Following the May 28 police operation to combat lawlessness and organized crime in Serb-controlled northern Kosovo, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova stated that Kosovo is an “uncontrollable territory” and remains a source of instability in the center of Europe.
Zakharova called the operation a “brutal invasion of Kosovo-Albanian special forces into the Serb-populated municipalities in the north of Kosovo.” She accused the police of using “the far-fetched pretext of fighting organized crime” to deliberately intimidate part of the population by subjecting it to unbearable conditions. Zakharova was referring to the Serb population concentrated mostly in four northern municipalities, controlled by Serb political parties.
“Kosovo remains the main source of instability and potential conflict in the region. This territory is practically uncontrollable. It is not only a source of instability, but also a potentially dangerous, uncontrolled territory in the center of Europe,” Zakharova said.
This statement is false.
First, Kosovo is no less stable than any of its neighbors, including Russia’s strategic partner Serbia, where weekly anti-government protests have been taking place for months. Protests and police actions to prevent violence are also currently taking place in Albania and Montenegro, while North Macedonia has just emerged from a highly divisive period preceding the change of its name and is now on track to join NATO.
Second, in making the claim that Kosovo is “practically uncontrollable,” Zakharova seemingly ignored the fact that Kosovo’s four Serb-majority northern municipalities, where the government in Pristina has little control, are the main source of instability in the country. The Serb political leadership there is strongly supported by Belgrade and Moscow, but corruption and organized crime have become widespread. On May 28, the Kosovo police conducted arrests of police officials suspected of corruption to address this long-standing problem and increase the security for local Serbs, who face threats and extortion from organized crime.
Zakharova’s statement fits a consistent Kremlin narrative aimed at discrediting the state of Kosovo. Moscow objected to NATO’s military intervention in Yugoslavia in 1999 to prevent the ethnic cleansing of the Kosovo Albanians by the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic.
It subsequently refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence and instead has supported Belgrade’s avowal that Kosovo is Serbia.
The Kremlin has also consistently sought to obstruct a potential agreement between Belgrade and Pristina that would allow Serbia to join the European Union and help Kosovo’s international recognition.
A 2017 report by the Kosovo Center for Security Studies finds that since announcing independence in 2008, Kosovo has been exposed to a formidable Russian meddling campaign against the Western state-building model and democratic values. “Numerous subversive and non-military instruments will continue to be used against a multiethnic Kosovo in order to create a pretext for a failed-state and heighten local separatism within the Kosovo Serb community in northern municipalities,” the report says.
Polygraph.info video fact check by Nik Yarst
Crackdown on Crime
The Kosovo police operation on May 28 was not carried out on the “far-fetched pretext of fighting organized crime.” It was a court authorized action that followed a year-long investigation by the Kosovo Special Prosecution into organized crime activities involving local police officers. Since 2014, crime rates in Serb-run municipalities have increased significantly, including corruption, extortion, smuggling, car bombings, arson, intimidation of political opponents and political assassinations.
The United States mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) applauded law enforcement efforts by the Kosovo government to combat corruption and strengthen the rule of law. It also stressed that the police arrested suspects who belonged to multiple ethnic groups and the operation took place in several locations in Kosovo, not only in the north.
There were arrests and searches in several municipalities in northern Kosovo, including Zvecan, Zubin Potok, Leposavic, north Mitrovica, with a majority Serb population. The police also made arrests in the central Kosovo municipalities of south Mitrovica, Skenderaj and Drenas, which have mostly Albanian population. The operation ended with the arrest of 19 Kosovo police officers -- 11 of Serbian nationality, four Albanians and four Bosniaks. One had the rank of captain and three were sergeants.
“The Kosovo Special Prosecution has been investigating numerous employees within the Kosovo Police, in cooperation with the Police Inspectorate, concerning misuse of official position, organized crime, illegal smuggling of goods and bribery since April last year,” said Kosovo Police Inspectorate Director Miradije Kelmendi.
Kosovo’s State Prosecutor Sylë Hoxha said that the Special Prosecution Office interviewed numerous witnesses who contributed to collecting facts about alleged criminal offenses in northern Kosovo.
The police also seized weapons, technological equipment and money during the raids. The police officers suspected of criminal activities were detained for 48 hours and suspended from duty according to protocols.
Edward Joseph, who served as deputy head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo in 2012, told Polygraph.info: “The police operation conducted in the north of Kosovo (Zubin Potok) on 28 May seems to have a legitimate anti-crime motivation. I put great weight on the reports that a number of the police who were arrested were not Serbs, but rather ethnic Albanian or Bosniak. This suggests a legitimate effort to round up criminal suspects. Indeed, there is no more pernicious obstacle to fighting crime than criminal conduct within the police itself. Rooting out criminals within the police is a top crime-fighting priority.”
In one area, Zubin Potok, law enforcement was met with gunfire and one police officer was wounded. Two more officers received other injuries. Persons unknown had erected barricades to prevent the police from reaching the area. At one location, a vehicle belonging to the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) was allegedly blocking the road, with a Russian diplomat and a local associate inside. The Russian diplomat, Mikhail Krasnoshchenkov, who was reportedly injured during police efforts to remove the barricades, was taken into police custody for several hours, causing a diplomatic controversy.
Zakharova said that the arrest of UN personnel with diplomatic immunity “testifies to the atmosphere of complete impunity in the region, an absolute contempt for international law and for the norms of civilized international communications.”
UNMIK head Zahir Tanin told a UN Security Council meeting on June 10 that Kosovo police had violated the rights of the two staff members arrested and injured during the May 28 operation against organized crime. Nevertheless, UNMIK has opened an internal investigation into the two UN staffers’ alleged involvement in blocking police access to Zubin Potok.
Subsequently, Russian diplomat Mikhail Krasnoshchokov was declared persona non grata in Kosovo and asked to leave the country.
Crime and Politics in Kosovska Mitrovica
Edward Joseph noted that, in claiming that Kosovo is “practically uncontrollable,” the Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson ignored the longstanding criminality in northern Kosovo, which is largely not under Pristina’s control.
The Kosovo Serb-controlled north has experienced a growth in crime, while the 2013 Brussels agreement between Serbia and Kosovo on creating an integrated police force is still in its early stages of implementation. The agreement stated that all police in northern Kosovo shall be integrated in the Kosovo police force.
This part of the country is not under the direct administrative control of Pristina due to ethnic separation that has persisted since the end of the war 20 years ago. Support from Belgrade and Moscow for the Kosovo Serb party controlling the north has only exacerbated the area’s lawlessness and corruption, to the extent that local Serbs have complained about a lack of basic security.
The escalation of criminality since 2014 culminated in the assassination of local Serbian politician Oliver Ivanovic in north Mitrovica on January 16, 2018. Months before his death, Ivanovic had blamed criminal elements within the Kosovo Serb community for acts of intimidation against him – such as blowing up his car (twice), breaking into his home and threatening his family. “They have done everything they could up until now — except for shooting me,” he said in a November 2017 television interview.
Ivanovic also alleged that the criminal elements threatening him had ties to the Belgrade-backed Serb party in Kosovo, Srpska Lista, which controls the Serb-populated northern municipalities.
In fact, the Kosovo police have named Milan Radoicic, Vice-President of Srpska Lista, as a suspect in Ivanovic’s murder. Ivanovic once described Radoicic, who has repeatedly been in trouble with the law in Serbia but still has Belgrade’s political support, as the real powerbroker in the Serb-run enclaves of northern Kosovo.
Radoicic seems to enjoy the Serbian state’s protection against an arrest warrant by the Kosovo police for his alleged involvement in Ivanovic’s murder. Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic has also claimed that Radoicic had nothing to do with the killing of Ivanovic.
An extensive investigation by Balkan Insight into organized crime in North Kosovo counted 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. Targets have included politicians, members of the police and security forces, journalists, entrepreneurs and employees of state institutions.
None of these attacks are suspected to have been inter-ethnic violence, as the police has found no evidence that Kosovo Albanians were behind them. The victims of intimidation are usually opponents of Srpska Lista or independent candidates for local government offices who do not toe the ruling party line, including Oliver Ivanovic and his friend Dimitrije Janicijevic. When Janicijevic was gunned down and killed in January 2014, he was running for mayor in local elections for the Independent Liberal Party.
Serbian authorities are reluctant to curtail their intervention in the politics of Kosovo’s northern municipalities. Serbia’s President, Aleksandar Vucic swiftly announced emergency measures when the Kosovo police operation started on May 28: "This morning at 6:29 AM, as the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, I put our military on alert. In case of serious violations of law and order, or a threat to the lives of Serbians in northern Kosovo and Metohija, our Armed Forces will protect our people. I guarantee that if there’s an escalation, if the attacks on Serbians continue, all I can say is that Serbia will win.”
Balkan Insight has found extensive evidence of political connections between the Kosovo Serb party, Srpska Lista, and Serbia’s ruling elite that paints a disturbing picture of state-sponsored crime in northern Kosovo.
“I don’t know what else to call it other than ‘state-sponsored crime’ happening under the pretext of maintaining the Serb community in the north,” said Bojan Elek, a researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy think tank.
The Russian claim that Kosovo is “the main source of instability and potential conflict in the region” is demonstratively false. However, the support of Belgrade and Moscow for Kosovo Serb politicians, who are allegedly connected to organized crime, seems to undermine the rule of law in Kosovo's north.