Prime Minister, Mob Boss
A new report says Kosovo's leader is involved in drug dealing and organ smuggling. Why don't Kosovars care?
Also in Slate, Annie Lowrey analyses the economics of kidneys
In most countries, a report by a respected international body that says your prime minister is the head of a mafia ring involved in organ smuggling might cause a bit of a political stir. But not in Kosovo.
According to a just-released Council of Europe report, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci is the "boss" of a "mafia-like" group involved in various criminal activities, mainly heroin smuggling. "[I]n confidential reports spanning more than a decade, agencies dedicated to combating drug smuggling in at least five countries have named Hashim Thaci and other members of his 'Drenica Group' as having exerted violent control over the trade in heroin and other narcotics," the report says.
But the most sensational detail, which has garnered the most headlines, is Thaci's alleged involvement in organ smuggling. Over the last decade, criminal groups from Kosovo and neighboring Albania have reportedly set up a transnational organ-smuggling ring, either murdering victims to harvest their organs or tricking them into "donating" the body parts on false promises of payment. In Pristina, Kosovo's capital, seven defendants, including a Turkish surgeon and an Israeli organ broker, are currently standing trial for their involvement in a "clinic" named Medicus. (The case was broken, the Guardian reports, when a young Turkish "donor" fainted while waiting in line for his flight from Pristina to Istanbul. Police investigated and found a fresh scar on his abdomen. His kidney had been removed to be sold to a 74-year-old Israeli man.)
Thaci isn't involved in that trial, but the Council of Europe report implicates him. In the 1990s, when Kosovo was under Serbian rule, Thaci was the political director of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which allegedly kidnapped "scores" of ethnic Serbs, moved them across the border with Albania into secret prisons, and killed them to steal their organs. The report says that Thaci and his alleged criminal associates "bear the greatest responsibility" for what happened in those secret prisons and that there are "credible, convergent indications" that the KLA organ-removal ring is "closely related to the contemporary case of the Medicus Clinic."
You might think that Thaci would pay a political price for dabbling in the flesh trade, but in Pristina, even his political opponents have rallied to his defense, framing the allegations as an insult to Kosovo and the KLA. The head of another political party, former Prime Minister Agim Ceku, said, "Every accusation against the KLA comes from Serbia or its helpers. ... It's just an attempt to blacken our war and our victory."
In fact, the birth of the state of Kosovo owes a lot to heroin smuggling. While the face of the Kosovo Albanians' struggle against Serbian repression was urbane intellectual Ibrahim Rugova, behind the scenes the picture was much murkier. The KLA, the guerrilla force that fought Serbian troops and ultimately—with the help of NATO airpower—drove them out of the province, was intimately involved in organized crime. According to a U.N. report from 2008, half the KLA's funding between 1996 and 1999 came from drug smuggling.
The leaders of the war with Serbia now make up the backbone of Kosovo's government, and the country's current police service is believed to be a direct descendant of the KLA. What's more, in the Balkans, it's not unusual for national leaders to have alleged ties to organized crime. Montenegro's prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, was under criminal investigation by Italian police for his role in cigarette smuggling (the charges were dropped last year). Former Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader is currently in an Austrian jail, having fled his country on Dec. 10, just before the Parliament lifted his immunity from prosecution for a variety of corruption-related charges.
Joshua Kucera is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
Photograph of Hachim Thaci by Alex Wong/Getty Images.