Northern Kosovo has been an important mining area since Roman times. The strata there contain ore rich in lead, zinc and silver. In the early 20th Century, the British developed the region into the Trepča mining and metallurgy complex. The Nazis took over the north in WW II – they left the rest of Kosovo to the Italians – and Trepča produced most of the batteries for German tanks and U-Boats. Under Tito, Trepča became a huge conglomerate employing tens of thousands of workers and earning much of Yugoslavia's hard currency. Trepča is now divided along the Ibar between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs and the Quint seems determined to seize the northern part administered under UNMIK through forcing local Serb management to accept rule from Pristina.
In 1999, all Trepča assets in Kosovo came under UN administration. These included mines, factories and a wide range of industrial and non-industrial facilities. Due to disputes over ownership and claims from creditors, Trepča also entered bankruptcy protection under UNMIK. Until 2008, when Kosovo declared independence, Trepča operated as one enterprise with an international administrator and separate local management for the Serb- and Albanian-majority parts on each side of the Ibar River. In the north, Trepča existed both as the rump of the Serbian owned entity claiming all Trepča property and as “Trepča Enterprises Under UNMIK Administration.” After the UDI, the two parts drifted apart as Pristina chose a Kosovo Albanian to take the place of the international director and the northern Serbs refused to be managed as part of the independent Kosovo state. Trepča North continues to work legally under UNMIK administration in the form of the Kosovo Trust Agency (KTA). Trepča North paid Kosovo Customs and VAT until June 2008 and now meets the requirements of working in Kosovo through UNMIK facilitation. It employs 3200 workers with funds earned from its mining and battery recycling activities; some 40% of northern Serbs derive at least part of their income from Trepča exports.
Trepča North management has been particularly pragmatic in working with Kosovo Albanians to do its business within the UNMIK legal framework, including accepting Kosovo Customs approval for its exports. It has never been easy with Pristina throwing up roadblock after roadblock. It began by refusing VAT reimbursements for taxes paid - such as upon importing batteries for recycling when the lead/antimony alloy produced is then re-exported. (The batter recycling center was partially funded by the EU and meets all EU standards.) Non-reimbursement made the recycling work unprofitable and closed down the line. Trepča North is now owed some 1.5 million Euros in total.
Now Pristina is seeking to force Trepča into leaving UNMIK administration by accepting to be under the Privatization Agency of Kosovo (PAK), a Kosovo government institution. PAK has blocked Customs from allowing Trepča exports, leaving 22 trucks loaded with zinc concentrate unable to ship for over a week. UNMIK/KTA had previously approved the sale. All that is needed for shipment to take place is payment of Customs and the formal Customs export approval required by any buyer. PAK has ordered Trepča to seek its approval for any sales and refuses to unblock Customs. This unilateral effort to subvert the legal UNMIK administration of Trepča may derive from a desire to force Trepča North to accept Pristina's plans for privatization (interestingly, the Brits – strong supporters of Kosovo independence – are sniffing around again). Or it may be to exert pressure on Serbia in advance of any agreements in the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue. Or it may simply be the arbitrary act of a Kosovo government actor thumbing his nose at any semblance of international oversight.
Whatever the case, EULEX – which has control of Customs under the UNSCR 1244 mandate it received from the UN in 2008 – could simply order Customs approval. Instead, it has so far stood back and “monitored” the situation. This leaves the Serbs facing hard choices. Trepča management cannot accept PAK efforts to force it to break with Serbian law or void Serbian claims to Trepča. Nor can it simply abandon UNMIK administration and working under 1244. If it cannot meet its contract obligations and earn income for wages and other payments, it could conceivably have to let workers go. Workers themselves may express their frustration with Pristina's blackmail efforts by taking to the streets. Or perhaps, Trepča management will simply seek to move ahead with the shipment – Customs has reopened for shipments from Trepča South using the same code blocked for the north – and test the response of EULEX. Meanwhile, Pristina's actions and the international non-response have raised tensions and set the stage for unnecessary difficulties.
I asked UNMIK and EULEX for comment on this situation; after several days they have not replied. When the internationals hide from their responsibilities – in this case to ensure that Trepča can operate openly and legally under the status-neutral framework of UNMIK – they run the risk of contributing to renewed conflict. Either they do not understand the requirements of peacekeeping or they are cynically seeking to encourage a breakdown of order that justifies use of force. EULEX should issue the necessary Customs clearance immediately if Pristina refuses to do so.