Pristina – a paradise for underground business, from poor surviving locals to high-rank Western politicians. In Kosovo, the official but unrecognised currency is the Euro. Anything you pay, you pay in euros. And you will get, 99 times out of 100, an official receipt. In euros. Is Kosovo in the “Euro-zone”, where Eastern-European EU member states struggle to get in? Officially NO. In fact, it is the most euro-money-moving place.
Author: Mircea Opris
Photo credits: Mircea Opris
The state of Kosovo is still one of the most attractive places for EU and US politicians and their connections for “grey zone” business, many times revealing corruption scandals. Public and private money, billions of Euros and US Dollars are still pumped into infrastructure and other sectors of a country which is formaly under the rule of law of international authorities.
The “rule of law” in Kosovo created a big gap, exploited by former or active Western politicians, businessmen, and also local officials.
During a research assignment in 2010, I discrovered Kosovo was and still proves to be a place where various entities can easily play with questionable-source money.
On of the most notorious and visible scandals was related to the arrival of ‘black cabs’ from Britain’s capital in the streets of Pristina. With the exception of London, the capital of Kosovo state, Pristina, was the only city in Europe to have such taxi cars. Even more, the company ordered as well the same car model, but in white colour. Luan Berisha launched his London Taxi service in 2010, with 15 black cabs, but other taxi drivers complain that the firm should not have received a licence to operate the vehicles. Rumours have been swirling in Pristina that the real owner of the company is Bardhyl Sejdiu, the son of Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu, and that political connections helped secure the company’s permit to operate. Rumours proved correct. Meanwhile, former Kosovo president Fatmir Sejdiu resigned, because of many complicated affairs involving corruption on international level. The only thing that distinguishes Berisha’s cabs from those found in London is that the steering wheel has been moved to the left side. Berisha had to change the steering wheel as right-hand drive cars are not allowed in Kosovo.
Same year, 2010, EU officials admitted a corruption scandal involving Transport Minister Fatmir Limaj. Limaj was investigated following raids carried out by EULEX, the EU rule of law mission in the former Serbian province.
Minister Limaj faced charges of money laundering, organised crime, fraud in office and soliciting bribes. Johan van Vreeswijk, acting chief prosecutor of the European Union’s rule of law mission in Kosovo (EULEX), said Limaj and the ministry’s head of procurement, Nexhat Krasniqi, could face up to 55 years in jail if found guilty. Six other Kosovo government officials are also under investigation for corruption, van Vreeswijk added. The comments follow a series of EULEX raids on the Ministry of Transport and properties connected to Limaj. The action is linked to a corruption probe related to road tenders issued between 2007 and 2009.
NOTHING NEW ON THE KOSOVO FRONTLINE – 2014 update
A recent BalkanInsight investigation, published on Apil 14, 2014, brought into public attention the US Bechtel Corporation, involved as well in scandals concerning road constructions in Romania and other parts of Eastern Europe.
Below is quoted the full investigation, fully credited to Balkan Insight, The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.
Authors: Lawrence Marzouk, Petrit Collaku, Erjona Rusi, Besar Likmeta, Paul Lewis
Pristina, Tirana, Washington DC
This article was published by Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN in partnership with The Guardian. This article was produced as part of a programme titled “A Paper Trail to Better Governance”, with funding from the Austrian Development Cooperation, ADC. The content does not reflect views and opinions of ADC.
“A US ambassador to Kosovo, who lobbied for the construction of a 820 million euros road through the war-torn country, has taken up a post with the American construction giant that secured the lucrative contract.
Christopher Dell, a career diplomat nominated by Barack Obama to represent the US in Pristina, was employed by the Bechtel Corporation, which he helped win a contract to build a highway to neighbouring Albania.
Dell took on a role as an African country manager with Bechtel late last year, months after ending a three-decade career at the State Department.
His employment at Bechtel, America’s largest engineering and construction firm, has ignited a debate over the controversial road-building project, named the “Patriotic Highway”.
Pieter Feith, the senior EU diplomat in Kosovo when the contract was secured, criticised the way the US ambassador pushed through the deal, and has called for an inquiry. Feith accused Dell of withholding information about the Bechtel contract, and lobbying Kosovo to agree to what he describes as an ill-advised deal with a US company, which placed enormous pressure on the fledgling country’s budget.
It is routine for western ambassadors to push the business interests of companies from the countries they come from. But it is unusual for a former diplomat to land a job with a major corporation after using their sway to secure lucrative government contracts.
After he was appointed ambassador in 2009, Dell had huge influence in Kosovo, where the US is widely viewed as a supervising power and is feted for its role in securing independence for the tiny Balkan state. A statue of President Clinton adorns the capital, Pristina, and boulevards are named after George W Bush and other US officials.
As the International Civilian Representative in Kosovo between 2008 and 2012, Feith was the other major figure in the country, entrusted with wide-ranging powers by the US and EU, including the ability to overrule Kosovan officials. For several years, Feith and Dell served side by side, the two most senior foreign officials supervising Kosovo’s campaign for recognition as a sovereign state following the 1999 war.
At the time Dell was encouraging Kosovo’s government to sign the highway contract, Feith said he had grave concerns about awarding the enormous contract to a consortium consisting of Bechtel and its partner, Turkish firm Enka. Feith believed the deal risked undermining Pristina’s finances.
Feith said he clashed with Dell over the logic of an impoverished, nascent country undertaking such a huge infrastructure project, and instead argued that the money should be spent on tackling Kosovo’s unemployment rate, which stood at 40%.
Feith also said he asked to see details of the contract, which he believed was part of his mandate, but was denied access by the US embassy. “Information was withheld, and all of a sudden we were presented with a fait accompli of this contract being concluded and being a liability on the budget,” he told the Guardian.
The Bechtel-Enka deal was signed in April 2010, despite concerns from the IMF, the World Bank, EU diplomats, Feith, and the Kosovan government’s own legal adviser. Dell and the State Department declined requests for comment. Bechtel defended its employment of the former ambassador and said any suggestion that his appointment was improper was “unfair and offensive”.
But Andrea Capussela, who served as head of Feith’s economic department in Kosovo and was a vocal critic of the road-building scheme, said: “Ambassador Dell’s employment at Bechtel raises a rather serious question mark over the whole project.”
“This contract was irrational for Kosovo, and caused considerable damage to it,” he added. “The State Department would do well to investigate this.”
Feith declined to comment on Dell’s employment at Bechtel. However, he did say a wider inquiry into the probity of the highway deal was warranted, although he did not specify which organisation would conduct such an investigation.
“We have been involved in the fight against corruption in Kosovo, and anything that can help, ex-post, to clarify, elucidate or provide transparency about what has happened is beneficial for the future of the young state,” he said. “If there is an investigation, I would welcome it.”
The government in Pristina argues that the Patriotic Highway has connected northern Albania and Kosovo, replacing crumbling mountain roads with a four-lane highway, and will provide an economic injection into the region. However, critics point out that its costs have more than doubled from the original estimate.
The initial offer was to complete the Kosovo section of the highway for 400 million euros ($555m). The price subsequently rose to 660 million euros ($916m), to pay for 102km of road. In the end, the project cost 820 million euros ($1.13bn) for what turned out be only a 77km stretch of highway. By comparison, Kosovo’s total government budget in 2012 was 1.5 billion euros.
The highway project was completed last year, but it has been mired in allegations of corruption on both sides of the border. The Kosovo side of the highway deal is currently under investigation by the EU rule-of-law mission, Eulex, a source at the mission has confirmed.
Last week, the Albanian government announced it was launching a fresh corruption probe into the financing of its portion of the highway. The former minister of transport in Tirana, Lulzim Basha, was earlier cleared of “abuse of power” charges when the case against him was blocked by the supreme court over a legal technicality. He denied all wrongdoing.
There is no evidence to suggest Bechtel or Dell are implicated in the corruption investigations, the details of which are confidential.
The Kosovo contract was signed at a ceremony in April 2010. Among the officials present at the event was Dell, shown in a picture standing beside Kosovo’s controversial prime minister, Hashim Thaci, and behind Mike Adams, the president of Bechtel.
Sitting beside Adams is Kosovo’s transport minister, Fatmir Limaj, who is currently under investigation for corruption. Feith said he also clashed with Dell over Limaj, after he was placed under investigation for corruption by EU law enforcement officials in Kosovo.
Dell, who had little faith in the the EU investigation into Limaj, attempted to remove the minister from Kosovo with a diplomatic posting in New York or Washington.
Feith said he believed the move was effectively providing an allegedly corrupt minister with a “backdoor exit”, blocking a corruption investigation. Dell, on the other hand, is understood to have believed that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Limaj. He believed that quietly removing Limaj from Kosovo was a more pragmatic and effective solution.
“I thought this was a bad idea, and I told him so,” Feith said of his conversation with Dell. “I thought this would strengthen the impression of impunity and not help our efforts to combat corruption.” In the end, Dell’s proposal to remove Limaj from Kosovo was never enacted. The transport minister was later arrested, and he has faced a series of war crimes and corruption charges, but has yet to be convicted of any offences.
A diplomat with a distinguished career serving across the world, including in Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and Angola, Dell left his role as chief of mission in Pristina in 2012 – two years after shepherding the Bechtel-Enka deal. He spent a brief period on secondment at the Pentagon, working for the US Africa Command, known as Africom, and stationed in Germany.
Bechtel initially made contact with Dell about possibly working for the company the previous year, in 2012. The company confirmed that at the time it made the approach he was still the US ambassador to Kosovo. According to Bechtel, Dell “immediately reported the conversation” with the State Department, in line with with US government regulations, and recused himself from matters relating to the company.
After his brief stint in Germany, Dell formally left the State Department, joining Bechtel in November 2013 as its country manager in Mozambique. There is no suggestion Dell did not comply with US “revolving door” regulations. While there is a one-year “cooling off” period before former ambassadors can lobby the US government on behalf of a private firm, they are not prevented from taking a job in the private sector with a company they helped secure a contract for.
There is no reference to Dell on Bechtel’s website, except for a picture of the former US ambassador at the contract-signing ceremony in Kosovo in 2010.
Michelle Michael, a spokeswoman for Bechtel, said of Dell: “His extensive knowledge and experience in the region [Africa] are an ideal fit with our current work and future opportunities there.”
She added: “As you likely know, one of the roles of US ambassadors is to promote American business interests. Chris spent more than 30 years as a public servant, and any suggestion that he acted inappropriately or otherwise failed to meet his responsibility as a public servant is both unfair and offensive.”
Earlier this year, the Kosovo government awarded Bechtel another contract, worth 600 million euros ($833m), this time building a road to neighbouring Macedonia. The company said Dell played no part securing the Kosovo to Macedonia contract.”
– end of BalkanInsight quoted article –
2010 – THE MOST PROLIFIC YEAR FOR CORRUPTION SCANDALS IN KOSOVO
During my research in Kosovo, back in 2010, I produced a report concerning the “Kosovo connection”:
KOSOVO IS THE NEW ELDORADO FOR BOTH EUROPEANS AND AMERICANS
Author: Mircea Opris, 2010
The International Court of Justice in the Hague, or ICJ, decision that the Declaration of independence adopted by Kosovo was legal is bound to add more fuel to a fire kept under control in the region by the military forces with KFOR and EULEX.
Serbia reacted promptly, stating it did not recognize Kosovo’s declaration of independence, deeming the region to be part of its southern territory.
This time, the reality on the ground shows that the new self-styled republic is enjoying a rate of economic development unmatched by any European country. Both Western and Kosovo business partners seem to prosper. At the same time, information on major corruption on both sides already surfaced. This, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.
The Merdare village looks like the last bastion of an absurd war opposing the Serbs to the Kosovo dwellers. The Serbs at the check-point are over-worked. Testy, in worn-out uniforms and with Kalashnikovs on them, they check each car waiting to pass into Kosovo. Some 500 cars, with plate numbers from Germany and Switzerland, wait in line to enter the newly self-proclaimed republic. Their occupants stay in line 10 to 12 hours, but are happy to go back see their families.
They are former Kosovo refugees who left the region during or right after the 1998 conflict started. Most are now frustrated with the German and Austrian authorities, who sent them back home, on grounds that the situation improved there. Indeed, one could warrant this as a valid statement: highways, apartment blocks, steel and glass office buildings and supermarkets are being built all over the place.
The Kosovo side of the check-point looks clearly different from the Serb side. Policemen performing the control have new uniforms, styled after American or British tailoring; they are all smiles and good manners, speak English and use a computerized system to check passports. They are joined by soldiers from the multinational force dispatched in the region.
This is the border into the newest state in Europe, a capitalist oasis in the Balkan dust. The national currency here is the Euro, even though the territory is not yet recognized by five EU member-states.
All business is conducted here in Euros, and to get a green-card or a 15-day transit-card one is charged 40 Euros.
Pristina is the capital of Kosovo, the new land of all opportunities. The new buildings are erected here at high speed, in the street one sees only new model cars, the shops display the latest models of mobile phones and electronics, the shops follow closely the latest fashion.
Everybody owns a cell phone, but the mobile-phone operators issue either Monaco or Slovenian numbers. All-terrain vehicles roam all over the place, belonging to either international organizations or Kosovo police. The latter has equipment that would make burst with envy many Romanian policemen or from other European nations.
Restaurants and coffee-shops are full to the limit, no matter the hour, except for the praying time, when all nation recalls its Muslim creed and the only sounds piercing the air are the calls to the praying-houses.
So, in a one-liner: the Kosovo people turned into typical Europeans, meaning importers and consumer of goods.
“People are still under the spell of the West. We were given a lot of help to have are own country. Now one can find here every goods one finds in the West, but the salaries barely cover the every-day living expenses. We import and we consume, while the traditional produce are almost extinct,” explains Jeton Musliu, one of the best known journalists in Pristina, working for the Express daily.
Luxury hotels, until recently filled with foreign delegations and dignitaries, have less clients, but new residential areas are mushrooming on the hills around the city, while highways are built aggressively in the tiny 2-million people self-proclaimed republic.
There is nothing new to the fact that war time brings about opportunities to amass huge fortunes, out of the control of any authority, and Kosovo is no exception to the rule. Hundreds of companies and foundations, some of them American-European joint-ventures, control 90% of the economy, in activities ranging from constructions to humanitarian aid.
Right after the end of the war Western Europe pumped billion of Euros in re-building Kosovo. It happened after the province was placed under the UN mandate, on 10 June 1999, subsequent to the Serb troops withdrawal from the region. In November 2005 the parliament in Kosovo adopted a resolution towards declaring its independence from Serbia, and one month later the former Finish president Martti Ahtissari embarked on a UN mission to reach a final status for Kosovo. On 17 February 2008 the parliament in Kosovo proclaimed its independence from Serbia, with the latter and Russia immediately rejecting the claim.
Kosovo got international recognition from 69 countries, among which the United States and 22 of the 27 EU-member states. On 4 June 2009 it became the 186th member-state of the International Monetary Fund.
These were powerful signals to both local and international business people to go ahead with their endeavors.
The Kosovo journalists say hundreds of million of Euros are being siphoned in corrupt and illegal deals involving foreign companies. It comes hard to them, however, to prove that foreign companies investing in their country use the financing channels to triple their profits elsewhere.
Some things, however, are more obvious. For instance, Pristina is the only European city apart from London to have the famous London-styled cabbies, owned in part by Bardhyl Sejdiu, the son of the Kosovo president Fatmir Sejdiu.
On tens of street billboards Tony Blair glares his smile, while the written text says: a leader, a friend, a hero. He is not the only famous people high-up on buildings: American rapper Snoop Doggy Dog and Italian singer Eros Ramazotti also are …
Corruption scandals seem to loom on the horizon, just as The Economist or The Herald Tribune carry articles stating that the US and EU will not tolerate any longer the corruption in Kosovo. But truth is most of the companies embroiled in the corruption scandals are in fact international companies.
Even last week the EULEX, the European police that trains the Kosovo police force, searched the headquarters of four companies suspected to do corrupt deals with mobile telephone licenses.
Also last week EULEX arrested a government official on suspicion of tax evasion, and the minister for Transportation and Telecommunications was investigated for fraudulent management of public funds.
Investigations on the corrupt deals of foreign investors are procrastinated, as it comes hard to bite the hand that feeds you, local journalists say. And yet, they claim there is an abundance of proof around to file such investigations.
The European foreign ministers assemble today to talk on the consultative opinion released on Thursday by the ICJ, on the issue of “the Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence being in agreement with the international law.”
Romania is one of the five EU-member states that refuses to recognize Kosovo as an independent state.
According to the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the ICJ did not address the legality of the Kosovo’s independence, but the legality of the statement for independence. The ministry added in its statement that the ICJ consultative opinions are not mandatory, meaning that the authority requesting them – in this case the UN General Assembly – are free to disregard them.