Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Corruption at every level

By Louis Sutcliffe

To say corruption had been a constant theme throughout the trip would be an understatement. Dialogue with people from all walks of life highlighted the extensive reach of corruption that permeated all layers of society, public and private. To many it is a simple fact of life, a factor of culture, and that there are more pressing matters to pursue than changing something beyond possibility. It’s often said that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks, and this certainly extends to those that sit at the highest perches of power in the Kosovo government. 

It’s a seemingly lazy early afternoon. The cliché is truly manifest: Bees bustling through bushes as they bumble into petals. Beams of light stream through the patchwork greenery dangling above the table. The sun is hot but not unpleasant, perfectly complimented by the accompanying breeze. Light guffaws and low murmurings of the Kosovar elite tease one’s ears as the waiter gently lays an espresso under my nose. I don’t drink coffee but it seems rude not to in such a fitting setting. I cautiously sip. I’m pleasantly surprised. There aren’t many places in the world that I’d drink an espresso but the Union Café is certainly one of them. A nonchalant gaze across the floor presents a plethora of suits and summer gowns. Amongst the clientele sits Atifete Jahjaga. It’s the second time we’ve seen her this week, both times in the same place, which gives one a strong idea of the nature of the spot: A hotbed for politicians and businessmen alike, Kosovars mostly. One could liken the crowd to a kind of bourgeoisie, almost. My musings are interrupted by the bill. It’s time to go. 

A mixture of nervousness and excitement diffuses through the room as we file in. Complimentary water goes a long way on a hot day. After we were waiting for around thirty minutes, the Minister of European integration, Dhurata Hoxha, strolls in, accompanied by four or five assistants and advisors. It’s difficult to put into words what it feels like to be in the presence of someone with power, but it’s both an empowering and a humbling feeling. As she begins to talk, I notice a Kosovan flag hanging limply at the edge of the table, tucked behind a chair. I immediately think of our encounter with Albin Kurti the previous evening and the contrast with the Albanian flag placed behind him. It seems strange that both politicians wrestle for power and claim to represent the same state but advocate different flags. Hoxha talks about the challenges of achieving integration into the EU and accession to the organisation before settling down for questions. The group is cautious at first, but soon the conversation catches speed. Almost as soon as the meeting has begun it’s over and the minister is ushered out. I ask her advisor about how the administration has worked to tackle corruption and whether it is a problem that hinders Kosovo’s attempts to join the EU, and I’m met by a rather interesting answer. He first alludes to the fact that Western Balkan countries all have a problem with corruption and follows by vaguely referring to minor initiatives instigated by the government. The reason why this answer is so interesting is that, before demonstrating how the government works to tackle corruption, his primary answer is akin to the same position that I’ve heard from all walks of life, even to Albin Kurti. Perhaps what is most remarkable is that all parties, even from opposite sides of the political spectrum, consider corruption to be a fact of life. And whilst every individual approaches the problem with different levels of enthusiasm, the understanding of corruption as being a problem larger than life is consistent across each dialogue.

This is barely surprising when you consider the far reaching corners of corruption in Kosovan politics. Take, for example, the three political figures that we met during the trip: A former minister, a minister and the leader of the largest party in the parliament. For each individual, there are grey areas surrounding their own involvement in ‘dirty’ antics. The wealth of Vetevendosje derived from funding before their transition into a political party is surrounded in mystery. Not dissimilarly, a scandal involving the death of a political prisoner under the responsibility of Dhurata Hoxha during her time as Minister of Justice is no less than fishy. Though it’s difficult to find direct allegations of corruption against Petrit Selimi, one must remember that he served under now President Hashem Thaci, a man accused of involvement with organ trafficking during and in the immediate aftermath of the Kosovo war. On top of this, Hashem’s assets seem to be massively disproportionate to the government salary he earns according to various sources. One even claimed that he had said that his house was a gift from his friends. The point that I’m trying to make is that each party that throws accusations to the other about corruption fails to acknowledge their own shortcomings in the field, and simply dismisses these claims as false. Given this, it’s easy to understand why the average Kosovar seems not to care about corruption, as it is undeniably ingrained into Kosovan political life.

With my mind full of these thoughts, I stroll nonchalantly out of the parliament and past the Fontana e Sheshit. I glance to my left to the Union Café; idyllic as ever. Still there are politicians and business people chatting amongst themselves, still the bees weave between the bunting and still the sun shines. It’s less comfortable now, though.

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