Kosovo snips another cord

So Kosovo just turned off the remaining Serbian mobile phone towers:

The Kosovo Albanian authorities in PriÅ¡tina removed the equipment of all Belgrade-based mobile and landline operators this morning…

Eyewitnesses, who secured the premises, said that “special police” broke into Telekom, Telenor and VIP structures to help cut off cables and take down equipment, at around 05:00 CET.

Eyewitnesses said that workers of a “telecommunications regulatory body” from PriÅ¡tina removed transmitters and randomly severed cables.

As a consequence, 40,000 Serbs are either left without mobile service in that part of the province, or have very poor reception.

A little background. Before 1999, Kosovo was covered by Serbian mobile phone networks. Since 1999, it’s developed its own — three of them. But the Serbian networks have continued to operate towers and provide mobile telephony. Unsurprisingly, most of the users have been Kosovar Serbs in the enclaves. Meanwhile the Kosovar Albanians have been buying chips and service contracts from the three Kosovar networks.

If this sort of thing interests you, there’s more.

Back when UNMIK was running Kosovo, they quite deliberately refused to sit in judgment on the whole mobile telephone issue. UNMIK set up KTA, the Kosovo Telecommunications Authority, the “telecommunications regulatory body” mentioned up above, to run telecommunications in Kosovo. But they discouraged KTA from moving against the Serb towers and networks in the enclaves. But Kosovo declared itself independent two years ago, and they’re finally getting around to pulling the plug on the the Serbian providers.

The Serbs, of course, see this as an attack on the Serbs. Even the relatively liberal B92 site is doing stuff like putting “telecommunications regulatory body” in scare quotes — which is silly, since KTA was created and empowered by UNMIK pursuant to Resolution 1244, which is the basis of current Serbian claims to authority in Kosovo. That said, it’s true that this affects the Serb community disproportionately; while not all of the people holding Serb mobiles are Serbs, most Serbs that have mobiles have Serbian ones.

The Kosovar Albanians point out that the Serb providers don’t have licenses. More to the point, they’ve never paid a cent of VAT or licensing fees. Why, they ask, should any country tolerate unauthorized providers, competing unfairly with the properly licensed ones that have to pay taxes and all?

That said, there are some interesting wrinkles to this this story. Here’s one that neither side is emphasizing: a surprising number of Albanians also have Serbian mobile phones. In the past, this was because Serb mobile phones were cheaper and provided better service. In recent years, Kosovar mobile phone service has gotten a lot better. (Long story. Short version: better regulation, some real competition.) But Serbian mobile phones are still attractive to Albanians who do business with Serbia. And that’s a fairly large group. If you include black- and grey-market trade, Serbia is Kosovo’s largest trading partner, although neither is eager to advertise the fact.

Another wrinkle: the biggest Kosovar mobile provider — PTK, Post and Telecoms of Kosovo, the state-owned telecom, which owns Vala Mobile — is getting ready for privatization. And PTK has been complaining about the Serbian providers for years; they’re competing directly with them, without paying fees or taxes. So, it’s possible that the privatization may have pushed PTK to push KTA to pull the plug.

But it was going to happen eventually anyway. In fact, it’s rather surprising it didn’t happen already. There are some interesting theories about that, including the fact that it will temporarily inconvenience a lot of Kosovar businessmen — again, lots of people do business with Serbia — and at least a couple of fairly major figures who have been quietly selling Serbian mobile chips and accounts.

In any event, it’s done now, and is very unlikely to be reversed.

That said, it does demonstrate — once again — how far apart Belgrade and Prishtina are. This is the sort of issue that could have been quietly resolved with just a little goodwill on both sides. Instead the Serbs refused to recognize KTA’s authority to regulate telecoms in Kosovo, and KTA simply pulled the plug. And tens of thousands of people, both Serbs and Albanians, are now stuck with mobiles that don’t work.

Oh, they can go and buy new chips from Kosovar providers. For most, it’s a hassle rather than a disaster. But it’s a wasteful and unnecessary hassle.

[Two updates a few days later. First, Post Telecom of Kosovo says that it has supplied more than 2,500 sim cards to Serb enclaves for free and that it is working to offer affordable prices between its Vala network and telephone numbers in Serbia.

[Second, Serbia claims that mobile service has been restored in many regions, and a number of reports confirm this. How they’re doing this is unclear. Towers broadcasting from over the border? I’m not an engineer. Anyone who knows more is welcome to comment.]

24 thoughts on “Kosovo snips another cord

  1. But it’s a wasteful and unnecessary hassle.

    It sounds like less of a waste and hassle than getting phone service in the U.S. back in the AT&T days. Or buying alcohol in Pennsylvania right now. I can think of a great many local political leaders who’d do much worse things to local, same-ethnicity businessmen for much less money than you’d get from a typical European-level VAT on mobile phones.

  2. Wasteful and unnecessary? It´s a legal obligation to the existing operators. When the legit operators bought their license, they were told they were the first, second, third operator. Anything else and they should be given the money back.

    Of course Serbia will create some short-term drama. First, it gets attention. Second, a lot of cash will be lost, but not as much as Doug makes it be. How many Kosovar businessmen doing work with Serbia could there really be?

  3. Doug, a well-informed post as usual.

    May I just add a point or two.

    B92 long ceased being anything close to ‘liberal.’ At times they even use quotation marks for Kosovo itself, I recall something along the lines of “New Zealand recognizes ‘Kosovo’.” In any case, whether you believe in UN Res 1244 or the Republic of Kosova (or both, haha!), the KTA is the sole telecommunication authority in Kosovo. The problem lies with the fact that whenever it suits Belgrade they play UN Res 1244 card and when it doesn’t they go quiet. See, for instance, UNMIK based on UN Res 1244 started issuing Kosovar residents UN travel documents but they were not accepted by Serbia. What happened to the respect of UN Res 1244 there?

    True, when Serbia lost the Kosovo war and UN took over the administration of the territory one Serbian mobile operator existed in Kosovo, Mobtel. However, while the UN was running Kosovo new Serbian operators were entering the Kosovo market with no licences, no taxation, no legal grounds. The other operators, except Mobtel (now Telenor Srbija), have absolutely no ground for existing in Kosovo.

    Telenor should have approached the Kosovar authorities (KTA in this case) and asked them to agree to the original 20-year or whatever license Mobtel had when it started operating in Kosovo prior to the Kosovo war. This would have been probably valid until 2016-2017. In return, they should have offered to pay all the taxation required by Kosovar law, i.e. VAT, corporate tax on profit and the rest but no licence fee. It could have been sorted easily with the establishment of Telenor Kosovo that would only cover the Telenor business in the Kosovar territory for those remaining 6-7 years. Other businesses like Telekom and ‘VIP’ or whatever have no grounds and there’s nothing to negotiate there.

    Finally, it may also be worth adding that no license was ever issued by the local municipal councils for these mobile towers. According to Kosovar law a building license is required and Kosovar operators need to apply to get these and pay for them a local tax. None of the Serbian mobile networks did any of this.

  4. Pingback: Kosovo snips another cord | afoe | A Fistful of Euros | European … | alba news

  5. Never seen a people so eager to blatantly lie and use propaganda as Serbs. And I mean it from the simple person, to monks to their PM, always lying and exaggerating: “Kids placed at mortal danger by unilateral cutting”, ‘Genocide against Serbs,’ and so on. Read the comments on B92 Servia, Blic and you laugh your @ss off.

    This shows how delusional they are, their media has made it like Kosovo will sit at the table, apologize for the crimes against Serbs, be part of Serbia again and everything will be normal again. There’s barely any mention of what Serbs did in Kosovo, just ‘crimes against Serbs,’ ‘attempted genocide’ and the likes.

    The blocking of Serbian products is the next shoe to drop, Serbs already block Kosovo’s so Kosovo will return the favor–$500 million a year favor.

  6. “The blocking of Serbian products is the next shoe to drop”

    Kosovo is rather heavily dependent on imports from Serbia. So, probably not.

    Doug M.

  7. Doug, you are dependent if you have no choice. The Albanian highway gives Kosova direct access to the sea and Croatia, Greece, Bulgaria, Fyrom…and Slovenia are ready to step in and replace the Serbian diapers, cookies, juice and other daily stuff. It may cost e penny more here and there but for Kosovo to send money to help Serbia fight Kosovo isn’t smart.

    This will be Serbia total loss as Kosova is already blocked by Serbia, 100%. The pocket hurts, especially during these crises. Imagine how many Serbs might need to be laid off as sales drop by hundreds of millions a year?

  8. The Albanian highway will help. But it still won’t make it possible for Kosovo to boycott Serbian goods without suffering severe economic disruption. There is no sign of any Kosovo government having the will for this.

    (Nor, for that matter, Kosovar consumers. You hear occasional grumbles, but at the end of the day everyone buys the cheaper diapers.)

    I note in passing that there are some fairly powerful interests inside Kosovo who are profiting from the current status quo. So.

    Doug M.

  9. Doug, they actually announced a 30 day warning for business people to start making alternative contracts but rumor was that EU /EULEX told them no to. That was about a year ago and ‘negotiations’ haven’t gone anywhere.

    Bottom line, despite the disruption once the green light is given by the west it will happen, and that will get Serbia’s attention. In addition to the Serbian and Bosnian market loss, those few Kosova products face higher shipping rates due to Serbia’s blockade and Serbia has no reason to negotiate. It can’t go on forever.

    Cutting the wires in hours was a huge disruption too, by all accounts more Albanians used them than Serbs, yet in one day 200,000 accounts went dead. That’s a pretty big disruption but got Serbia’s attention (at ~20 EURO a month it’s nothing to laugh at). Now Serbia is warning that the North ‘might’ reciprocate and ‘make the divide even greater’ unless the cell towers are restored in 7 days.

    Maybe this was the plan who knows, one way or another it must be solved.

  10. I have yet to read somewhere how this will change life for the Serbs in Kosovo. Their phone bill will become a lot higher when their calls to family in Serbia are billed as international calls. And as Kosovo has banished its Serb population into rural enclaves where their is hardly a possibility to make money many families do have relatives in Serbia.

    I think this issue is about more than ethnic pride and that the Serbs do have a point when they see this as an indirect effort to press Kosovo’s Serbs to leave.

  11. If the Serbs allow this to happen this will very likely face similar pressure on other areas too. For example, they might see their schools shut for months, just as happened in the past with Gorani schools that follow the Serbian curriculum.

  12. “Their phone bill will become a lot higher when their calls to family in Serbia are billed as international calls.”

    That’s true, and it’s a fair point.

    If Serbian and Kosovar institutions could talk directly, the telecoms regulators could negotiate lower fees. This has happened in other countries where there’s heavy cross-border traffic. But it’s unlikely to happen here any time soon.

    For that matter the Serbian telecoms regulator could unilaterally require that calls from Kosovo be treated as local calls, even if they’re coming from the Kosovar providers. N.B., this also is unlikely to happen.

    “If the Serbs allow this to happen”

    Umm. There’s not actually anything the Serbs can do about it.

    Doug M.

  13. “There’s not actually anything the Serbs can do about it.”

    That depends on the “international community”. If they give the Albanians the free hand I expect that that the majority of the remaining Serbs and other minorities will leave within a few years.

    As we have seen in the past (Operation Storm) the “international community” is not above ethnic cleansing when it comes to solving complicated ethnic problems. But the long term consequences would be bad, both to its reputation and as a precedent (during the Kosovo War Milosevic used the Operation Storm model in his treatment of the Albanians).

  14. “If they give the Albanians the free hand I expect that that the majority of the remaining Serbs and other minorities will leave within a few years.”

    Wim, no offense, but you’ve been saying that for as long as I’ve been aware of you. (2007? 2006?) It’s always been, oh dear, if those dreadful Albanians are allowed free rein…

    Well, they’ve had pretty free rein for two years now. And the number of Serbs below the Ibar seems to have stayed pretty constant. Kosovo hasn’t had a proper census since forever, so it’s hard to say for sure. But there’s clearly been no large-scale exodus since the 2008 UDI.

    Doug M.

  15. Doug, You are creating a caricature out of me. I never said that all minorities would leave once Kosovo became independent. I always found that a stupid idea. People leave because of the circumstances, not because someone declared independence. But you will have to admit that since independence the position of the minorities didn’t improve either. They are still in the same marginal position where many leave for jobs or education in Serbia.

    I have always been in favor of independence for Kosovo. But I have also always been an opponent of unilateral independence. To me creating “facts on the ground” sounds like the mafia, not like how sound politics should be done. Supporting unilateral actions on one side inevitably leads to excesses on that side, usually with the resistance of the other side as an excuse. Kosovo has strong nationalist and criminal (aiming to occupy houses and lands) forces who would like to see all minorities leave. Only a true agreement will keep them in check.

  16. Wim, two minutes with your archives:

    “Kosovo’s government has consistently refused any type of territorial autonomy and there are many signals that they may try to Albanize the minority areas after independence. For example Northern Mitrovica would get new government offices that attract many Albanians, Leposavic will get hunderds of Albanian soldiers on its army base and Strpce will see its main employer privatised to an Albanian owner who will gradually fire the Serbs in order to employ Albanians.

    “Given the tense ethnic relations these policies would soon push the Serbs and other minorities to leave.”

    — or:

    “Kosovo is far from multi-ethnic. Except for Northern Mitrovica all cities have been totally cleansed of their Serbs. Most Serbs live either in Serb-only villages or in the north or Strpce where the Serbs dominate. In the few remaining mixed villages there are regularly incidents and the Serbs are slowly leaving. Kosovo’s government does nothing to improve this climate. Yet they claim to value a “multi-ethnic” Kosovo. In practice this means that they envie the relative safety of the Serbs in their enclaves and that they are determined to expose them to the intolerant climate that drove out the minorities from the rest of Kosovo.

    “It is a popular line of thinking that once Kosovo is independent the Albanians will become more tolerant towards the Serbs and other minorities. Serbs have largely stopped leaving Croatia after the war was settled, so why couldn’t something similar happen in Kosovo? The problem is that the expulsion of the Serbs in Kosovo is an old phenomena that predates the Milosevic rule (and caused it). And it has always been connected with criminal elements trying to get hold of the Serb possessions. As it is generally believed that many of Kosovo’s elite have personally profitted from appropriating Serb properties after the war and many (like Thaci and Haradinaj are also suspected of mafia ties) this situation may continue for a long time…”

    “Mafia dominance is bad news for minority rights. A mafia dominated Kosovo will break every promise it makes towards its minorities. There is money to be made with driving out minorities.”

    Caricature? As you like.

    Doug M.

  17. — Two recent news items.

    First, Post Telecom of Kosovo says that it has supplied more than 2,500 sim cards to Serb enclaves for free, and that it is working to offer affordable prices between its Vala network and telephone numbers in Serbia.

    Second, Serbia claims that mobile service has been restored in many regions, and a number of reports confirm this. How they’re doing this is unclear. Towers broadcasting from over the border? I’m not an engineer. Anyone who knows more is welcome to comment.

    Hm, better update the post.

    Doug M.

  18. B92 of today quotes Rada Trajkovic from Gracanica who says that phone services in central Kosovo are not restored and that minister Matic was wrong in stating that it was.

    Thank you for quoting my old posts. I think they are very up-to-date. I was sketching the most likely scenario of what would happen to the minorities once the Kosovo government took control of the Serb enclaves. Their was no rocket science in that as I was basically saying that – once they got the chance – they would do to the Serbs what they have been doing for the past decade to the Roma, Ashkeli and Gorani. Kosovo’s government wisely waited two years after its independence declaration in order to increase their chances of international recognition. But it looks that they now want to take control of the Serb areas too.

  19. “Thank you for quoting my old posts. I think they are very up-to-date.”

    I missed the part where the Kosovar government has moved to “Albanize the minority areas… and gradually fire the Serbs in order to employ Albanians.”

    Hey, here’s another:

    “Macedonias Albanians may now seem to resign in being part of Macedonia. But what happens when Kosovo’s status has been settled and there is now longer a need for all those unemployed fighters to stay home? They go to Macedonia, kill a few cops, the Macedonian police reacts and before you know it you have a polarisation were the Albanians are like one man behind separatist demands.”

    Yes! That’s exactly what’s been happening for the last two years…

    No, wait. Nothing remotely like that has happened.

    “B92 of today quotes Rada Trajkovic from Gracanica who says that phone services in central Kosovo are not restored and that minister Matic was wrong in stating that it was.”

    Partial restoration — sure enough, they’ve built a transmitter just over the border. Can’t reach southern Kosovo, but will serve several enclaves in the north.

    Doug M.

  20. “Albanize the minority areas”
    This applies mainly to northern Kosovo. It is still under Serb control, so you will have to wait a little longer… The Serbs elsewhere will gradually leave too, but unlike the north there is no special policy needed to achieve that.

    “gradually fire the Serbs in order to employ Albanians”
    This applies to Brezovica. Again, the circumstances are not yet there, but the Western policies still seem to make this the inevitable final outcome.

    I suppose you didn’t miss the recent weapon catch at the Macedonian border and the claim of some Albanian resistance group that they were involved. The Macedonian conflict certainly isn’t over yet.

  21. Doug, you wrote your “I was wrong” piece about Montenegro when it had been independent for some time. Why don’t you wait a little longer until the circumstances that I foretell to be disastrous (Albanian control of the north and privitisation of Brezovica) have been in place for a few years. That would be the time for me to write an “I was wrong”.

    In the mean time from the news today: “MACEDONIAN POLICE shot dead four gunmen yesterday near the border with Kosovo amid a crackdown on arms smuggling and rising ethnic tension in Macedonia.”.


  22. Yes, and this has led to an explosion of violence in the region!

    Oh, wait — no, it hasn’t.


    Note that it would have been impossible for Macedonia to find and remove those arms caches without some cooperation from the Kosovar authorities, their own ethnic Albanians, or both.

    Privatization: don’t squirm, please. You didn’t say “if this happens, things will be bad”. You said “this will happen, and that will cause bad things”. Leposavic /will/ get hundreds of Albanian soldiers on its army base, Strpce /will/ see its main employer privatised to an Albanian owner who will gradually fire the Serbs, etc.

    But none of those things have happened.

    Doug M.

  23. Doug, where do you see that cooperation of Kosovo with Macedonia? They got those weapon smugglers at the border and not because they were told about it by some Albanians. And they found the caches by checking the houses and other properties of the arrested smugglers. In fact Macedonia has been complaining that they have a whole list of wanted people who they know to be in Kosovo but who aren’t arrested. The nice words of Rexhepi in your article wont change that, allthough under pressure by both Macedonia and the internationals he will probably do something.

    My main point about the Ahtisaari Plan was that its restrictive way of describing minority rights offers big holes for targetted policies against specific groups. I offered an army base in Leposavic and privatisation of Strpce as examples. Instead the Kosovo government has chosen other policies that they believed more likely to be accepted by the internationals: blowing up telephone transmitters and forbiding minibusses. But instead of acknowledging that my forcast was right you defend those measures.

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