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, PAK, 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 per cent 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 per cent 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 PAK – 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.

The Croatian ambassador to Kosovo, Danijela Barisic, told BIRN the implementation process of the agreement in some annexes is “slow” due also to a lack of political will of some of the parties to the agreement.

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.

PAK 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 Kotor rejected the claim and PAK lodged an appeal in March.

The issue has been further complicated by a vote in parliament in late May to dismiss the PAK 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.

Croatia also has property rights’ claims in Kosovo. One of them is Croatia’s Industrija Nafte, known as INA, which has built more than 23 petrol stations across Kosovo during Yugoslav time. Barisic told BIRN that in order to regain its property rights the company has taken the case to court in 2007 and “the case is still pending”.

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

Barisic says there are more Croatian companies that had properties in Kosovo during Yugoslav time.

Recently PAK announced a liquidation call that could allow the companies to reclaim them, however, with the dismissal of PAK board it remains to be seen how this process will proceed.

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, PAK 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

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 PAK’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.

Barisic, Croatia’s ambassador to Kosovo, told BIRN the two countries have good relations and Croatia “supports Kosovo in their European Atlantic path”.

The contested properties are “a challenge that needs to be solved” she says.

Barisic believes that a bilateral agreement between Kosovo and Croatia, similar to the ones Croatia has with Slovenia and North Macedonia, should be a proper framework how to deal with the property issues.

Barisic said that to her knowledge, there are no legal actions taken from Kosovo towards the five properties claimed to be in Croatia.

Former Yugoslav Republics also have claims of property rights in the territory of Kosovo.

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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