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What Happened to the KLA?

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The end of the war over Kosovo brought the transformation of the guerrilla army that started it. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA – or UÇK in the Albanian acronym) has been formally demilitarised, but in various manifestations it remains a powerful and active element in almost every area of Kosovo life. Some welcome its continued influence; others fear it; many are concerned about it.

This report focuses on the period since mid-1999, after the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) was deployed and the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) was installed. It traces the nature and extent of the influence the KLA still wields; evaluates that influence and the way the international community, through UNMIK and KFOR, has dealt with it; and suggests how it might be dealt with in future.

Continuing KLA influence is manifested in “four pillars.” Three of these – political, military and police – are overt: KLA supporters have formed their own political party, the Party of Democratic Progress of Kosovo (PPDK), while some members have been accepted into the new national guard-style Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC), and others into the Kosovo Police Service (KPS). The fourth pillar of KLA activity is covert and utterly unacceptable – organised crime and violence.

The KLA was never rigidly structured, resembling more an association of clans than a hierarchical military force. Some parts of the old KLA operate openly and essentially as before; others have been transformed; some new elements have been added; and much remains underground. Current KLA influence is by no means all negative. Most of the individuals engaged in the overt pillars of activity – and a good many of those who are not – genuinely seek a better Kosovo, including one in which politics is wholly separated from crime. But there is equally no doubt that the KLA has much to answer for in terms of the orchestrated crime which has occurred since mid-1999.

The international community’s preferred policy in Kosovo was to remove the KLA from the scene entirely, but that has not happened. A number of KLA members, assumed to be decently motivated, were co-opted into the KPC and KPS, and as for the rest a policy was adopted that can be described as “tolerant confrontation”: KFOR dealt with those armed bands they knew about, but made no systematic effort to confront and destroy the whole KLA organisation. The legal infrastructure was and is simply not there, to deal with organised crime. So a policy dilemma still confronts the international community. Pretending that residual KLA influence is not a problem, and ignoring it, is impossible. At the same time confronting that influence to the point of generating a full-scale shooting war is no more attractive an option now than it has ever been.

The approach suggested, and described in some detail, in the concluding section of this report is “tough-minded co-option.” There should be no tolerance for those guilty of serious crime or other major misbehaviour, and nothing should be done to prejudice the reinstatement of the rule of law in Kosovo. But there is a danger of going to the other extreme and branding as unacceptably criminal, and beyond any kind of engagement, all those KLA leaders and followers whose behaviour in the past has been less than admirable.

There are bound to be some KLA elements unable to break from a vendetta-based or criminal past, but equally there will be those, including those who are outside UN control at the moment, who can be encouraged to work within internationally acceptable standards. The leadership of UNMIK and KFOR should initiate talks – quietly in the first instance – with those KLA leaders with whom they judge it might be possible to build a relationship of trust, and attempt to find common ground on which that trust could be based

Sensitive and difficult decisions will need eventually to be taken regarding individuals and structures whose role and behaviour in the past have been ambiguous. As always, intelligent and effective political leadership will be required to carry off the process of further co-option that is envisaged. But if Kosovo is ever to have a decent and democratic future, trying to engage the KLA constructively in this way may be a necessity rather than just an option.

Pristina/Washington/Brussels, 3 March 2000.

 PDF version of What Happened to the KLA? Download the report as a PDF file in A4 format

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