In a Kosovo Mountain Resort, Villas, Bribes and a Big-Name Scandal

The prosecutor behind one of Kosovo’s biggest ever corruption cases is confident of success despite the efforts of deep-pocketed ‘businessmen’ and – he believes – dishonest judges to derail him.

On a frosty morning in December 2021, prosecutors accompanied by heavily-armed police carried out a series of raids in the municipality of Shterpce/Strpce, home to Kosovo’s biggest mountain resort – Brezovica.

Located near the western city of Prizren in the Sharr Mountains National Park, Brezovica’s steep slopes once served as back-up for the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, but ownership arguments since Kosovo’s 1998-99 war has long frustrated development plans.

Then, starting in the early 2000s, rampant, unregulated construction began to blight the picturesque national park.

The raids, targeting the homes and offices of the former mayor and senior municipal officials, marked a turning point.

Previously, a whistleblower had tipped off the police about a lucrative corruption scam by which municipal officials received big bribes to turn a blind eye to the construction of hotels and villas within what is officially a protected zone.

But when nothing happened, the whistleblower went to BIRN’s office in Pristina, lifting the lid on what would become one of the biggest graft scandals in Kosovo’s young life as an independent state and forcing authorities to act.

Since then, more than 100 arrests have been made. A trial began in April, with the 11 defendants accused of giving or receiving bribes ranging from 10,000 euros to 250,000 euros for the construction of holiday homes and hotels in Brezovica’s winter wonderland, 80 kilometres southeast of the capital, Pristina.

BIRN has since learned that between 2014 and 2022, corruption has allowed for the construction of more than 800 objects in Brezovica.

BIRN has yet to air the interview with the whistleblower, which prosecutors fear may undermine their investigation by naming people still under surveillance.

The whistleblower has since entered a witness protection programme.

“All the money was transferred in cash, some of it in envelopes,” said Rasim Maloku, the Ferizaj/Urosevac prosecutor on the case. “From the evidence we have, there have been cases of money transferred in bags, even as much as 200,000 euros at once.”

Untold damage has been done to Brezovica’s previously pristine environment, he told BIRN, and yet efforts to derail the case go on.

Rasim Maloku the Ferizaj/Urosevac prosecutor on the Brezovica corruption case, Photo: BIRN

Highest echelons of power

Loved by hardcore skiers for its demanding slopes, Brezovica’s heyday was is in the 80s, when the resort posted on average 120,000 overnight stays, half during the ski season and half in the summer, when hikers would flock to its mountain meadows and streams.

After Kosovo broke away from Serbia in war in 1998-99, the resort became one of dozens of former public enterprises subject to competing ownership claims, frustrating efforts to privatise it and attract investment.

It forms part of the ‘Sharri’ National Park, which was declared protected by the state in 2013.

But for some, the protection didn’t apply, and the building scandal has since reached to the highest echelons of power in Kosovo.

According to the prosecution files, there are properties in the protected zone owned by former Foreign Minister Enver Hoxhaj, Supreme Court judge Agim Maliqi, Court of Appeals judge Bashkim Hyseni, and Mustafe Tahiri, head of the Ferizaj/Urosevac basic court. Two brothers of former President Hashim Thaci, who is standing trial for war crimes in The Hague, also built villas there.

All of their properties were seized by prosecutors last year.

Hyseni said he was unaware his villa was built in a protected zone, while Maliqi also denied doing anything intentionally wrong, saying he built his villa “as a citizen, not as a judge”; Tahiri, Hyseni, Maliqi and Hoxhaj have not been charged with anything and Hoxhaj has not commented on the case.

A number of senior public officials have also been placed under investigation or arrested, including Arben Citaku, former secretary general of the environment ministry, and Berat Lahu, brother-in-law of Kosovo’s current environment minister, Liburn Aliu. Lahu was in September last year on suspicion of receiving a property as a bribe from groups involved in the construction boom in Brezovica.

Prosecutors have also implicated Milan Radoicic, the deputy leader of the Srpska Lista party, the main Belgrade-backed party representing Kosovo’s minority Serbs. Shterpce/Strpce itself is a majority-Serb municipality.

Prosecutors say Radoicic tried to get the whistleblower to withdraw his testimony in exchange for 100,000 euros.

Radoicic narrowly avoided arrest last year when he tried to cross from Serbia into Kosovo but turned back at the last second.

In July 2022, Maloku told BIRN that Radoicic should be arrested if he enters Kosovo since the arrest warrant for him in the Brezovica case remained active.

Commenting at the time on the warrant against him, Radoicic suggested he was a victim of a campaign against Serbs in Kosovo. “The real terror against our Serbian people [in Kosovo] is just beginning,” he claimed.

Illustration. Photo: BIRN

 When a river becomes a stream

According to Maloku, police uncovered major irregularities as far back as 2016.

These included the environment ministry reclassifying certain rivers in the area as streams, thus cutting the permitted proximity of a property from 30 metres to five metres. This allowed for the subsequent legalisation of a number of villas.

But for some, even five metres was too much.

“We have cases when villas have been constructed over a river, cases when solid waste have been thrown into riverbeds or even when the entire riverbed has been changed, thus irreparably degrading the environment in this area,” Maloku said.

In 90 per cent of cases, permits were issued in direct contravention of the law regulating construction in the ‘Sharri’ National Park.

Sometimes, building inspectors looked into the construction, “but this was only formal, because no action was taken”. Brezovica, he said, has been degraded “in a silent manner”.

In almost every construction case he has looked into, a bribe was paid, Maloku told BIRN.

“There has been a standard bribe price of 10,000 euros per villa in exchange for a construction permit,” he said. “This has been applied in almost all cases, but there have also been cases when the bribe has been lower, between 7,000 and 8,000 euro in the so-called touristic villages.”

Most of the money went through the former mayor of Shterpce/Strpce, Bratislav Nikolic, Maloku said. “But there are other municipal officials who have received lower amounts.”

Arrested in December 2021, Nikolic pleaded not guilty in April this year and was released from custody on September 1 after posting bail of 50,000 euros.

Nine other defendants pleaded not guilty. Another, Ferizaj/Urosevac judge Tahiri, asked prosecutors for a plea deal.

Inside interference?

Besides bribes being offered to get witnesses to withdraw, BIRN has also learned of obstacles erected by the justice system itself.

On October 2, 2022, in correspondence seen by BIRN, Maloku wrote to the head of the Kosovo Judicial Council, Albert Zogaj, warning of efforts by court officials “to influence the course of the investigation” and informing him that a special investigation had been instigated against them.

Maloku’s email specified that two unnamed judges had sought to intervene in favour of one of the defendants.

In his reply, Zogaj expressed support and a disciplinary probe was launched against several judges. The case, however, was later dropped by the Judicial Council, which cited a lack of evidence.

Maloku, nevertheless, remains confident he and his team can prove their findings.

“We have compiled a registry in the Brezovica area which includes the second and third zones of ‘Sharri’ National Park,” he said. “There are around 75 constructed objects in the second zone, where construction is prohibited by the law, and more than 700 in the third.”

“So far, we have evidence of more than three million euros in bribes for the construction of villas. I believe we’ll manage to prove many of these claims in court.”

read more: