing principles over personalities. Democracy has not stopped the West from supporting and installing its preferred leaders in countries of geopolitical strategic importance -- local strongmen who hold the tumultuous societies of war-torn countries together with an iron fist rather than a rule of law.

As the United States and its allies contemplate how to support the latest wave of democratization, it must recognize that this reflex -- as evidenced by its policy in Kosovo up to today -- remains oriented toward backing power over virtue. As Condoleezza Rice noted in an abortively transformational speech in 2005, support for autocrats in the Middle East achieves neither democracy nor stability. It is an easy out for the United States to claim that it must not support personalities, and rather let people independently decide their own leaderships. However, it is also a convenient way to avoid accountability while preaching the principles of democracy from afar, laying the blame when things go south on societies still recovering from civil war.

The first principle in aiding the construction of new democracies must be to support conditions that prevent anyone from operating above the law. Even in a place like Kosovo, where Western influence might seem overwhelming, allowing space for impunity vitiates virtually everything else accomplished by even the most extravagant intervention.

Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images

Corrections: Spelling of Rice's first name and year of her speech.


Crackdown in Bahrain

Sectarian and hardline politics have brought protesters out into streets of this once quiet Gulf nation. And as the bodycount rises, the United States should be gravely concerned.

The crackdown was brutal.

At 3 a.m. on Feb. 17, hundreds of Bahraini riot police surrounded the protesters sleeping in a makeshift tent camp in Manama's Pearl Square. The security forces then stormed the camp, launching an attack that killed at least four protesters, some of whom were reportedly shot in their sleep with shotgun rounds. Thousands of Bahraini citizens gathered in the square on Feb. 15, in conscious emulation of the protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square, to push their demands for a more representative political system and an end to official corruption.

The tanks and armored personnel carriers of Bahrain's military subsequently rolled into the square, and a military spokesman announced that the army had taken important areas of the Bahraini capital "under control."

Perhaps alarmed at the recent revolutions that toppled the regimes of Egypt and Tunisia, the Sunni ruling family in Bahrain has been taking no chances against its young and mostly Shiite protest movement. Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has been able to overcome past troubles by posing as an enlightened autocrat, willing to show leniency. But divisions within the monarch's family, which he relies on to maintain his authority, may be forcing the king into a harsher position. And that spells trouble for Bahrain's stability, as well as the country's halting reform efforts.

The United States has a considerable national security stake in what goes on in this tiny island kingdom. Bahrain is home of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which protects the vital oil supply lines that pass through the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz -- an important asset for the United States in the event of a conflict with Iran. Bahrain is also a key logistical hub and command center for U.S naval operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Indian Ocean.

For the past few years, quasi-Salafist and arch-conservative elements of the Khalifa family have been gaining power over more liberal members of the family, who advocate widening the economic and political involvement to all spheres of Bahraini society.

Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the oldest and richest member of main ruling clan, has emerged as the leader of these conservatives, who seek to ensure the Khalifa family's continued stranglehold over the politics and economy of the country. His resignation has become one of the protesters' primary demands.

While the successful mass protests in Egypt and Tunisia clearly inspired the protesters in Manama, trouble has been brewing in Bahrain -- which is divided between a Sunni ruling family and a majority Shia population -- for years. Skirmishes broke out between young Shia Bahrainis and police forces last March, and political dissidents were arrested in the run-up to the Oct. 30 parliamentary elections.

The growing influence of the more extreme Khalifas was on full display during the Feb. 17 police crackdown. The police force that raided the camp is legally under the control of the prime minister. The brutality with which the raid was conducted may have been a bid to create a state of emergency on the island, forcing the more liberal members of the family to side with them against the protesters.

It is not only the Sunni ruling family that is divided -- the Shia opposition parties are also split. The al-Wefaq party is the largest opposition party in Parliament, but its support among Shia has declined due to its failure to win any concessions from the leadership on the issues of increased political power and representation or economic opportunities. As a result, the more confrontational al-Haq movement has been taking to the streets to wrest leadership away from al-Wefaq. 

In the past year, reports that al-Haq members were arrested and tortured by the security forces only bolstered its popularity among the Shia youth and unemployed. According to some Shia leaders, al-Haq now is seen by a majority of Shia as the leading group of the community. The efforts of the demonstrators to reject violence -- noble aspirations supported by the majority of Bahrainis -- may represent an attempt by al-Wefaq to take back leadership of the opposition from the more confrontational al-Haq.

The October 2010 elections to the Majlis al-Nawaf -- the lower house of Parliament -- were expected to bring some stability to the country. Al-Wefaq won 18 out of 40 total seats, and the election was relatively free and fair (though some constituencies were gerrymandered to ensure that al-Wefaq did not gain a majority). What's more, the influence of some of the more extremist Sunni groups was undermined by centrist Sunni-Shia alliances.

However, these hopes were dashed by Parliament's inability to affect real change in the country. All its decisions can be negated by the Majlis as-Shura, whose members are nominated by King Hamad. And the king can also veto any parliamentary decision. The sectarian divide that has emerged in parliament over the past three elections has also meant that most issues, such as the public availability of alcohol, the segregation of sexes in schools, are framed in purely religious terms. This has led the public to see parliamentary action as mostly irrelevant to their lives, increasing the pressure for citizens to take to the streets.

These particularities of Bahraini politics aside, it is clear that the present mass demonstrations are trying to follow the nonviolent example set by their counterparts in Egypt. The current wave of protests originated from 14,000 young people on Facebook. They represent a new generation,  fed up with the impasse between the al-Khalifa clan and the older Shia leadership. The chant today on the street is: "No Sunni, No Shia, just Bahraini!"

This is a message that the Khalifa family, and the U.S. government, would do well to take to heart. Anyone who has traveled to or lived in Bahrain knows that Bahrainis -- both Sunnis and Shia -- see themselves as Bahraini first, not stooges of Iran or Saudi Arabia. Some, of course, are influenced by Tehran or Riyadh -- but by and large citizens are influenced by what happens in Manama.

The Khalifa family has skillfully drawn on Western fears of the Shia as tools of Iran, which has so far obtained unquestioned U.S. support for their continued rule. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's mealy-mouthed statement today, in which she called for the government to show "restraint," is further evidence of this fact. Her remarks will not sway the prime minister and his cohorts, nor will they convince the demonstrators that the United States is a defender of their rights.

In the absence of real reform, the Iran threat could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Khalifas are not able to open up the state to their own citizens, the more extreme Shiite leaders could start to see Iran as a protector, and a curb to U.S. and Saudi influence. And a turn towards Iran would likely bring Saudi intervention in support of the monarchy. The Khalifa leadership is faced with the choice of truly liberalizing or risking outside intervention -- which would mean a grave loss of their position, and a potential catastrophe for the United States as well.

-/AFP/Getty Images