Saturday, December 02, 2006

INVESTIGATION: Ex-Serb Policemen Running Kosovo Passport Scam

While it is hard for most Kosovars to get papers to travel abroad, racketeers can solve everything for a fee.

By Krenar Gashi in Pristina and BIRN teams in Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro (Balkan Insight, 1 Dec 06)

For 300 euro I can get you all the documents in one day," said Sajo, a former policeman in Kosovo and now based in Rozaje, in Montenegro. "All at once - birth certificate, citizenship papers, ID and passport."

Sajo sells new identity papers to Kosovars. There are many like him in Montenegro and Kosovo, where a lucrative trade in falsely obtained passports and other documents is booming.


In an undercover investigation by BIRN, we can reveal the large amounts of money Kosovars routinely pay to people like Sajo to obtain new versions of the old Yugoslav passport.

Yugoslav documents are still valid in the region and indeed continue to be issued in Serbia, which has not yet updated its issuing authorities to take account of the dissolution of the former federation.

We examined the market that the racketeers have set up, posing as mediators between ordinary people and complex government institutions in the region and found out that the newly independent republic of Montenegro forms a vital link in the passport and document scam.

Most extraordinarily of all, we discovered that former policemen, like Sajo, are a crucial link in the chain.

Although Serbian law stipulates that people can only apply for documents in person, these mediators can, in fact, accomplish this task for other people.

They can also do it - as Sajo says - in the space of a day, even though Serbian regulations say at least one week is needed.

Balkan Insight approached Serbia's ministry of interior but they refused to comment on this matter.

KOSOVO - THE IDEAL MARKET

As former citizens of the old Yugoslav federation, Kosovo Albanians possessed Yugoslav ID cards and passports until 1999.

But as the conflict widened between the Serbian authorities and the guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army - and as hundreds of thousands of people fled or were expelled into neighbouring countries - the Serbian authorities confiscated most of their documents on the border.

In January 2001, UNMIK began to issue travel documents in its own name. Most states recognise and accept them with the accompanying visas, while two, Albania and Macedonia, do not require visas.

But UNMIK travel documents have not resolved the problem or destroyed the market in illegal documents.

Not all Kosovars possess UNMIK documents - or want them. Many Albanians prefer the old Yugoslav passports, as they entitle the bearers to enter several countries in the region without visas, such as Bulgaria, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Our first port of call in our investigation began in the ethnically mixed area - of Kosovo Polje, or Fushe Kosove, about three kilometres from Pristina.

Here we found a large queue of Albanians waiting outside a heavily guarded office called the Centre for Peace and Tolerance for new Yugoslav papers.

In fact, the centre is a passport and documentation centre - one of the few remnants of the former Serbian administration in central Kosovo, serving an area that contains several Serbian enclaves.

Serbia's ministry of the interior confirmed that many residents of central Kosovo, both Serbian and Albanian, make use of the centre to obtain documents.

A spokesman, Miodrag Jankovic, told the Kosovo daily, Koha Ditore, that from June 1999 until April 2006, it had received 179,409 applications for new passports and had issued 164,493.

But the centre cannot solve all the travel difficulties of Albanians throughout Kosovo.

It only handles applicants born in the Pristina region. The other municipal offices, known as SUPs (Secretariats of Internal Affairs) dealing with people born elsewhere, now no longer operate in Kosovo but in Serbia proper.

Pristina's SUP is now based in Nis, for example. The SUP for Mitrovica/e is in Kraljevo, that for Peja/Pec is in Kragujevac, Gjilan's/Gnjilane's is in Vranje, Ferizaj's/Urosevac's is in Leskovac, Gjakova's/Djakovica's is in Jagodina and Prizren's is in Krusevac.

Albanians from those regions must visit these towns in Serbia in person to apply for and collect documents.

They confront a Catch 22-style dilemma. Although they need to get to Serbia, many cannot, as the guards on the administrative border with Serbia do not recognise UNMIK travel documents.

To get papers they need someone else to fill in the forms and pick them up. This is where the mediators come in, for they have links with the SUP offices in Serbia. With their "cooperation" the whole tricky business can be resolved.

WORKING THEIR PITCH

The mediators can be found offering services to Albanians queuing outside the Kosovo Polje office, who don't have the time or the full set of documents to complete their business.

The run-down office, and the highly bureaucratic procedure, means even applicants with the correct papers face delays of weeks before receiving new passports. Many cannot wait that long.

We spotted one mediator touting for business within minutes of arriving at the office. "You don't have your birth certificate? They won't let you in without that," he told us.

The man offered to put us in touch with a connection in the nearby Serb enclave of Bernice, where he said the officials could get our documents in record time.

"If you go officially, it will take three or four weeks to get the documents but I can fix it in two or three days for 150 euro," he said.

After a little haggling, he reduced the fee to 130 euro - "his last offer," as he put it. He said the cost was dictated by the need to pay "secondary links" for their help.

The officers of the Kosovo Police Service, KPS, who patrol the Kosovo Polje passport office do not disturb the mediators. Nor do the UNMIK special police from Ukraine who are also on hand to keep order.

Legally, the mediators operate in a grey area. Veton Elshani, KPS spokesperson, told Balkan Insight that police are obliged to arrest any persons engaged in smuggling false passports.

"We had a case this year when some people were caught with false Austrian passports... and these people went to jail," he said. "Anybody who engages in this activity for profit is committing a crime."

But it is less easy to apprehend or convict people involved in the obtaining lawful passports from proper issuing authorities, although the means by which they are obtained is illegal.

Blerim Ejupi, a lawyer in Pristina, said one of the problems in Kosovo was the unclear status of the entire legal code.

"Under UNMIK regulations Serbian laws that came to power after 1989 are not applicable in Kosovo, so the KPS, as a Kosovo institution, is not obliged to enforce all Serbian law," he said.

But he said this was no excuse for not tackling the mediators. "The trade in Yugoslav passports in Kosovo is an illegal activity, according to Kosovo's [current] law," he concluded.

The mediators are aware of this and are reluctant to give out real names or telephone numbers.

"Give me your number and I'll give you a call. I know a guy who knows a guy that could help you," one mediator named Sami told us.

We contacted him as an experiment and asked him to arrange a Yugoslav passport for "one of our friends" from Albania who has no Yugoslav documents.

"This guy I know fixes everything," Sami replied, putting a small piece of paper with our number in his wallet. "But for this stuff you may want to try somebody in Montenegro."


WELCOME TO MONTENEGRO

The newly independent republic of Montenegro forms a vital link in the passport and document scam.

The centre of activity is Rozaje, a multi-ethnic town with a small Albanian community about 10 km west of the Kula border crossing.

Rozaje has long functioned as a discreet meeting place for Kosovo Serbs and Albanians. "At least half the deals to do with selling and buying Kosovo property after 1999 were closed here," a waiter told us.

After the UN took over Kosovo, many Serbs sold their property to Albanians, conducting the trade mostly in Montenegro, in places like Rozaje, as it was neutral ground.

Since then, Rozaje has kept its role as a place where deals concerning Kosovo can be done and where mediators can forge useful contacts with former policemen who have kept their connections with the SUP offices.

At a busy café, near the bus station, one waiter seemed unsurprised when we asked him about obtaining new passports.

He offered to introduce us to a former Kosovo policeman who had worked a patch in the cafe for a while. "He would sit at the corner and wait for his clients," said the waiter.

After Sajo, the former policeman, got into a dispute with the café owner, he moved his business elsewhere. The waiter wrote down his phone number. "Sajo has good connections in the police - he's been in this business for four years," explained the waiter.

When we met Sajo in a nearby pizzeria, he confirmed he had worked in Vucitrn, in Kosovo, for nine years until June 1999, when the Serbian regime pulled out. He left, too.

Since then Sajo had been a civilian but he had maintained ties with former colleagues still working in the police forces of Serbia and Montenegro.

"My connections with my former colleagues are the only good thing I got from my previous job," he said.

"I have many friends who work directly in Kosovo. They move there freely. It's not risky for former cops to go to Kosovo these days as the situation has calmed down."

He told us he went to Kosovo himself many times, but said he preferred "to do business in my hometown, Rozaje".

Sajo mentioned another former policeman, named Bane, or Branislav, who worked in the same business.

"Bane operates in Kosovo, driving a Yugo (a Yugoslav car) with PE plates (former Yugoslav registration plates for Peja/Pec) and moves freely in and out," he said, adding that Bane and others like him had many clients in Kosovo seeking documents.

The use of old car registration plates is deliberate. Such plates are now illegal. But in practice, Kosovo Serbs use them routinely - spurning the new Kosovo number plates. So do many criminals, who like the fact that the Kosovo police tend to avoid stopping and searching Serbian vehicles.

"It's easy for us to get in touch with our people in the SUPs in Serbia," Sajo went on. "If it wasn't for our old connections with them, it would be hard to get this job done."

Sajo confirmed that he and other former policemen were the usual first points of contact between the mediators and the SUP offices.

Although Montenegro is now independent from Serbia, the old relationships between the police on both sides of the border remain largely undisturbed.

He also confirmed that paying the right amount of money can get anyone round the law.

Under Serbian law, only people in possession of valid personal identification cards can apply for passports. These ID cards cannot be obtained without submitting a birth certificate and certificate of citizenship.

Sajo said he could get everything that was needed for a table of fees. "I charge 50 euro for both papers - citizenship and birth certificate," he said. "If you want everything at once, including the passport, it will cost 300 euro."

"This is only if you can come with me to the local SUP to have your fingerprints taken," he went on. "If you cannot come in person, it costs much more - around 900 euro."

The much higher price for the latter reflects the fact that this practice is strictly illegal.

In effect, Kosovars now have two ways of obtaining personal documents, the regular method and the fast track. As the fast one becomes more popular, many Serbs in particular complain that the regular procedure is getting slower.

In the municipal offices in the Serbian enclave of Gracanica, one middle-aged Serb could be heard grumbling about the way the legal system appeared to be crumbling. "The Albanians corrupted our institutions and now we Serbs can't get proper public services from our own institutions," he said.

Such complaints are unlikely to have any impact on a trade that meets a clear demand. Two weeks after we encountered one Albanian in the queue in Kosovo Polje, we found he had resolved his passport problem through the use of paid mediators.

Adi had got tired of waiting and being refused a passport for what he called "senseless reasons" and got the papers from a mediator within three days. "I bought my own passport," he said proudly.


Krenar Gashi is BIRN Kosovo Assistant Editor. BIRN teams from Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro also contributed to this investigation. Balkan Insight is BIRN's online publication.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thats shocking to think albanians can still enter other countries using yugo passports,hope independence comes quickly so they can get their albanian passports and never leave anywhere.

Balkan Update said...

It's no wonder Serbs are accused of being a genocidal nations.
Racists rants like this don't find you any sympathy here or anywhere in the world.
Why would people of Kosovo get Albanian passports? Do you even know what you are talking about? Or perhaps you are filled with with so much hate that you don't make sense anymore?

Instead of addressing the contend of the article, you go an a limp and wish people of Kosovo to be locked in forever. Nothing to say about how the goverment of Serbia is implicitly involved in running these criminal rings? That should worry you more then anything else.