Mayor to Lift Lid on Kosovo Corruption

The western administrator of Pristina has caused a storm by threatening to publicise the names of officials involved in an epidemic of illegal house building.

Mayor to Lift Lid on Kosovo Corruption

The western administrator of Pristina has caused a storm by threatening to publicise the names of officials involved in an epidemic of illegal house building.

The international official heading the Pristina administration has alarmed Albanian colleagues by threatening to publish a list of politicians who built homes without planning permission or engaged in other forms of corruption.

Ivo Sanc, from the Czech Republic, last week announced he had "accurate and reliable information on corruption within the city municipality" and said an investigation was under way.

The gauntlet he has thrown down nettled the local administration, dominated by members of Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK. Berim Ramosaj, the Albanian leader of the city council and a LDK member, admitted individual cases of fraud but insisted it did not apply to the authority as a whole.

Corruption over building permits is nothing new in Kosovo. Illegal construction was widespread in Pristina long before the international community deployed in the region three years ago, after Serb forces were forced out.

But the problem has visibly got worse, largely because of a huge influx of people from the countryside. The city housed about 250,000 before the 1999 conflict. The population has now soared to half a million, causing an accommodation crisis.

Illegal house construction is not the only problem. Large-scale immigration has had a knock-on effect on all local utilities. The demand for electricity has jumped and drinking water is in short supply. About 150,000 cars clog roads designed for far less traffic, leading to gridlock.

Pollution is severe. The city's sanitation infrastructure was unprepared for such an influx, as a result of which Pristina is coated in outpourings from the nearby power station, which releases up to 20 tonnes of dust a day - 70 per cent more than is allowed.

The burden of solving all these problems falls on the local authority. The international personnel are there to monitor or correct the council's decisions. The western administrator can veto them but rarely does so.

Since 2000, local building inspectors have noted some 4,000 buildings without planning permission. There are suspicions that many were built after the owners bribed municipal officials not to interfere. Others lack permits because their applications were not processed properly.

One illegal builder, Enver Sadiku, an electrical power worker, said he went ahead without a permit because the delays were too long. "The municipality is inefficient," he said. "I waited a whole year for a permit and when I saw everyone else building without one, I decided to do the same".

Sanc said unauthorised use of government properties was a particular problem and that Ramosaj had failed to give him a list of appropriated premises. Naser Krasniqi, an official dealing with municipal property, estimated that about 10,000 buildings had been illegally occupied, though most had not been built on.

Little effort has been made to stop the rot. Sanc has already complained of a widespread nepotism in the municipal administration. A report on illegal construction in the Pristina daily Koha Ditore revealed that Nebih Zariqi, a deputy leader of the municipality, co-owned a building company that had put up an illegal extension. But more mundane factors also play a part. The local administration is short of staff and low salaries encourage a culture of bribery and corruption.

Although city officials have warned they will demolish illegal buildings, few take the threat seriously. The authorities seem hardly likely to flatten 4,000 properties in a municipality where housing is in such short supply. The council has, in fact, obtained demolition equipment. But the machinery has a habit of breaking down when used - which is not often. Only 30 buildings have been levelled so far.

Given the fact that wholesale demolition is unfeasible, the council is considering alternative strategies. One is to impose a tax on buildings erected without a permit on privately-held land, and to only get rid of structures built on state property.

In the meantime, Sanc and the local council trade accusations about who is to blame. The former wants more qualified professionals to join the administration. "I know people at Pristina University and within many companies who could help solve the municipality's problems," he said, "but they don't like the politics and will not take part in the existing structures."

He said council inertia was also to blame for lack of foreign investment, "Nothing is being achieved because of the municipality's lack of interest."

So far, the local government has blamed all its problems and shortcomings on the legacy of the 1999 conflict. But this may not work for much longer. The ball is in Mayor Sanc's court and his list of fraudulent officials is awaited with great interest. Ordinary people hope the city's widespread corruption, rising crime, illegal building and general air of chaos will be tackled at last.

Nehat Islami is IWPR project manager in Pristina

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