profile 06 May 10

Fatmir Limaj, Kosovo's Road-Builder

Corruption allegations have not dented the popularity of the KLA- fighter-turned-PDK politician who has made it his mission to transform the country’s traffic arteries.

By Lawrence Marzouk


Fatmir Limaj is a man of many contradictions. Having fashioned a reputation as a Kosovo Liberation Army hero under the nom-de-guerre of "Commander Steel", he has also demonstrated a softer side, appearing emotional and sometimes tearful at key moments.

He was notably shaken at times when on trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, and became emotional in a press conference last year when he denied allegations carried in the Serbian media that his family members had been caught carrying large sums of money out of Kosovo. The claims have never been backed up.

A leading figure in the governing Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, he is arguably one of the most popular politicians in Kosovo and has won plaudits for the huge expansion in road building that he has overseen since becoming Minister of Transport in late 2007.

But he has also been dogged by allegations of corruption, which last week broke into the open after the EU rule-of-law mission, EULEX, raided his ministry and properties connected to him as part of an investigation into fraudulent road tenders.

He has a brought a no-nonsense, tough, approach to running the Ministry of Transport since 2009 but also claims to be inspired by Barrack Obama’s biography, The Audacity of Hope.

Fatmir Limaj was born on February 4, 1971, in the village of Banja, near Malisheve. He spent time in Switzerland in the 1990s before returning to fight for the KLA in 1998. He became commander of part of the Drenica region of central Kosovo.

In 2003, the ICTY charged him, Isak Musliu and Haradin Bala with committing war crimes against Serbs and Albanians suspected of collaborating with the Serbs during the Kosovo war. In November 2005 he was acquitted and returned home to a hero’s welcome, with street celebrations in the capital, Pristina.

In 2004, Beqa Beqaj was indicted for having intimidated witnesses connected with the trial and was sentenced to four months in prison in 2005. Limaj then faced a retrial at The Hague in 2007 but was again cleared. He was defeated twice in his attempt to become mayor of Pristina but in November 2007, after the second defeat, the new Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci, handed him the job of Minister of Transport.

He immediately set about connecting villages with new, asphalted roads and rebuilding Kosovo’s traffic arteries. He told road-building companies they would have to work 24 hours a day and there would be enough work for all of them. According to the ministry, some 1,000 km of road were built in 2008 and 2009 as part of 200 projects.

Kosovo has spent some 170 million euro on major road-building projects in the last two years, according to research by Balkan Insight, and Limaj has been able to command by the far the biggest ministry budget due to his powerful position within the PDK. The Ministry of Transport has absorbed a growing share of the budget, mainly as a result of the expansion of road-building projects.

In 2008, Limaj’s budget was 139 million euro, more than 10 per cent of Kosovo’s total budget of about 1.3 billion euro. In 2009, it rose to 160 million. The figure for 2010 is more modest at 124 million euro but the ministry still receives the highest share of the budget of any ministry.

But he has also faced allegations of corruption. Last year, he was forced to hold a press conference after allegations were printed in the Belgrade media, widely discussed in Prishtina, about his family members being caught leaving the country with large sums of money in suitcases.

“I am here to deny the slanders and gossip that are circulating with the aim of discrediting the success that we, the government and in particularly the ministry that I lead, have achieved,” said Limaj in an emotional speech.

But the wider allegations of corruption have not gone away. The fact that EULEX has been investigating his ministry has been one of the worst kept political secrets in Prishtina. Many were still surprised when the EU rule-of-law mission sprung into action last Wednesday and raided homes connected to Limaj and the ministry.

The action has, unsurprisingly, met with condemnation from KLA veterans and the PDK-backed press. Limaj, meanwhile, has defiantly carried on with his work, no doubt buoyed by the knowledge that he has already seen off two war-crimes trials and continues to enjoy the support of his party.

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