The UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) worker was arrested for reportedly allowing his official car to be used by Kosovo-Serbs erecting a roadblock. The latest flare-up has led to calls for UNMIK to leave the country.

The situation in Kosovo is beyond tenuous, was the verdict United Nations Special Representative to the country Zahir Tanin offered to the Security Council on Tuesday. 

His address coincided with the 20th anniversary of the international organisation’s presence in the former Yugoslav province. But even as he insists that there is much work left to be done in Kosovo, many there are beginning to feel Tanin and his colleagues in the UN Mission in Kosovo, or UNMIK, have outstayed their welcome.

Tensions have been bubbling quietly between Kosovo’s government in Pristina and the international bureaucrats. Those tensions now appear to have boiled over in the wake of the May 28 arrest by Kosovo Police of Russian and Kosovo-Serb UNMIK employees during an organised crime crackdown in the north of the country.

The arrest of the Russian, Mikhail Krasnoshchekov, was a focal point of another speech before the Security Council, that of Kosovo’s Ambassador to the United States Vlora Citaku, who concluded: “We don’t see a reason for UNMIK’s presence in our new republic.”

Citaku claimed that Krasnoshchenkov had deliberately allowed his official UN Jeep to form part of a roadblock erected by Kosovo-Serbs seeking to hinder the police operation that day. She added that Kosovo police believed Krasnoshchenkov’s Jeep had transported a chainsaw used to cut down trees for the roadblock.

Those statements were directly contradicted, however, by the UN’s top lawyer, Miguel de Serpa Soares, who told the Security Council that initial investigations indicated Krasnoshchenkov and his locally recruited colleague Dejan Dimovic “were on official assignment to monitor the police operations in northern Kosovo at the time of their arrest."

That last assertion did not ring true with Miodrag Milicevic, who heads Aktiv an NGO based in Mitrovica, a city in Kosovo’s north cut in two by the River Ibar.

The river also demarcates the predominantly Serb North from the Albanian south. The majority of Kosovars are ethnic Albanians. The scars of war still unhealed; the two sides seldom interact. From its offices north of the Ibar, Milicevic’s organisation advocates for the rights of Kosovo’s Serbs.

Prior to joining the NGO, Milicevic spent 15 years with the Kosovo mission Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose security protocols he said were directly copied from UNMIK’s own.

“We always had strict security orders basically to avoid the area of conflict and evacuate to a safe place,” Milicevic tells TRT World. “Why [Krasnoshchenkov] wasn’t respecting that is another question.”

Perceptions of bias

Whatever the truth of the matter, the incident has only served to inflame widespread suspicions about UNMIK among Kosovo’s Albanians. At best, UNMIK is thought to have an institutional bias towards the country’s Serb population. 

At worst, the organisation is believed to be stacked with agents sent by Serbia’s traditional ally Russia to advance their shared policy aims in Kosovo.

Faruk Mujka’s office is on the south side of the Ibar, where he is Deputy Mayor of Mitrovica’s predominantly Albanian half. The river also separates him from UNMIK’s second-largest office, in Mitrovica North.

“It’s obvious that they don’t want to have any official contacts,” he said, adding that the only official meeting the mayor’s office has had with the international organisation since 2017 was when a new UNMIK chief of the mission arrived.

Commenting on the allegation that UNMIK funds and resources are disproportionately focused on Kosovo’s Serbs, the mission’s spokesperson pointed to a programme of $25,000 grants made available exclusively to projects shown to “promote inter-ethnic cooperation and peaceful co-existence of communities.”

Mujka is not convinced: “It's our concern that all UNMIK officers are working for Belgrade,” he said, adding that he believes Krasnoshchenkov was acting on orders from outside Kosovo on May 28 to assist local Serbs in resisting the police crackdown. “It's not only him, but the problem is also the majority of the team in UNMIK Mitrovica is working in this direction.”

His suspicions are encouraged by Krasnoshchenkov’s alleged career trajectory: “This guy was working earlier in an intelligence agency in Russia,” he said.

The allegation could not be independently verified by TRT World. However, it was corroborated by a source familiar with UNMIK’s international staff, who emphasised that it was not necessarily an indicator of anything untoward.

“Mikhail is former GRU,” the source said, referencing Russia’s military intelligence agency. “That's the funny thing about it because any of these Russian former military officers down here are former intelligence because they speak good English.”

The same source said that they doubted the Russian had been deliberately attempting to cause trouble on May 28. Noting Krasnoshchenkov has been living and working in northern Kosovo for nearly two decades, they said he was likely just overly protective of neighbours who had become friends over the years.

“He didn’t throw caution to the wind, but he should have been more circumspect,” they said.

NGO Aktiv Executive Director Milicevic, who has also had dealings with Krasnoshchenkov in the past, said while the Russian should face internal UNMIK discipline if he violated security procedures on May 28, that he seemed to be “a very decent person, very well balanced – never [showing] favour to the Serbian or any other community”.

An individual who previously worked closely with Krasnoshchenkov in UNMIK disputed this characterisation. The former colleague described the Russian as being part of a clique of pro-Serb staffers centred on UNMIK’s Mitrovica office.

“It’s a fact that in the north most people in UNMIK have a Slavic-speaking background, and they’re chosen carefully,” they said, adding that the majority belong to the “Russian school of thought” that UNMIK should never close.

The never-ending intervention

UNMIK was founded on June 10, 1999, with the passage of Security Council Resolution 1244, which brought an end to open warfare in Kosovo.

The UN then assumed responsibility for the security and administration of the territory of Kosovo while, crucially under Resolution 1244, guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia.

UNMIK was welcomed at first by many Kosovo Albanians as liberators, but the enterprise was crippled from the start.

A Thanksgiving dispatch to the New York Times from Pristina just five months after UNMIK’s inception painted a gloomy picture of a place where “chaos and intolerance now reign”. In its first year governing Kosovo, UNMIK was so underfunded it could not even guarantee doctors and teachers’ paycheques.

Then in 2004, an Amnesty International report announced that the sudden influx of tens of thousands of peacekeepers and aid workers into Kosovo had spawned an outsize and criminal sex industry.

The same year thousands of Serbs fled Kosovo in the wake of widespread interethnic rioting.

In 2007, a political protest against the international presence turned deadly when two activists were fatally shot with expired rubber bullets fired by a contingent of Romanian riot police seconded to the UN.

The following February, with the blessing of many Western governments, Kosovo declared independence, seemingly in violation of Resolution 1244’s stipulation that Yugoslavia – or what was left of it after a decade of civil wars – be left intact.

The remnant of a failed operation

Italian economist Andrea Lorenzo Capussela arrived in Kosovo one week before the declaration of independence. A condition of Western backing for Pristina’s independence declaration was four years of “supervised independence”, under an International Civilian Office, which oversaw the country’s nascent institutions. 

Capussela leads the Office’s economics unit until open disagreements with his superiors led to his sacking in 2011. His 2015 book State-building in Kosovo was a first-hand forensic takedown of what he views as the West’s total failure to build a functioning democracy in Kosovo.

“What remains of the international intervention is a remnant of a failed operation,” Capussela said to TRT World. “UNMIK is left effectively to writing reports.”

Those reports are a bone of contention for Mujka, the Deputy Mayor of Mitrovica South. They are, he claimed, prepared in UNMIK’s Mitrovica office, and because of what he views as the office’s pro-Serb slant paint a relentlessly bleak picture of life in his constituency.

“I was interested to cooperate with UNMIK last year as their report was going to New York and I wanted it to contain some good news from Mitrovica,” Mujka said. “But I noticed they were not interested to have more official meetings or information.”

The individual who had previously worked closely with Krasnoshchenkov said that there is an intersection of interests within UNMIK between those that sympathise with the Russian/Serbian view that Resolution 1244 must be maintained and “people who are more job-oriented”.

“They both support policies that see UNMIK continuing its presence,” they said, adding that the best way to show an ongoing need for UNMIK is to paint a bleak picture of Kosovo.

Life in Kosovo is far from ideal. Unemployment rates are the highest in the region, and the regular sight of visa applicants queueing around the block in front of Pristina’s embassies is a testament to the dim prospects many envision for themselves should they remain in Kosovo.

Still, Capussela said there are clear motivations for those remaining with UNMIK to skew their reports negatively.

“There is no doubt that a job in UNMIK is a very well paid and easy job. If you're ambitious, you want to be elsewhere. Those who are there are happy being parked there,” Capussela said. “I would really not be surprised that UNMIK's reports say we should really stay here because things are bad.”

What is undeniable is that UNMIK’s relationship with the government in Pristina is fraying at the edges. Krasnoshchekov is not the first UN staffer Special Representative Tanin has had to demand to be released from custody this year.

In February, security cameras at an upmarket Pristina clothing store appeared to capture UN Russian employee Iana Minochkina trying to leave the shop without paying for a handbag. Despite reportedly invoking her diplomatic immunity when police officers arrived on the scene, both she and her husband were briefly held by prosecutors before being turned over to the UN.

Minochkina’s arrest records were subsequently leaked to the press.

UNMIK’s response was to “deplore” the violation of Minochkina’s privacy and call for the “relevant authorities to take action regarding this improper disclosure and publication”.

Minochkina referred an interview request to UNMIK’s spokesperson, who said on behalf of the UN: “No evidence of any wrongdoing has been presented to UNMIK by Kosovo authorities.”

Capussela compared the double standards applied in favour of UNMIK officials in Kosovo to the status of British civil servants in imperial India: “It’s like Shooting An Elephant,” he said, referencing George Orwell’s confessional and brutal account of his time as an imperial police officer. “By this leak they were exposing a real problem across the UN of zero accountability.”

But whatever flaws UNMIK might have, Milicevic said that for Serbs in Kosovo, the desire to maintain an international presence is more existential than political.

“Even with the current international presence on the ground and in spite of all of the international mechanisms put at our disposal – many of them written into the constitution – they’re not fully implemented and ours rights are not well respected,” Milicevic said. “So there must be an international presence in Kosovo, no matter what agreement is reached between Belgrade and Pristina.”