Mineral struggle in new Kosova violence

Police in Kosova fired tear gas to disperse stone-throwing protesters Jan. 24 as thousands of ethnic Albanians took to the streets of capital Pristina to demand the dismissal of Labor Minister Aleksandar Jablanovic, one of three ethnic Serbs in Prime Minister Isa Mustafa's cabinet. Jablanovic sparked outrage two weeks earlier when he called a group of ethnic Albanians "savages" for trying to prevent Serb pilgrims from visiting a monastery at Gjakova (Djakovica) on Orthodox Christmas. The group had claimed "war criminals" were among the pilgrims. There was more ugliness Jan. 14, when Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said that Albanian protesters kicked his car when he arrived at Kosova's Gracanica monastery for a ceremony. At the same event, Albanian reporters asked when Serbia would "apologize" for the ethnic cleansing in Kosova, and recognize Kosova's independence. Vucic replied that he would not answer "silly questions." There were apparently atrocities against ethnic Albanians in the vicinity of these monasteries during the Kosova war in late '90s, and we have noted the recent propensity for Orthodox holy sites to become a flashpoint for slugfests. But, as ever, there are actual issues of control of wealth and resources behind the conflict…

The Pristina protesters were also apparently calling for Kosova's government to take full control of the sprawling Trepca mining complex from Belgrade. With bankruptcy looming, Kosova's government said earlier this month that it would seize Trepca and declare it "public property"—but backed down following an angry response from Belgrade and pressure from Western diplomats. Serbia, which does not recognize Kosova's 2008 declaration of independence, claims some 75% of Trepca, and warned that any attempt by Pristina to take over the complex would jeopardize EU-mediated talks between the two sides. In response to Pristina's reversal on seizing Trepca, on Jan. 20 some 350 miners occupied the complex, refusing to return from their shift in a shaft 750 meters below ground. The workers finally emerged after three days, when the government agreed to reconsider its position.

The Trepca complex of lead, zinc and silver mines once employed 20,000 and accounted for the majority of Yugoslavia's mineral wealth. Since Kosova's 1999 breakaway from Serbia, Trepca has been held in trust and readied for sale by the UN-created Kosova Privatization Agency (KPA). But the KPA has been stymied by a tangle of creditor claims and ownership disputes. The complex currently operates at a bare minimum level of output. Following the outrage over his "public property" threat, Prime Minister Mustafa said he would give the KPA another three years to restructure the complex.

Trepca is held in special regard by Kosovar Albanians as the site of a 1989 protest occupation and hunger strike by miners after Serbia abrogated Kosova's autonomous status—the first blow against the federal order that had held Yugoslavia together. It has now become something of a symbolic issue for Belgrade, which contends that the sale of the ex-Yugoslavia's "socially-owned enterprises" within Kosova amounts to state plunder. (Eurasia Review, Jan. 26; AFP, AP, Jan. 24; Reuters, Jan. 22; VOA, Jan. 20; B92, Jan. 15)

The irony of Belgrade invoking "socially-owned enterprises" can be easily grasped from the mess at Serbia's own long-idled coal complex at Tamnava, which the World Bank is trying to get back on line with an infusion of cash. The whole thing is mired in scandal now over charges that the contract for draining the flooded pit was awarded to a "consortium with no experience" in contravention of the mandated bidding process, instead chosen on the basis of political "connections." Vucic has shot back at the independent media pressing the issue as "liars paid by the EU." (B92, Jan. 13)

Yugoslavia's "socially-owned enterprises" rapidly devolved into crony-capitalist entities (with only a nomenclature facade of "socialism") exactly as ethnic nationalism took hold over Yugoslavia's politics in the post-Tito era. We warned upon Kosova's declaration of independence that this "independence" could prove ephemeral if it was concomitant with a seizure of ithe territory's mineral wealth by foreign capital under "privatization" policies mandated by the "international community." Now that Serb and Albanian nationalists alike are protesting privatization and embracing notions of "public property" and "socially-owned enterprises," dare we hope they might find some common ground to unite against the international mineral cartel and its collaborationist EU and World Bank technocrats?

Just a thought.