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Kosovo:Open for business

Kosovo emerged as an independent State after decades of uneasy existence as part of Serbia. There was an inevitable new anthem and new flag.  But there are real political concerns best not forgotten in the ballyhoo and hopes for a brighter future. 
One man interviewed by the BBC’s Mark Madell described how during the war he fled his village with many relatives under attack by Serbian troops. He had to leave his aunt behind and she was burnt to death. He said: “Kosovo is rich in minerals and rich in farming land, is rich in all other aspects. Here, we provided wealth for so many years for the whole of Yugoslavia, there is no reason why we cannot provide now for just Kosovo. That’s why I’m saying Kosovo has a bright future.” (Mark Madell’s Euroblog: ‘Mining Kosovo’s Future’  29 January)
Alongside the declared humanitarian reasons for the UN intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s there were other, economic and political, considerations also in play. It is these interests that will shape future developments in the states of the former Yugoslavia and dominate the lives of workers there.

The New York Times (8 July 1999) carried an article by Chris Hedges about the Stari Trg mining complex in Trepca, Kosovo. Possibly inadvertently, it gave an insight into some of the  considerations that surrounded the decision to intervene. According to Hedges, “The sprawling state-owned Trepca mining complex, the most valuable piece of real estate in the Balkans, is worth at least $5 billion.”

It was the reported view of the mine’s director, Novak Bjelic, that “The war in Kosovo is about the mines, nothing else. This is Serbia’s Kuwait – the heart of Kosovo. In addition to all this, Kosovo has 17 billion tons of coal reserves.” The Yugoslav web site www.yugoslavia.com (now defunct) described Trepca as having the “richest lead and zinc mines in Europe.” The capacity of the lead and zinc refineries ranked third in the world and the area as a whole represented some 80% of Yugoslavia’s mineral deposits. The problem was they were old and inefficient and seriously polluting.

According to Michael Palairet of the University of Edinburgh, a leading authority on the economic and social history of the Balkans,
"The Trepca system 'as a rule' lost money under Yugoslav socialism … Because of Trepca's incapacity to generate funding of its own for investment, all investment funding had to be financed externally, by fund providers who did not anticipate that they would see any return on (or of) their capital." In his opinion the $5bn figure quoted by Hedges above was exaggerated. However while Trepca consistently performed poorly, this was not because it could not have been managed more effectively: "Unlike most heavy industry… Trepca had good mining assets and low cost access to energy, so on the face of things there were no structural reasons for its inability to trade profitably.” (European Stability Initiative http://www.esiweb.org/pdf/esi_bridges_id_2_a.pdf )

Further insight may be gained into the economic underpinnings of the UN intervention from a report by the International Crisis Group. The report is interesting in that it provides further evidence that the breakup of the former Yugoslavia was in large part motivated by conflicting economic interests. The various regions of the Federal Republic had fallen out over how their assets and liabilities were to be divided and allocated. The differences were long standing and could not be resolved peacefully. In other words it was a fight among competing capitalists interests. One of these interests lay in Kosovo – the supposed “heartland of Serb identity.”
“Trepca is a sprawling conglomerate of some 40 mines and factories, located mostly in Kosovo ... Its great mineral wealth is the basis of the economy of Kosovo, but the complex is badly run-down as a result of under-investment and over-exploitation by governments in Belgrade.” (Trepca: Making Sense of the Labyrinth (ICG Europe Report N°82, 26 November 1999) crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=1585&l=1)

In 1974 Tito’s new constitution accorded the province near-republic status, with its own parliament and courts, Kosovo elites enjoyed a period of greatly increased control over their own resources. They used their enhanced authority to build factories in Kosovo that capitalised on their mineral production, created thousands of jobs, and brought some income into the province.

After Tito’s death, pressure grew for more rights and greater political and economic autonomy, but with little success. Belgrade reasserted control of the mines.  Kosovo Albanian workers were accused of having stolen vast quantities of gold and silver and many engineers and technicians were fired.
“From 1981-89, Belgrade monopolised the export of Trepca’s minerals to Russia and elsewhere, reaping the profits in hard currency and oil, while compensating the Kosovars only with electricity and other non-fungible forms of payment.…
Trepca’s Kosovar management attempted to sell its products on the European market and to modernise the facilities’ modes of production, only to be foiled time and again by the Serbian government, which was in the process of “integrating” Serbia’s economy – that is, of tethering all economic sectors even more closely to Belgrade.

By the late 1980s, with the final integration into the Serbian system of the power generating system, Kosovars had lost virtually all control over their economy, as they would over their politics and civic freedoms.” (Trepca: Making Sense of the Labyrinth (ICG))

In 1996 Trepca had exported $100 million of products, making it the largest exporting company in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and an invaluable foreign exchange earner at a time when the country was experiencing grave economic difficulties.

Throughout the 1990s the ownership of Trepca conglomerate was never entirely clear. In November 1997 Trepca was under consideration for privatisation by the federal government in Belgrade. This process stalled when the ‘red businessman’ Zoran Todorovic, was murdered by a gunman in Belgrade. Todorovic had been a close confidant of Slobodan Milosevic and was one of the richest men in Yugoslavia.  He was one of a group of state capitalists who had been able to use their political connections to purchase state assets at bargain prices. (He was also director of Beopetrol, another state firm in the process of being privatized.) This was in effect a conversion of state owned assets into de facto privately owned ones by the ruling capitalist class.

Officials of the UN Interim Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), who took over governing Kosovo in 1999 after the withdrawal of Serbian troops, concluded  that the complex was overall public property and therefore came under their authority in accordance with its mandate. The then head of UNMIK, Bernard Kouchner (now French Foreign Minister), confirmed that an international consortium had been appointed to run the plant. A $16m (£10.7m) investment package was also announced, funded by Britain, France, Spain, Germany, and the EU. The money was to be spent on a full-scale refurbishment of the plant prior to it being sold off.  “We have no intention of closing any part of the Trepca mining complex. On the contrary, we’re going to make it safe and profitable.” he said. (The Guardian, 15 August 2000, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2000/aug/15/balkans)

But it was not only the mines that capitalist interests had their eyes on. In July 2000 it was announced that a fund run by the billionaire George Soros was to invest $150 million (most backed by U.S. guarantees) in companies in the Balkans. Soros Fund Management would invest $50 million of it own equity in new businesses, expansions or privatization in the region and would have full autonomy to choose the investments in a whole swathe of South East Europe. Soros had invested millions of dollars in philanthropic endeavors in the region, but said this fund would practice “tough love,” and be driven purely by profit.

The U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation had agreed to provide a loan guarantee for another $100 million of investments. OPIC describes itself as a self-sustaining federal agency that sells investment services to American businesses expanding into emerging markets around the world. It provides a level playing field for U.S. businesses in emerging economies.

“Since 1971, OPIC has supported nearly $130 billion worth of investments that will generate over $61 billion in U.S. exports.” (skopje.usembassy.gov/southeast_europe_equity_fund.html )

The Soros investment was conceived at a “donor” conference in Sarajevo in 1999. It was one of a series of efforts to take advantage of emerging investment opportunities in the Balkans. “A year ago, after NATO won the war in Kosovo, more than 40 leaders came together in Sarajevo determined to win the peace with economic investments”, according to National Security Advisor Samuel M. Berger.
George Munoz President and CEO of OPIC said he was pleased that they were making the region safe for international capital. It was a demonstration that “Southeast Europe is an important region on which we should focus our efforts, to enable it to rebuild and enter the global marketplace as a full partner. The Southeast Europe Equity Fund is an ideal vehicle to connect American institutional capital with European entrepreneurs eager to help Americans tap their growing markets.”

The Soros Private Funds Management, he said, was sending “ a strong, positive signal that Southeast Europe is open for business.”

GWYNN THOMAS