Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Smugglers Making Small Fortunes

For jobless men in Raska, the trade in contraband goods across the border between Serbia and Kosovo is a lifeline.
By Prvoslav Karanovic

On the lower slopes of Kopaonik Mountain, Serbia’s greatest tourist attraction, the administrative border between Kosovo and Serbia snakes its path, invisible to the eyes of most visitors.

What is equally invisible are the industrious and well-organised parties of smugglers who make small fortunes from moving goods and livestock across the frontier in defiance of both the Serbian authorities and the international authorities patrolling Kosovo.

“We smuggle sugar, motor oil, chicken drumsticks and household appliances from Kosovo to Serbia,”said 26-year-old Milan, an officially unemployed man from the nearby town of Raska who in fact lives off smuggling. “Livestock, beer, chocolate and food go in the opposite direction.”

The direction of the trade is dictated by the difference in price of various goods on either side of the border.

Chicken drumsticks are plentiful in Kosovo and cheaper there than in Serbia. With chocolate and beer it is the opposite – and selling them in Kosovo without paying customs taxes on the border brings smugglers instant profits.

According to Milan - not his real name - the goods are loaded into vehicles in inaccessible areas, the vehicle of choice being Russian Ladas, “as these cars can carry quite a load”.

Smaller goods are taken over the hills on the border by car and then by foot, while bulkier material goes by tractor. Other goods are smuggled in by trucks on the official border checkpoint. These are mostly sugar and cigarettes.

That so many young men in the Raska area have turned to smuggling for a livelihood is not surprising.

The local economy in the town of 10,000 - the municipality has a population of about 27,000 - is in ruins.

Local state companies, such as the Kragujevac-based car manufacturer, Zastava, the mining company Suva ruda, Progres, which deals in metallurgy, and Etex, a plastics manufacturer, each of which once employed a thousand local workers, have folded.

Municipal statistical office figures show that 4,500 - almost a third - of the 17,000-strong workforce in Raska is officially jobless.

Another 430 face the prospect of losing their jobs imminently, as their companies have also gone bankrupt.

Milan is one of many men in Raska who took things into their own hands, and - rather than waiting for the government to come up with a solution - have joined what he called “the border ants” of smugglers.

“We prepare everything to cross the border at 7 am because it’s the start of the shift for the police officers, when they come to the checkpoints,” said Milan. “This is the time when it is safest to across.”

The “border ants” send an empty car, known as a “cleaner”, ahead, while the loaded vehicle follows some distance behind, giving the cleaner time to warn them of an ambush. The cleaners get ten euro plus fuel expenses.

The smugglers also post a scout in a strategic position on the frontier several hours before the vehicle crosses, to monitor police movements and report back anything suspicious. The scout also gets ten euro.

The myth holds that smugglers work mostly at night, but according to Milan this is nonsense.

“It’s far more difficult to work at night than day,” he said. “We have to be very careful after dark because we’re driving without headlights through woods, fields, meadows and over rocks.”

According to Milan, the smugglers make use of an extensive network of old, disused roads leading through the woods on the border and fanning out into different directions.

The first runs through the village of Rudnica, the entry point for Kopaonik Mountain, and is used to reach Nis and southern Serbia. The second goes through the village of Gnjilica and leads to Kraljevo, Cacak, Gornji Milanovac, central Serbia and Belgrade. The third passes through the village of Batnjik, leading to the Sandzak region and western Serbia.

One reason why the authorities in Raska have failed to curb this contraband trade is that – according to Milan – they are often deeply involved in it.

“We are just small fry in this,” said Milan. “The police run the whole show. They smuggle truckloads of goods across the border. People say it’s better to be a border policeman than a minister in the government.”

The police deny this claim. The police station in Kraljevo, which covers the Sandzak area, told IWPR they were investigating allegations that officers are involved in border smuggling. “There's no proof of any of this until now, but everything has been done to stop illegal trading,” a spokeswoman said.

“But we are checking into all the claims we have received, even anonymous ones.”

However, one serving policeman in Raska, who preferred to remain anonymous, told IWPR that claims of corruption among the border police were well founded.

“The fact is that the border zone is like Sicily, and the police checkpoint is like Palermo,” he added, referring to Italy’s proverbially corrupt deep south.

This policeman said that with police salaries so low – the average monthly salary is between 300 and 350 euro – it was not surprising that officers were tempted to access some of the spoils available to smugglers.

“While I play hide and seek with small smugglers, they are hatching deals with the big smugglers passing through the checkpoints in their trucks,” he complained.

On the Kosovo side of the border, IWPR found no one who was willing to say anything on the subject of smuggling. At the Kosovo customs checkpoint, a UN policeman with a Bulgarian flag on his sleeve referred us to the headquarters of the Kosovo customs service.

There, a woman said she could not comment on smuggling because she had started working only days before. “I'm not competent to tell you anything,” she said.

Rade Drmanac, a local economist in Raska, said the grey economy and the smuggling trade had grown out of the circumstances of the war in Kosovo and the establishment of a UN protectorate.

“The introduction of the international protectorate in 1999 created the conditions for an illicit trade in goods,” he explained.

“Many people then became involved in the grey economy, earning their living by smuggling goods from Kosovo such as cigarettes and technical goods.

“Most of the smuggled goods were carried over the hills in motorcycles, tractors and even horse-drawn carts. They use mobile phones to avoid police ambushes.”

According to Drmanac, the marked difference in price between various goods in Kosovo and Serbia created a big incentive for smugglers to do their work; technical goods, for example, were cheaper in Kosovo than in Serbia owing to the lower customs duties introduced by the international administration.

The other incentive for the smugglers, he said, was the dire economic situation in the Raska area, “Economic activity in Raska has been reduced to a minimum. Except for the quarry, almost nothing else is up and running.”

Lazar Paunovic, local chair of the Christian Democrat Party, a well-known opponent of corruption, told IWPR the current situation in this small border town infuriated him.

“Honest people in this area are relying on food and firewood from their neighbours and are living on debts and unpaid cheques,” he said.

“At the same time, a class of ‘new rich’ in the town have struck gold by smuggling drugs, cigarettes, weapons and so forth. How otherwise can anyone explain their getting rich in such a short time?”

Paunovic said that owing to the incompetence and inefficiency of both the local authorities and the police, the situation in this community was deteriorating.

When asked to comment on this issue, most people in Raska just shake their heads. They are divided between those who admire the smugglers' exploits and those who despise them.

Some, like Mila, who lives off a hundred euro a month, understands the “border ants”.

“If I was younger I'd do anything to get money for my family,” she said, “People find it hard to live and have to find a way to feed their children.”

The minority who are doing well are less approving. Jovo, a private businessman, says smuggling cannot be justified.

“Those people should be in prison,” he said. “I pay all my taxes and they don't pay anything to anyone. I have a large outgoings and I can hardly make ends meet. ”

Prvoslav Karanovic took part in an IWPR journalism training programme funded by the OSCE in Belgrade.

More IWPR's Global Voices