Kosovo faces uphill fight in claiming Yugoslav-era property

Kosovo says it is the rightful owner of more than 160 properties belonging to Yugoslav-era socially-owned enterprises, and it wants them back.

More than two decades since it broke away from Serbia in war, Kosovo is trying to claim ownership over more than 160 properties dotted around the former Yugoslavia.

So far, proceedings have been started in the case of two properties in neighbouring Montenegro totalling some 37,500 square metres in the coastal municipality of Budva.

The Kosovo Privatisation Agency, KPA, is leading the initiative, but faces a challenge given that of the seven states carved from the ashes of Yugoslavia, only Kosovo was not a federal republic but an autonomous province within Serbia. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but is not recognised by Serbia or – of the other former Yugoslav republics – Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“These properties we are talking about are 100 percent a Kosovo investment from the contributions of Kosovo citizens,” said Safet Gerxhaliu, the former head of Kosovo’s Chamber of Commerce.

But not everyone agrees, notably Aleksandar Vucic, the president of Serbia, where Kosovo claims ownership of 99 properties.

“It would not be realistic to have six percent of the population and to expect to have such a percentage of property,” Vucic told Serbian MPs in June.

Croatia claims Kosovo petrol stations

The 163 properties claimed by the KPA – mainly businesses and offices – were assets of so-called ‘socially-owned enterprises’, a hybrid ownership model introduced under socialist Yugoslavia.

After Yugoslavia fell apart, each newly-established state claimed properties in the other former Yugoslav republics via a succession agreement signed in 2001 but which Kosovo was not a party to in its own right.

Croatia’s ambassador to Kosovo, Danijela Barisic, complained of a lack of political will in the implementation of the agreement, saying the process was moving “slowly.”

Not having been a Yugoslav republic, Kosovo’s properties were transferred to Serbia, with the former province – a ward of the United Nations for almost a decade – having no say in the matter.

Even today, Serbia says that any of the properties claimed by Kosovo are in fact Serbia’s, given that former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic abolished the province’s autonomy in 1989.

The first sign of Kosovo’s claim emerged in late June. Montenegrin media reported that Kosovo’s justice ministry had filed a lawsuit against the Budva municipality and the company Sunraf Beach Properties, seeking the return of around 4,500 square metres of land that was once a children’s resort named after Ganimete Terbeshi, a Kosovo Albanian woman and World War Two hero. The ministry confirmed saying the lawsuit had been filed in April 2020.

The KPA is also seeking the return of 33,000 square meters of land in Kamenovo, near Budva, that was once home to the Rekreatours resort for workers from Kosovo. The basic court in Prishtina rejected the claim and the KPA lodged an appeal in March.

The issue has been further complicated by a vote in parliament in late May to dismiss the KPA board, which has long faced accusations of corruption and irregularities in the privatisation process. The vote was seen as a first step towards closing the agency but could make it harder for former Yugoslav republics to claim properties inside Kosovo.

So far, Croatia has filed a court case in 2007 seeking the return of 23 petrol stations that it says were owned by state-owned oil company INA.

“The case is still pending,” Barisic told BIRN, describing it as “a challenge to solve”.

In 2012, BIRN reported that the petrol stations were being used illegally by Kosova Petrol, owned by Bedri Selmani, a close ally of former Kosovo President Hashim Thaci.

Other Croatian companies also have claims in Kosovo but Barisic said that the dismissal of the KPA board had left them unsure where to turn. Economic expert Muhamet Mustafa told BIRN that another potential avenue was the special chamber of the Supreme Court.

As for properties claimed by Kosovo in Serbia, the KPA told BIRN it has no access to the relevant documentation.

The Serbian government’s office for Kosovo did not respond to BIRN’s questions for this article. Nor did the Montenegrin government.

UN plan hailed by Kosovo

Kosovo parliament. Photo: BIRN/Urim Krasniqi.

Besides the 99 properties in Serbia, Kosovo also says it is the rightful owner of 35 in Montenegro, 15 in Bosnia, eight in North Macedonia, five in Croatia and one in Slovenia.

A list of all assets and liabilities of Kosovo’s properties and their location was initially compiled by the KPA’s predecessor, the Kosovo Trust Agency, KTA, established under the UN interim mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, which administered the country after the withdrawal of Serbian troops in June 1999.

The KTA “concluded that these are the property of Kosovo and they could be claimed in other instances with the resolution of the country’s legal status,” Bujar Dugolli, who served as Kosovo’s trade minister between late 2004 and early 2008, told BIRN.

In 2007, UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari recommended a form of supervised independence for Kosovo under a plan that said all property of Serbian socially-owned enterprises within the territory of Kosovo would be considered assets of Kosovo, as would assets of Kosovo socially-owned enterprises elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia.

Serbia rejected the Ahtisaari plan, but Kosovo endorsed it in its subsequent 2008 declaration of independence.

“It was one of Kosovo’s most important victories,” said economic expert Muhamet Mustafa, as it asserted “Kosovo’s right to regulate the access to property similarly to the other entities of the former Yugoslavia.”

Who decides?

In Montenegro, Deputy Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic, himself an ethnic Albanian, appeared to express support for Kosovo’s claim in Budva, telling reporters on June 25: “This is not in the competence of the government because the courts are independent but positive pressure must be exerted for this case and others to move forward.”

But Nikola Plamenac, head of the Secretariat for the Protection of Property in Budva, told local media last month that only international bodies are “competent to give an answer on the issue of ownership,” not local courts.

Barisic, the Croatian ambassador, recommended a bilateral agreement between Kosovo and Croatia to regulate property issues, such as the one Croatia already has with Slovenia and North Macedonia.

But Mustafa, the economic analyst, said this would only politicise the issue even more.

“The property of any republic or autonomous unit belongs to its people and particular claims are made through courts and not through institutional issues of the state,” he told BIRN.

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