Trepca: Making Sense of the Labyrinth
Trepca: Making Sense of the Labyrinth
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
The best deal Kosovo and Serbia can get
Report / Europe & Central Asia 5 minutes

Trepca: Making Sense of the Labyrinth

The enterprise known as Trepca is a sprawling conglomerate of some 40 mines and factories, located mostly in Kosovo but also in other locations in Serbia and Montenegro.

Executive Summary

The enterprise known as Trepca[fn]Written ‘Trepçë’ by Albanians and ‘Trepča’ by Serbs.  This report omits either accent, in order not to have to use both.  Similarly ‘Zvecan’ is used to represent the Serbian ‘Zvečan’ and Albanian ‘Zveçan’. And the term ‘Kosovo’ is used in deference to normal international usage, to avoid excessive use of ‘Kosovo/a’ or of the ugly neologism ‘Kosov@’.Hide Footnote  is a sprawling conglomerate of some 40 mines and factories, located mostly in Kosovo but also in other locations in Serbia and Montenegro.   Its activities include chemical processing and production of goods as varied as batteries and paint.  But the heart of its operations, and the source of most of its raw material, is the vast mining complex to the east of Mitrovicë/a in the north of Kosovo, famous since Roman times.  This report examines the current position of the mines, together with the associated smelting complex at nearby Zvecan.

The future of Trepca cuts to the heart of the Kosovars' identity.  Its great mineral wealth is the basis of the economy of Kosovo, but the complex is badly run-down as a result of under-investment and over-exploitation by governments in Belgrade.  Trepca figured largely among the issues over which Albanians took to the streets in 1988/9, and the issue of control over the mines has assumed tremendous symbolic importance. Trepca, as one circumspect Kosovar observed, is Kosovo's Berlin Wall.  It has long stood for Kosovar Albanians as the symbol of Serbian oppression and of their own resistance.

After 1974, when Tito's new constitution accorded the province near-republic status, with its own parliament and courts, Kosovars enjoyed a period of greatly increased control over their own resources.  Finally able to manage the Trepca facilities themselves, Kosovars used their enhanced authority to build factories in Kosovo that capitalised on their mineral production, created thousands of jobs, and brought some real income into the province.

After Tito's death, Kosovars pressed again for more rights and greater political and economic autonomy, but with little success.  Belgrade reasserted control of the mines, and in 1981-82, a sort of "Trepca-gate" scandal – in which Kosovar Albanian workers were accused of having stolen vast quantities of gold and silver – was the pretext for firing many engineers and technicians. 

From 1981-89, Belgrade monopolised the export of Trepca's minerals to Russia and elsewhere, reaping the profits in hard currency and oil, while compensating the Kosovars only with electricity and other non-fungible forms of payment.  This discriminatory compensation scheme was aggravated by the high inflation of the 1980s.  Trepca's Kosovar management attempted to sell its products on the European market and to modernise the facilities' modes of production, only to be foiled time and again by the Serbian government, which was in the process of "integrating" Serbia's economy – that is, of tethering all economic sectors even more closely to Belgrade.  By the late 1980s, with the final integration into the Serbian system of the power generating system, Kosovars had lost virtually all control over their economy, as they would over their politics and civic freedoms.[fn]ICG interview Prishtinë/Priština, Mitrovicë/a November 1999.Hide Footnote

In 1988-89 the Albanian management and workers were summarily expelled from Trepca.  The mineworkers' union organised a winter march to Prishtinë/Priština in November 1988, followed by other marches of support within Kosovo.  In February 1989 there was a hunger strike, many miners and directors were arrested and imprisoned for up to 14 months.  These events are remembered and romanticised by young and old as Kosovo's own Solidarity movement - the earliest, sustained resistance to Serbian oppression under Slobodan Milošević.[fn]Noel Malcolm, ‘Kosovo A Short History’, pg.343 and ICG interviews Prishtine/Pristina November 1999.Hide Footnote

During the first half of the 1990s Belgrade managed to keep up only a small percentage of Trepca's production, due to lack of ongoing investment in machinery, poor maintenance and the dismissal in 1989 of experienced Albanian staff.[fn]Vesna Peric-Zimonjic “Kosovo’s Economy Myths and Poverty” Interpress Service 28 May 1998 and ICG interviews Prishtinë/Priština and Mitrovicë/a November 1999.Hide Footnote The management attempted to replace this expertise with guest miners from Serbia and Poland.[fn]The Polish firm Kopeks was contracted by Trepca to mine 20,000 tonnes of lead and zinc ore monthly. and ICG interviews Prishtinë/ Priština November 1999.Hide Footnote  All the production plants closed.  After nearly three years of economic sanctions instituted as punishment for its role in the Bosnian war, Belgrade was looking for ways to acquire large injections of cash.  Exploiting Trepca seemed a likely option.  In February 1995, new management was installed, and a 'program of revitalization' was undertaken.  The new team claimed that by the end of 1996 all the production plants were back into operation, ore excavation had increased, modern mining equipment had been purchased from Sweden, and all the lead and zinc mines in Serbia and Montenegro had been brought under the management of the Trepca company.  Again according to Serbian official sources, in 1996 Trepca had exported $100 million of products, making it the largest exporting company in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.[fn]Serbia Today 6 January 1997.  All of these production claims are disputed by knowledgeable Kosovars who had been watching closely activity at the Trepca facilities.  This is backed up by the visible deterioration of the sites themselves.Hide Footnote  Belgrade even planned to bring mineral concentrates from the Bosnian Serb controlled mine in Srebrenica, site of the notorious massacre by Serb forces in July 1995.[fn]Tanjug from BBC Monitoring Service 19 December 1996.  Srebrenica has long been known for the high quantity of silver in its ore concentrate.Hide Footnote

The problems of Trepca are many and complex. They include its alleged liabilities, the question who really owns it and who has been profiting from it, the deteriorating condition of its antiquated machinery, its anachronistically oversized workforce, the scant field of prospective investors, the disastrous environmental impact of the Zvecan smelter, and internal Kosovo politics.

Even so, it is critical that at least some aspects of the Trepca issue be addressed immediately and not await the resolution of the entire nexus of problems.  Most urgently, because of its importance to Belgrade, Trepca figures centrally in the unresolved security situation in Mitrovicë/a and in its current status as a divided city.  At least some of the talk of a partition of Kosovo arises from the knowledge that control of Trepca makes a vast difference to the territory’s economic prospects.  Reports of Serbian police in and around Zvecan, of Serb looting, rumours even of Albanian prisoners being held there – all point to a need for immediate international action.[fn]ICG interviews Prishtinë/Priština and Mitrovicë/a November 1999, and Dejan Anastasijević, “Mostar on the Ibar”, Vreme, Belgrade, FR Yugoslavia, 28 August 1999, and KFOR Cimic Sit-Reps of 22-23 October 1999.Hide Footnote

It is also urgent that the people of Kosovo begin to see signs of progress towards some sort of economic normality.  The return to work of even a few hundred Kosovar miners would represent, for all Kosovars, the reclaiming of their patrimony.  A timely, if temporary, step forward on the issue of Trepca by UNMIK and KFOR would demonstrate to the Kosovars that the international community appreciates Trepca's symbolic importance and Kosovars' need and wish to get back to work and to regain some control over their lives.

Washington/ Priština, 26 November 1999

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