The revenge against Cipiripi

Why do Kosovars continue to buy goods from a state that persecuted them 17 years ago and continues to obstruct the normal life of Kosovo citizens?

“Is there no local water?” I asked the salesperson, who responded to my request for still water by offering a bottle of Rosa, a Serbian product. “No, this is the only kind of bottled water we sell,” the employee of the newly opened cinema Cineplexx, an over 4 million euro investment in Prishtina, responded.

I would not react the same way if I had asked for a Coke, although Rosa is a product of the same factory. 17 years after the war, the majority of Kosovar consumers are annoyed by only one Serbian product – water. Kosovar consumers can buy many Serbian products, but most of the time opt for a local product when it comes to water. I cannot say for certain why this happens, but it could have to do with the fact that Kosovo has sufficient producers of quality water and producers who have engaged in aggressive marketing campaigns in recent years.

After the Serbian government decided to launch a passenger train from Belgrade to Mitrovica with the inscription “Kosovo is Serbia” without getting a permit from any Kosovo institution, a new wave of calls for boycotting Serbian products has emerged. Unofficial calls to boycott Serbian products have been heard ever since the war ended. They’ve taken various forms, starting with emails sent anonymously to scare consumers by claiming that Serbian products designated for Kosovo were carcinogenic, all the way to overturning trucks carrying Serbian products.

None of these measures has managed to discourage the consumption of Serbian products. If we consider the monetary value of goods, imports from Serbia increased from 152 million euros in 2005 to about 390 million euros in 2016. Serbian products represented 14.6 per cent of all imports in 2006, then decreased to 10.2 per cent by 2011, but rebounded back to 14 per cent in 2015.

Because Serbia considers the goods that are sold in Kosovo as goods sold on its territory and not as exports, it is difficult to assess where Kosovo stands as a percentage of Serbia’s total exports. In 2015, Serbian exports exceeded 12 billion euros, over 65 per cent of which were exported to the European Union. If we compare to this number, the export of Serbian goods to Kosovo comprises about 3.4 per cent of the overall export, which makes Kosovo one of the six most important markets to Serbia.

There is a diversity of products imported from Serbia, from electric power to chocolate banana sweets. In the past three years, on average, we have imported from Serbia about 35 million euros worth of electric power annually. In 2015, Kosovo imported 10 million euros worth of “chocolate bananas,” 2.3 million boxes of Plazma cookies, and about half a million of Cipiripi chocolates.

Although many of these Serbian products are easily replaceable, why do Kosovars continue to buy goods from a state that killed and persecuted them 17 years ago and continues to obstruct the normal lives of Kosovo citizens? One of the reasons is that with the exception of small businesses, the large trade companies never responded to calls for a boycott. For many years, the biggest importer of Serbian products was the business owned by the current Deputy Prime Minister Ramiz Kelmendi.

Additionally, there is some nostalgia for products made in all the former Yugoslav republics. Colloquially, Kosovars have even replaced the names of products with the brands. For example, most Kosovars call tissues Palloma, after the Croatian brand, while Eurokrem is the name for any spread made of cocoa and hazelnuts. Children who miss a front tooth, or have gapped teeth, are called cipiripa, alluding to the large teeth of the squirrel mascot of the Cipiripi chocolate label. In an article for the London School of Economics, journalist Tim Judah gives another example of how the Albanian merchants find it difficult to sell Italian milk, because Slovenian milk is an irreplaceable standard for Kosovars. This nostalgia for Yugoslav products in what Judah calls the “Yugosphere” partially explains the consumer loyalty.

Consumer behavior changes very slowly. Consumers buy those products which are familiar, cheaper, and nearby. Because of trade politics, Serbian goods are often sold cheaper than similar products made in Kosovo. A chocolate banana produced in Serbia costs only one cent more than one produced by Liri in Prizren. In some supermarkets, a 300 gram “Plazma” box is cheaper or the same price as the same box of “Sempre” cookies produced in Kosovo.

Kosovars are not the only one who face the ethical dilemma between boycotting the products of a hostile state or buying them because of a combination of price, quality, and habit. In the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese students called for the boycott of Japanese products, and both businesses and workers joined the boycott, causing great damage to the Japanese economy. After the Second World War, a great number of Jewish people, as well as other European nations, boycotted German products, especially cars. Americans acted the same way towards Japanese products and any sort of Japanese investment on American soil. All of these were citizen actions, not official state policy. There were cases when a country decided to boycott some or the entirety of products of a different country, such as the US embargo on Cuba.

Although the armed conflict ended in June 1999, Serbia’s efforts to destabilize Kosovo have continued to this day. Serbia is the biggest culprit behind Kosovo’s informal economy in northern Kosovo, which costs the formal economy in Kosovo billions of euros in damages every year. Meanwhile, many Kosovar businesses still face multiple non-tariff related obstacles in exporting to Serbia, or even to simply using Serbian territory as a transit to European Union countries.

Since 2000, 3.9 billion euros of imports from Serbia have been registered in Kosovo. Considering the high level of informality in northern Kosovo, the real presence of Serbian goods in Kosovo is clearly higher. Based on the historical dispute, but also on Serbia’s continuous attacks to Kosovo’s statehood, Kosovar citizens and government have all the legal and moral rights to boycott and place reciprocal measures on Serbian goods.

A boycott as a countervailing measure against the politics of a different state is a normal step which states can take officially, or the society can do on its own without coordination with local institutions. Since an official boycott can be difficult because of international obligations, a citizens boycott would be the most effective way for one country to affect another.

Just as we have created a collective aversion to Serbian water, we could expand it to include the hundreds and thousands of other products, starting with the chocolate bananas and Cipiripis, all the way to electric power.

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