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9 April 1999

A Balkan version of the IRA?

Our politicians are treating the Kosovo Liberation Army as freedom fighters whose cause is just. Tha

By Eske Wright

Had there been an Oscar for the shooting star of international politics, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) would surely have grabbed it this year. It has emerged from virtual obscurity to blaze across our screens, notching up two major victories in the arena of international politics. In the past week, Robin Cook’s joint press conference with representatives from the KLA and Bill Clinton’s musings about independence for Kosovo have established this guerrilla movement as a serious postwar political factor.

This rapid rise to fame has blinded many to the darker side of an armed movement that, while enjoying broad political and public support at home, has alarmed European intelligence services and Balkan analysts for years now. It raises questions about a foreign policy deemed to be ethical. For example, what price is the west willing to pay to topple Milosevic, and will it be paid in part by drugs money?

Across Europe, police express growing concern about links between the drugs market and the KLA: I have spoken to senior police officers in both Norway and Sweden who believe that there are such links. But the dislocation of the transactions makes it difficult to prove them: while drugs are sold in western and northern Europe, weapons tend to be bought nearer the conflict in Kosovo. Recently, Czech police arrested a Kosovar heroin dealer named Doboshi, who had escaped from a Norwegian prison where he was serving 12 years for drug dealing. A search of his apartment turned up documents linking him to arms purchases and the KLA.

The KLA would not be the first guerrilla movement to turn to drugs to finance its struggle. The Shining Path in Peru, the Revolutionary Armed Forces in Colombia, the Chechen rebels in Russia, the mujahedin in Afghanistan, even the IRA have relied on drugs money to prosecute what they see as wars of national or class liberation.

There is plenty of opportunity, too, for Kosovars to deal in drugs: the province lies alongside the infamous Balkan route, over which heroin from central Asia flows north to markets in western Europe. In the past few years, Albanians have shouldered the Turks out of the lucrative Swiss heroin market; a recent intelligence report issued by the German Federal Criminal Agency came to the conclusion that “ethnic Albanians are now the most prominent group in the distribution of heroin in western Europe”. According to German police sources, these activities have taken on the characteristics of organised crime, centring on the clan and home village ties, the same structures that offer the KLA its basic organisation.

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Stephan Lipsius, a German expert on underground opposition groups in Kosovo, agrees that some drugs money enters the coffers of the KLA, but sees “no grand strategy” of the movement to finance itself through these channels. He acknowledges, though, that, in the 1980s, Interpol had already established that drugs money was being used by opposition groups to buy land in Kosovo from Serbs – a type of anti-colonisation policy.

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The KLA does not need to rely on drug dealing for the majority of its financing, however. Most of its funds come from legitimate, if not technically legal, sources. In response to Serb oppression and the expulsion of Kosovar Albanians from schools, healthcare and state-run industries over the past decade, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), under the Gandhi-like leadership of Ibrahim Rugova, established a parallel government. This shadow state supplied Kosovar Albanians with social, educational and health services. The funds for the parallel system came from a voluntary 3 per cent “donation tax” on the income of Kosovars living in the west.

The People’s Movement of Kosovo (LPK) – a rival underground movement to the “legal” LDK – later established its own donation accounts under the title “The Homeland is Calling”. Technically, these funds are used to finance day-to-day services in Kosovo, but it is an open secret that at least part of the money is channelled to the KLA.

According to Ibrahim Kelmendi, head of the German section of the LPK, the money raised abroad is sent to “citizen staffs” who are not monitored. “It cannot be ruled out that the money collected for the fund reaches the KLA,” says Kelmendi innocently, and adds more boldly: “We do not have the moral right to judge whether a person in Kosovo buys bread or a weapon for self-defence.”

In its weekly organ Zeri e Kosoves (Voice of Kosovo), the LPK runs full-page announcements naming bank accounts and addresses to which donors can send money. Last year, active collections by the LPK were forbidden in Bavaria because of its ties with the KLA. Similarly, Swiss authorities temporarily froze an account used by the LPK last year.

Kelmendi puts the amount of money collected by the LPK in Germany at DM8 million a year, but most analysts suggest that at least twice that amount is moving south. Although collected in bank accounts, the money is transported via couriers as cash. And a little cash can go a long way in the mountainous region between Albania and Kosovo: a Kalashnikov could be had – prewar price – for DM60.

Most of the KLA’s arms originated from Albanian army depots that were looted in the chaos following the crash of the pyramid investment schemes in 1997. It is estimated that up to 25,000 weapons, old but still usable, crossed the border into Kosovo in the aftermath. Better weapons are now apparently being bought from junior Serb officers who prefer to line their wallets rather than serve Milosevic. These weapons have allowed the KLA to build up a force of somewhere around 10,000 to 15,000 fighters, increased, for occasional firefights, with auxiliaries taken from village militias. The KLA is thus equipped to mount what Professor Paul Wilkinson, of the University of St Andrews, an expert on this sort of warfare, describes as “hyper-mobile warfare involving a small number of troops in low-intensity conflict”.

The KLA has never had access to the heavy weapons that it would need to launch a serious counter-attack. But some of its commanders seem to have believed that, if they signed the Rambouillet agreement, the west would arm them. The KLA’s recent calls for Nato ground troops are not only an attempt to involve the west more deeply. They are also prompted by the realisation that, even with heavy weapons, the untrained KLA could not really offer serious resistance.

Although the LPK currently maintains that it is totally independent of the KLA, the ties between the two groups run deeper than mere financing. The initiative to create an armed force came out of the ranks of the LPK in 1993, and the early development of the KLA shows the LPK’s signature. “The LPK is the intellectual authority of the KLA,” says Stephan Lipsius. “All KLA representatives in the diaspora are LPK people.” Others have described the LPK as the Sinn Fein of the KLA.

The LPK was created in 1982 as a union of four leftist cells bearing names such as “Red Front”, the “Communist Marxist-Leninist Party of Albanians in Yugoslavia” and “National Movement of Kosovo and Other Albanian Areas of Yugoslavia”. The cells share an ideology that combines Enver Hoxha-style socialism and a mystical-romantic nationalism that has become prevalent in the former communist states of south-eastern Europe.

Both the KLA and the LPK demand the unification of all Albanian areas of former Yugoslavia: Kosovo, western Macedonia, a fringe of Montenegro, and possibly even three villages in Serbia itself. In the long run, they want unification with Albania. The KLA already enjoys much popularity among the Albanians living in the border regions of Macedonia. Balkan analysts believe that this nationalist vision would be likely to destabilise any postwar settlement.

The recent developments in Kosovo have strengthened the KLA politically, even in the face of almost total destruction. The actions and atrocities carried out by the Serb military and paramilitary forces have made any reconciliation with the Yugoslav state nearly impossible. But if the KLA is to play a big role in a future Kosovo, the west must know what to expect. And accept.