Kosovo: Buffer Zone Smuggling Thrives

Border region has become haven for illegal traders defrauding the province of valuable tax revenue.

Kosovo: Buffer Zone Smuggling Thrives

Border region has become haven for illegal traders defrauding the province of valuable tax revenue.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Petrol smuggling in the frontier buffer zone is as rampant as ever months after Kosovo’s international administrator pledged to crack down on the illicit trade.

Criminals have taken taking advantage of the so-called Ground Safety Zone, which NATO set up between Kosovo and Yugoslavia after it seized control of the province from Slobodan Milosevic in 1999.

The traders who sell goods in the 5km-wide no-man’s land avoid paying taxes, thus drawing customers away from legal enterprises and starving the province’s administration of much needed tax revenues.

Dozens of petrol stations operate in the Ground Safety Zone between Kosovo and Montenegro, advertising diesel for 40 cents a litre and petrol for 50 cents, at least 30 cents below prices in Kosovo.

The cheap prices draw lines of cars from Kosovo. No one stops the traders. UN police are not even allowed into the zone. Patrolled only by lightly-armed Montenegrin police, it has become a smugglers’ paradise.

After visiting the area three months ago, Kosovo’s chief administrator, Michael Steiner, was quoted as saying the illegal petrol stations were “harming Kosovo’s and Montenegro’s budgets. We have said we will fight smuggling and we will do that here”.

On entering the zone, this reporter saw lines of trucks being unloaded. The goods were being removed and put on horses, which would transport them into Kosovo by night. A Montenegrin police car with two officers was parked beside one of the petrol stations.

Crossing back into Kosovo, the local police checked our papers but not the car. Several jerry cans stood in front of the border post, apparently confiscated contraband.

Many people smuggle fuel into Kosovo from the buffer zone in containers concealed in vehicles. Others traffick cigarettes, cooking oil, beer, and other goods by car or horse.

Another ruse involves funneling fuel through hosepipes from Montenegro into Kosovo through the zone at night. “We have stopped many of them but it is still going on,” Munaver Sultan of Kosovo’s finance ministry admitted.

Telltale signs of night-time smuggling are easy to spot. Not far from the border, I spotted several cans of cooking oil and beer, as well as cigarette cartons.

Two kilometers from the frontier in the Kosovo village of Jablanica, villagers were preparing horses. A young boy passed my car with three, while another two horses grazed close by.

The villagers said poverty forced them into smuggling. “They walk four to five hours just to make some money. They are poor,” said Hasan Mucaj, 60, from Jablanica. “Most smuggle cigarettes, which are taken to Peja or Istog and distributed all over Kosovo. The police arrest people but it still goes on.”

International officials are sheepish about the contraband business raging under their noses. “We have information about the illegal trade in the neutral zone,” said Bengt Wrannerhen, deputy commander of the international border police. “We would like to do more but we are not allowed into the zone. Only KFOR may enter, not UNMIK police. We know there are many gas stations over there.”

KFOR insists it is doing what it can to stop the trade. “We have set up mobile patrols in the area to stop smuggling,” said its spokesman Anthony Adams. “Those teams are patrolling the area. We can’t be everywhere all the time but one of our priorities is to fight smuggling in Kosovo.”

That night, I returned to the neutral zone. A policewoman stopped my vehicle at the border but did not check my papers. Inside the zone, numerous trucks, fuel tankers and cars were parked on both sides of the road and goods were being exchanged. People stood around, some talking to each other - others counting money.

On the way back to Kosovo, the policeman only checked my vehicle. “If I had known they would not check the car, I would have taken some cigarettes,” my driver joked.

Fatos Bytyci is a journalist with Kosovo Radio Television, RTK.

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