Why Does the West Tolerate High-Level Corruption in Kosovo?

Corruption is endemic in Kosovo. In response to Western demands, its authorities have repeatedly pledged to fight it. But impunity remains the norm. Andrea Lorenzo Capussela argues that replacing Kosovo’s current foreign minister could be a useful first step.

A recent EU study has assessed that corruption is ‘omnipresent’ in Kosovo. In a recent book I seek to explain why. In short, corruption is quite simply part of how the real – as opposed to the formal – governance system of the country works. So a lot will be needed to reduce corruption to physiological levels. Prevention and repression, of course, but also a change in people’s expectations: for if people expect that everybody else will resort to corruption to achieve their aims, they will have every incentive to use it as well, and the vicious circle will continue.

To change expectations symbolic acts can be important, such as convicting prominent politicians for high-profile cases. But symbolic acts can work also in the opposite sense. Indeed, the spectacle of impunity for flagrant corruption is a powerful driver of society’s expectations, and one important reason why corruption has become systematic.

Yet it is one thing to discuss corruption in general terms, and quite another to point to individual cases. We have enough reliable macro indicators, but cannot translate such analyses into concrete examples. There are many suspicions about the misdeeds of prominent politicians, of course, but almost no certainties.

One of the few cases about which we have highly reliable information concerns Dr Enver Hoxhaj, a prominent politician. The details are complicated, but the essence of the case case is fairly simple. It concerns the illegal transfer of a piece of land to a private university, causing damage to the public purse that can be estimated at between 15 and 20 millions of euros. The case, which dates back from 2010–11, is described in a ruling (available here) issued by the EU rule of law mission in Kosovo, Eulex.

The ruling states that Dr Hoxhaj, who then was education minister, and the then finance minister ‘had a strong determination in offering the land parcels to [the private university]’, and that this conduct amounts to a crime, namely abuse of office.

The ruling concludes that no crime was committed, however, because the transfer did not take place. As I explain in a recent article, it did not take place because the transfer was made public, after an investigation into it was opened belatedly, and because Dr Hoxhaj and his colleagues became aware of this investigation. The ruling I just quoted is precisely that which closes the investigation.

Dr Hoxhaj is not known to have challenged it, to clear his own name. It would have been difficult to do so, because the documentary evidence (which I provided to Eulex, and which is available here) seems very clear. So, although Dr Hoxhaj committed no crime on that occasion, because the transfer had to be stopped, we can be reasonably certain that his intention was to commit one.

This information became public in April. One month later Dr Hoxhaj was appointed foreign minister of Kosovo. The ambassadors of the main Western powers have often allowed their displeasure to be known when Kosovo’s authorities were considering questionable figures for high office. On this occasion they do not appear to have raised any concern. Nor did Kosovo’s public raise an eyebrow.

In one sense, choosing such a person to represent one of Europe’s most corrupt countries before the international community was admirably honest. In effect, by this choice Kosovo’s government and parliament have told the world: ‘Yes, we are corrupt; but we have no problem with it.’

Those who have a problem with it are Kosovo’s citizens and Western friends. Elevating Dr Hoxhaj to that post despite the findings of that ruling is a highly symbolic act, which can only worsen Kosovo’s corruption problem.

Western governments have lately become more vocal than they previously were in denouncing corruption in Kosovo and calling upon its authorities to fight it. Their words would be more credible if they took concrete measures to signal their displeasure at that symbolic, defiant act. For as long as Dr Hoxhaj remains foreign minister Kosovo and the West’s pledges to fight corruption will ring hollow. Replacing him, by contrast, would deliver a much stronger signal to society.


Photo credit: European External Action Service/flickr/some rights reserved

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Andrea Capussela

Andrea Lorenzo Capussela has a PhD on competition policy. After a few years in the private sector, he served as the head of the economics unit of Kosovo’s international supervisor, the International Civilian Office, in 2008–11, and as the adviser to Moldova’s economy minister and deputy prime minister, on behalf of the EU. He then took a sabbatical period, during which he wrote one book (State-building in Kosovo: Democracy, EU Interests and US Influence in the Balkans, I.B. Tauris: London, forthcoming), is conducting research on another one, and is doing some voluntary work on the development of a district in Calabria, Italy’s most depressed region.