Kosovo's Secret DealsThe lure of quick profits in post-war Kosovo is proving stronger than ethnic divisions.
By Raza Hasani
Serbian and Albanian businessmen in Kosovo are trading clandestinely, despite the risk of severe punishment.
And nationalist Albanians snapping up Serbian property for half the market value say it is one way of ensuring that their former neighbours have no reason to return to the war-torn province.
"Trade contacts [with Serbs] continue as before," said an Albanian businessman from Podujevo, near the border with Serbia proper. "I'm still dealing in the same kind of goods: television sets, refrigerators and computers."
In recent months, the village of Merdar, close to Podujevo, has become a fertile trading ground for Serbs and Albanians dealing in houses, apartments, land and shops.
Small groups of traders congregate daily. Albanians are approached by Albanian-speaking Serbs, eager to hide their ethnic identity.
The deals are conducted in a furtive atmosphere, with both sides concerned they may be spotted by members of their own community. They risk having their wares confiscated if their clandestine meetings are reported to their respective leaderships.
Before the war, Kosovo's economy depended on largely illicit trade with Serb businessmen working as middlemen between the authorities in Belgrade and the Albanian commercial sector.
The Yugoslav state had been exerting economic and political pressure on Pristina and therefore could not be seen to be dealing directly with Albanian enterprises in the province. But open trade between the two would have been unlikely anyway because of Kosovo's black-market economy.
Throughout the years of political crisis, Serb middlemen provided their Albanian business partners with everything from petrol to flour and milk. Their partnership became very lucrative and close.
When war broke out, many Albanian traders were either killed or forced to flee by the Kosovo Liberation Army who regarded them as traitors. The commercial supply line was broken, but there's now evidence of the tentative steps to repair it.
One young Albanian waiting for a delivery at Merdar commented, "We have to live and support ourselves and that's the reason we have resumed co-operation with Serb businessmen."
Commercial rivalry among Albanians appears to be increasing as the illicit border trade gains momentum. "Profits are low because there is so much competition among Albanians all around Kosovo," said Shemsi, a businessman from Ferizaj.
Trade in consumer goods remains well below its pre-war levels, but the traffic is significant as Serbian products are again filling the shelves of shops in many Kosovo towns.
This line of business, however, is dwarfed by the biggest growth industry in the province - property. Serbs, who are unable to return to Kosovo for fear of reprisals, sell property and land to Albanians at knock-down prices. The buyers can often double their money when they sell on the houses.
"Why shouldn't we buy apartments off the Serbs?" said Shemshi. "A two-or three-room apartment, even in the centre of Pristina, costs between 20,000 and 30,000 German marks. Can you imagine how much I can sell it on for afterwards?"
But he adds, "Don't think for a moment that we have forgotten what the Serbs did to us. It's all the more reason for us to buy up their apartments - to ensure they'll never have any reason to return to Kosovo."
This hard-line attitude is by no means the rule, however. Some Albanians, like Muhamet from Pristina, are still looking after properties for absent Serbian neighbours.
Muhamet said he had promised to mind an apartment for a Serbian friend who had abandoned the region after the war. In return, the friend lets Muhamet lease his shop premises in Kosovo rent-free.
The owner's daughter regularly visited the Pristina apartment because she had a good knowledge of Albanian and was not easily identifiable as a Serb.
But Muhamet says he will buy the apartment if the family does not return next year and believes the price will be well below the market value, "Plenty of Albanians have tried to break into the house and steal things, knowing that the owners were no longer in Pristina. But I drove them away, as if it were my own house."