THE arrest of Naser Kelmendi (pictured above), one of the most notorious gangsters in the Balkans, has unleashed a stream of speculation in the region’s press about who is connected to whom in the seamy underworld of Balkan crime and politics. Reputed to have dealt in drugs, a charge Mr Kelmendi, has denied, he is the only individual from the Balkans on the American Treasury’s so-called Kingpin list of “Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers”.
Mr Kelmendi, who comes from Peja (Pec in Serbian) in western Kosovo, was arrested in Pristina on May 5th on the basis of an Interpol warrant. He is also a citizen of Bosnia, where he has been based since the end of the war and is wanted for “attempted murder…[and] the sale of and distribution of illegal narcotics in South America, Turkey, Serbia, Croatia and other Western European countries.”
Along with his sons Mr Kelmendi has been investigated more than a dozen times in Bosnia but he has never been prosecuted there. In 1976 he served time for attempted murder in Kosovo. Last year he fled Bosnia, after being put on the American Kingpin list and after the Bosnians indicted him for the alleged 2007 murder of Ramiz Delalic “Celo”, a crime boss with whom he is believed to have clashed in a turf war with local Albanian mafiosi.
Mr Delalic was a legendary figure in the Bosnian capital. He had stood trial (and been acquitted) for the murder on March 1st 1992 of Nikola Gardovic who was killed at his son’s wedding. Mr Gardovic’s death is regarded by many as the first of the Bosnian war.
In 2008 SIPA, the Bosnian police investigation agency, gave a presentation to Interpol about Mr Kelmendi. In 2009, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) produced a major expose on him. They noted that while the Bosnian police said he controlled regional drug trafficking, they had given him and his sons firearms permits.
According to the OCCRP, the report by SIPA linked Mr Kelmendi’s organisation to drug trafficking as well as cigarette smuggling, money laundering and loan sharking. Even more importantly it also pointed to links between him and politicians in Kosovo and Bosnia.
Miranda Patrucic, regional editor of the OCCRP in Sarajevo, says that the reason that Mr Kelmendi was never brought to trial in Bosnia is that he had protection owing to the fact that he had connections “at the highest level of business and politics”. Fahrudin Radoncic, the Bosnian security minister, said: “we will use all diplomatic means to have Kelmendi tried in Sarajevo”. In the past Mr Radoncic has done legal business with Mr Kelmendi though he has denied knowing him personally.
Even so, on May 9th Zijad Turkovic, who is on trial for organised crime in Sarajevo, repeated an allegation he had made earlier in court that Mr Radoncic had given him money to murder Mr Kelmendi in 2010. E-mails to Mr Radoncic’s spokesman asking for a response to the allegation were not answered though a source close to him said that the accusations were baffling as he could see “no connection or motive”. He pointed out that as a powerful press baron and owner of the leading daily, Avaz, Mr Radoncic could use his media clout to settle scores if he wanted to. He speculated that there might be a political reason for the accusation.
The arrest of Mr Kelmendi, if it is followed through by a trial, could be a significant turning point in the fight against organised crime in the region. Rumours about who is frightened of any potential trial, in case Mr Kelmendi talks about high-level protection, is reaching fever pitch. It is being widely reported that Darko Saric, the region’s most infamous fugitive and alleged cocaine smuggler, has agreed to turn himself in and give evidence against Mr Kelmendi, though there is as yet no proof of this.
Kurir, a Serbian newspaper which has a reputation for having good sources in the Serbian intelligence services, also says that Mr Kelmendi could be “dangerous” for Milorad Dodik, the president of the Serb part of Bosnia. Serbia’s intelligence services are now under the control of Aleksandar Vucic, the powerful deputy prime minister. During Serbia’s last election Mr Dodik supported Mr Vucic’s political opponents. One Bosnian source says that this could be a means of Mr Vucic using the Kelmendi affair to send some form of warning message to Mr Dodik. The Bosnian Serb leader has dismissed the story as lies.
In Kosovo and Montenegro too there is much discussion about whether Mr Kelmendi had top-level protection or not. In Kosovo Vlora Citaku, the minister for European affairs, said she was “proud that our police arrested one of the most wanted men in the Balkans”, and this showed Kosovo’s resolve to “fight cross-border organised crime.” On May 14th Elvis, one of Kelmendis sons, was convicted in Pristina for attempted murder in Sarajevo. Maybe Ms Citaku is right.