Kosovo – Pristina’s effort to strangle the north

Pristina’s illegal actions against Trepca North have brought its ability to operate and pay its thousands of workers and dependents to a grinding halt; a move that is unlikely to improve an already dangerously tense situation.

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By Gerard M. Gallucci

For the past several months, the government in Pristina has been seeking to close one of the chief means of livelihood for northern Kosovo Serbs by making it impossible for Trepca North (TN) to operate, earn income and pay workers. TN is part of the Trepca Mining Complex that was formerly the economic engine of Kosovo. After 1999, Kosovo Albanians came to control the part south of the Ibar River, while the northern part remained in the hands of the previous Serbian managers of Trepca as a socially-owned enterprise (SOE) in the former Yugoslavia. Until Kosovo declared independence in 2008, the two parts functioned more or less as one unit under UNMIK administration. Since then, the Pristina government has moved to take over the southern assets and to ready them for privatization.

Until last year, Trepca North was able to operate by working under UNMIK regulations. Then, however, Pristina sought to deny TN the opportunity to export by denying use of UNMIK customs documents and demanding it use Kosovo Customs procedures. Kosovo police also arrested truck-drivers seeking to deliver previously agreed shipments through southern Kosovo. Now Trepca North is on the verge of having to suspend operations.

Trepca North management has tried to deal pragmatically with Pristina but has refused to recognize Kosovo Customs or to accept unilateral privatization. It relied on UNMIK and EULEX – which assumed responsibility for rule of law, including customs, from the UN in November 2008 – to ensure status neutral treatment of the company. The UN Secretary General raised concern with the actions of the Kosovo government to seize Trepca North’s bank account, harass its drivers and block shipments (S/2011/514 & S/2011/675). The UNSG also noted that actions by Pristina to unilaterally change the law on privatization would “significantly weaken the protection of privatization funds and expose the funds to the possibility of improper use” and would “acutely” curtail “international involvement in and oversight of the privatization and liquidation processes” (S/2012/72). Pristina ignored all this. Instead, it unilaterally declared itself independent of the standing international framework established to protect assets (and creditors) until the status of former Yugoslav enterprises – SOEs and publicly owned enterprises (POEs) – in Kosovo could be agreed.

Pristina’s illegal actions against Trepca North have brought its ability to operate and pay its thousands of workers and dependents to a grinding halt. On April 6, TN had to unload 19 trucks that were stalled in customs for three days waiting to be cleared. Kosovo Customs refused to process the papers, instead asking approval from Kosovo’s Privatization Agency (PAK). PAK refused because TN rejects its authority. TN will finally have no alternative but to delay salaries as it has no money left. (It has not gotten back the €2.4m seized by Pristina last year.) Trepca North released the following statement on the situation on the 6th:

Today, Kosovo Customs authorities refused to perform customs services for our buyer “Trafigura” Switzerland and blocked a shipment of lorries loaded with lead concentrate destined for export, hence 19 loaded lorries, were forced to return to “Trepca” industrial site in Zvecan, after being forced to wait for three days at a customs terminal in the south part of Mitrovica.

According to Kosovo Customs authorities it was Kosovo Privatization Agency who blocked the shipment of Trepca North products, allegedly out of political reasons i.e. because management of “Trepca” refuses to accept, nor acknowledge jurisdiction and competence of Kosovo Privatization Agency.

This sort of conduct, of so called Kosovo institutions has been going on for a while now, especially since July 2011, with an apparent end aim, of which representatives of international missions are fully aware of. All activities of Kosovo Institutions are to the effect of blocking commercial activities in the “North” particularly that of “Trepca” Enterprise, one of the most important and most influential economic subjects employing 3,500 workers. By doing so, Kosovo Institutions are denying “Trepca”, one of the basic human rights- a right to work. Even with the most flexible and pragmatic attitude of “Trepca” and an attempt to, in cooperation with UNMIK, KFOR and EULEX, find the best solution for overcoming the mentioned political questions pertaining to the legal status of “Trepca” Enterprise, under current conditions in Kosovo, institutions in Pristina continue to insist on their aggressive and discriminatory stance.

“Trepca” management shall not, at any cause, accept political blackmail coming from Pristina and shall take all the necessary steps to, in cooperation with the authorized ministries of the Serbian Government, find a solution for future business activity and subsistence.

Trepca North is now waiting for the reaction of UNMIK and EULEX. The internationals are apparently unhappy with Pristina’s actions on Trepca and its unilateral approach to privatization in general. So far, however, they have not intervened directly under UNSCR 1244, which remains international law in this regard. So far, the internationals seem to be standing by while Pristina seeks to strangle the north economically. Putting thousands of families in jeopardy of their sustenance is unlikely to improve an already dangerously tense situation.

Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He has a PhD in political science, taught at the University of Pittsburgh, University of Arkansas, George Washington University and Drake University and now works as an independent consultant.

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