Graffiti in the Serb side of the divided town of Mitrovica. Flickr/Adam Jons. Some rights reserved.
For the locals and international community alike, elections in Kosovo are known to have a flair for the dramatic. From unresolved questions of local ownership that were prompted during the UNMIK era to allegations of industrial-scale fraud in the 2010 bid for parliament seats, the votes to be cast have usually been accompanied by a high dose of tension and unease.
In the run-up to this past Sunday’s municipal elections, however, the eyes of most stakeholders were turned towards the young country’s volatile north. As part of this year’s EU-brokered landmark agreement between Belgrade and Prishtina on the normalization of relations, the elections of November 3 were supposed to mark the first of their kind to be organized throughout Kosovo’s territory. In principle, they were also set to include the four Serb-majority populated municipalities north of the river Ibar, which for the past 14 years have operated under Belgrade’s clout and defied Prishtina’s legal system and authority.
Despite the political and diplomatic furor surrounding the Belgrade-Prishtina accord, the electoral anticipation grew wary in face of a sudden rise in violent incidents in the north. In the last few weeks alone, a series of attacks and explosions targeting leaders of northern Serb political formations, who had announced their running, left the authorities on both sides apprehensive. Judging from the official statements issued, both Belgrade and Prishtina seemed to believe that the attacks had been politically motivated and aimed at intimidating local Serbs who could be opting to finally integrate into Prishtina’s structures.
As it turned out, the assumptions were not too far off. On the day of elections, many Serbs living in the north who were seen to enter the polling stations were either verbally insulted or threatened with use of physical force by election boycotting hard-liners. Some had even gone as far as resorting to online public shaming and smear campaigns by uploading photos and videos of those seen to enter and exist the stations. In the late afternoon of Sunday, three poll-stations were forced to close down in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica after masked men stormed the facilities, vandalizing and taking away ballot boxes while throwing canisters of tear gas, forcing the OSCE monitoring officials to flee the premises.
In hindsight, the incidents observed on the day of the elections were not the most surprising bearing in mind the warnings and the threats received during the electoral period. Nor were these incidents limited to targeting northern Serb leaders only. Another less probable victim of an unknown armed assault was the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX). Just as prime-ministers Dačić and Thaçi were headed towards yet another round of uneasy negotiations in Brussels in September, two vehicles carrying staff members of EULEX were ambushed in the northern municipality of Zvecan claiming the life of a Lithuanian EULEX customs officer, Audrius Šenavičius.
The fatal incident marked the first death of a EULEX member in the line of duty ever since the Mission was deployed in 2008, prompting a widespread outcry from not only local and EU stakeholders within Kosovo, but also from Brussels. The President of Kosovo blamed the attack “on forces that want to destabilize Kosovo” while the EU High Representative, Catherine Ashton, asked that the perpetrators be brought to justice. She further highlighted the EU’s intention to continue its commitment to Kosovo and to encourage both Belgrade and Prishtina to redouble their efforts in normalizing the relations and bettering the lives of the people in northern Kosovo.
Aside from the security concerns raised, the attack has once more revived the debates about EULEX’s position in the Kosovo-Serbia conundrum. Dubbed as EU’s most ambitious project in civilian crisis management to date, EULEX was deployed to support and strengthen Kosovo’s judiciary, police and customs institutions towards sustainability whilst maintaining a series of executive powers in prosecuting and adjudicating grave violations including war crimes, interethnic crimes and high profile corruption charges.
Five years after its deployment, the success stories of the EU’s mammoth mission that has cost the EU taxpayers over 700 million euros have remained largely elusive owing to a myriad factors: from internal divisions within the European Union’s 28 member states that made a common position on Kosovo’s statehood unlikely to internal and technical difficulties in prosecuting and adjudicating crime and corruption in a post-conflict transformation.
For EULEX, Kosovo’s north has posited itself as a particularly complex Gordian knot. More than being a clutter of criminal activity for which it has often been targeted, the area remains largely a political quagmire. The legal system in the region has operated under a different set of rules since the end of the war in 1999 with the concentrated Serb population in this area continually dismissing the authority of Prishtina’s institutions while running a civil administration answering directly to Belgrade. Reflecting the divisive positions of the EU’s five member states that have not recognized Kosovo’s independence to date, EULEX has adopted and maintained a “status-neutral” stance towards Kosovo’s statehood which has significantly limited the effectiveness of the mission.
The rule of law
In spite of these limitations, it has created a special unit dubbed Task Force Mitrovica – the mission’s investigative tool for the north, specifically designed to fight crime in the region. Operational since 2010, the TFM is exclusively under the executive mandate of EULEX. Put differently, EULEX can independently engage in investigating, prosecuting and adjudicating crime perpetrations with neither the need nor the obligation to invite the local counterparts. Although EULEX can draw resources from Kosovo authorities, the TFM bears the brunt of responsibility in investigating and solving crime cases in the north, including the murder of its staff member.
Yet, in launching investigations into last month’s assault, EULEX has, nonetheless, scored many “firsts”. It has first welcomed the help of both Kosovo and Serbian law and order authorities. Second, rather than resorting to the usual lengthy and painstaking investigative proceedings that it always adopts in investigating crimes in Kosovo, including those of inter-ethnic nature, it has stepped up its efforts by introducing a bounty on the head of the assailant(s). A hefty reward of € 27,500 has been promised for anyone willing to provide crucial information leading to the capture of the perpetrators(s).
At first glance, such a move may have been hardly unexpected, in particular bearing in mind EULEX’s unique position and the circumstances that have surrounded its operations ever since it was formally launched five years ago. Despite being the EU’s most expensive mission abroad, a European Court of Auditors report last year found that EULEX’s tenure in Kosovo has been largely ineffective with very little to no progress in establishing and strengthening the rule of law in the country, especially in the north. Thus, sparing no effort in bringing the perpetrators to justice is, by all means, in the very interest of the mission’s dismal reputation. Indeed, there is enough of good reason to believe that if yet another crime in Kosovo goes unpunished, this will not only have repercussions on EULEX’s standing, but also on the overall prospects of the EU’s newly emerging role as a global actor in the security sector.
Admittedly, handing in large sums of money to witnesses and collaborators who are willing to tip-off key information that could lead to the capture of perpetrator(s) is neither an unheard of practice in liberal democracies, nor too controversial. From various government-established rewards schemes, such as Rewards for Justice in the US, to others we encounter on various lists of the world’s most-wanted, bounties on the heads of perpetrators remain popular. Yet, for Kosovo’s fragile judiciary and bleak rule of law track, especially in the north where EULEX in particular does not enjoy much popularity, placing bounties on the heads of perpetrators may be equally discouraging as it is counterproductive.
The decision leaves behind a considerable amount of moral ambiguity and ethical questions unanswered. To begin with, there is the concern that by deciding to offer sums of money in exchange for information in a region hostile to EULEX’s operations, EULEX has not only revealed its very congenital stance that it is running out of options in an “unchartered and unruly territory”, but it has also adopted a defeatist policy in accepting that the principle of rule of law may be in fact a tradable commodity and not something a society should aspire to or develop.
This leaves anybody who would otherwise be genuinely willing to collaborate with little but no choice: either decide against cooperation on the basis that EULEX, in fact, cares little about the rule of law in Kosovo or be co-opted into exchanging whatever information one has solely motivated by the allure of the reward. Driven to disdain, the latter could be in fact appealing considering that the amount of money being awarded is ten times the current gross national income per capita in Kosovo. On the other hand, by attaching monetary value to rule of law efforts, EULEX is not only introducing a dubious practice in Kosovo’s struggling law institutions, but it is also opening ample space to speculate that a reward may only be given if victim is a EULEX staff member and not a local.
To date, there are tens of murder cases in Kosovo, including those pertaining to inter-ethnic enmity, that remain largely unresolved. EULEX heads the investigations for the vast majority of them. The fact that the efforts to bring the culprits of these crimes to justice have not been “aided” by rewards schemes akin to those put in place for Audrius Šenavičius does not leave the families of the victims and society at large just “less privileged”, for they know better. But, it does leave them feeling more resentful, less trusting not to mention more excluded and less worthy of EULEX’s time and EU’s commitments for peace and security in Kosovo.