by Olivera STOJANOVIC
Since April 6, the KPA has received 29 requests in connection with unresolved property disputes. According to the Coordination Center, in Kosovo and Metohija there are 1,100,000 hectares [1 hectare = 10,000 square meters = 2.47 acres] of land that has been divided into more than 2,500,000 plots. That land has more than 620,000 owners, while more than 58 percent is owned by the Republic of Serbia. Serbs and Montenegrins own about 100,000 hectares.
Unresolved property relations, with assistance of imagination, have evolved to the situation that is almost beyond imagination.
"FIXING" DOCUMENTS: When Dejan Rasic, internally displaced person currently residing in Kraljevo, attempted to check the condition of his wife's property near Lipljan, he found out the following: their former Serb neighbor had in the meantime found an ethnic Albanian buyer, "fixed" documents in one of the Kosovo institutions temporarily relocated to Serbia proper and "legally" sold somebody else's property. In the meantime the Serb neighbor died in a car accident...
Due to lack of mechanisms that would protect ownership rights, in Kosovo since 1999 people have taken matters into their own hands, and given the current legal vacuum - in the report of the Special UN Representative the judiciary was portrayed as an area that requires a lot of additional work - they did not refrain from illegal sales or purchases of property. Attorney Zivojin Jokanovic from Pristina says that majority of illegal property trade cases come from Prizren and Pec.
"I had eight cases in Klina; property was sold although its owners hadn't been located, or contacted. They were totally unaware of the transaction. There is so much real estate and land out there that has changed hands and its owners have no idea about that," Jokanovic says.
The total number of cases involving illegal trade, usurpation or any other type of illegal control of property is difficult to establish but, according to Jokanovic, "especially worrisome is theft of Serb property - apartments, land plots, shops - based on forged authorizations. Those authorizations are forged in Kosovo, stamped in Bar, Ulcinj, Vranje, Kosovska Kamenica and Kosovska Mitrovica. They are forged on the basis of forged evidence and forged personal identification papers".
There are even cases of Serbs, owners of agricultural land or shops, who sold their or somebody else's property more than once.
CONTROLING SOMEBODY ELSE'S TROUBLES: The issue now facing the KPA - usurpation and illegal control of agricultural land, office space and shops - has been described as the issue of utmost importance for the solution of Kosovo problems; however it should under no circumstances suppress the problem of usurped apartments that still hasn't been solved.
Statistics released by the former HPD do not give a full picture of the problem of Serb-owned property in Kosovo. There are no overall data about the number of Serbs from Kosovo who have lost their apartments and houses. The number of requests filed with the HPD is not the total number of apartments and houses owned by Serbs. True, in the last seven years the HPD has resolved numerous cases so that apartments owned by Serbs have either been legally sold or rented out with HPD's assistance.
When on April 4, 1999, Dusko Lazarevic left Pristina he intended to stay away for a day or two and never even dreamt that that day would (possibly) be the last day he saw his apartment and all of his personal possessions, left behind in the apartment. And they left behind everything. "In that small space, some 46 meters square, we left furniture, electrical appliances, books, clothing, everything. Even proof that all of that belonged to us - our personal identification papers. We planned to stay out of Pristina for a day or two, but look at us now," says Dusko. Today he rents an apartment in Belgrade.
The Lazarevics attempted on several occasions to contact the new tenants, but every time they were met by curse words and threats. It hasn't occurred to new tenants to pay rent. Dusko and his family are at this point not even considering return, but simply want to sell their apartment. However, the offer of Euro 12,000 was unacceptably low. Of course, the offer was conditional, provided "documents confirming ownership" were provided, and these documents are gone. This family has also approached the HPD in hope that they will help them regain their property. That was seven years ago.
True, "internationals" working in Kosovo regularly pay rent for Serb-owned apartments. Serb apartments were mostly "granted" to former Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) fighters, or were occupied by those whose property had been destroyed in the clashes. However, there are cases in which Albanians occupied Serb apartments and then rented them out, Jokanovic explains. There are also many "sealed" apartments that remain empty and it is unclear how long they will remain empty.
PATIENCE AND LUCK: Those with more luck, as they say, with a lot of patience and persistence managed to sell their property for decent amounts of money. Srdjan Stevanovic from Pristina recently sold his apartment in the center of the city. He had to wait for six years since the apartment had been usurped - new "owners" rented it out but made sure not to show up anywhere near the apartment. "The apartment had been looted and damaged, but a buyer with a decent offer turned up. Before 1999 the price in the center was about Euros 800 per square meter, and I was now offered Euros 520. If the seller were an ethnic Albanian I am sure that the offer would have been better, but this way - they knew I had no choice," Srdjan says.
There are very few Serbs who managed to close deals leasing their apartments to ethnic Albanians for very low rents. Such agreements cannot be confirmed in court and depend on the good will of one side.
Serbs who remained in Kosovo after the end of the conflict today can with some certainty say that they have saved their property. Still, they pay for their decision every day. Today 120 Serbs live in Pristina. They literally guard their property by going out very seldom "since they have nowhere to go to, and even when they go out they make sure to return quickly or to leave someone in the house or the apartment," says Vukosava Mitrovic from Pristina.
On the other hand the aggravating circumstance, according to attorney Jokanovic, is that "our government has also done very little to assist with legal sale of property. Sale of some apartments was banned, but legal owners did sell those apartments nevertheless. Unfortunately, the price was way below the market since buyers were able to blackmail since sale contracts could not stand in court," Jokanovic concludes. Still Serbian state bureaucracy has recently abolished those bans and the result is, for example, the sale of almost all the apartments in the Serb apartment building, known as "YU program". Out of about 300 families living in the building after the conflict, only 5 remain.
It is very unlikely that the dispute regarding Serb property in Kosovo, including apartments, houses, agricultural land, or commercial property, will have a happy ending after which legal owners would enjoy at least minimal rights guaranteed by documentation. Because, judging by the practice so far, after the Kumanovo Agreement even UNMiK took over the state and social property in Kosovo without any compensation for the Serb side, and a good example of that "compensation without payment" is the building that houses the headquarters of UN administration in Kosovo. According to Zivojin Jokanovic that situation will sooner or later have to be resolved and until then the true owners of property will only "bear" the burden of the conflict that has brought them to the current unresolved situation.