Original US Mafia with the firm Bechtel, US Department of State and former US Ambassdor Alexander Dell and the Gangster Frank Wisner: Arena Invest’s co-owner Akan Ismaili was ambassador to Washington from 2012 until early 2015, arguably the most important job in Kosovo foreign diplomacy. The millionaire founded IPKO, Kosovo’s second mobile phone operator.Journalist Berat Buzhala, a member of parliament for Thaci’s PDK until 2014 who has links to Ismaili and Musa, was also briefly named as co-owner of the firm in 2009, before it began operating the quarry
A ringleader of the 2011 violent uprising against the Pristina government worked for public figures close to the ruling Kosovo Albanian party to cash in on construction of the country’s €1bn ‘patriotic highway’.
| Barricade blocks the main bridge in Mitrovica
Photo by: Fonet
The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, has uncovered evidence that notorious Serb businessman and nationalist Zvonko Veselinovic transported material for a firm owned by prominent Kosovo Albanians linked to the Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK.
The goods were sold to US construction giant Bechtel and its Turkish partner Enka, the main contractor hired to build Kosovo’s biggest ever infrastructure project, the Pristina-Tirana highway.
Veselinovic was formerly a member of the now disbanded Serb vigilante group Bridge Watchers, blamed for attacks on Albanians in the divided town of Mitrovica. He admits to playing a major role in the July 2011 unrest.
During eight fiery months, border posts were burnt down, makeshift barricades of gravel and trucks appeared across northern Kosovo, a Kosovo Police officer was shot dead and dozens of international peacekeepers and protesters were injured.
But BIRN has discovered that Veselinovic also ferried rocks from the Arena Invest quarry in northern Kosovo until routes were blocked by the barricades he helped create. Arena Invest is owned by three prominent Kosovo Albanians: Pristina’s former ambassador to Washington, the then Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci’s landlord, and a former Kosovo Liberation Army commander – as well as a Kosovo Serb politician.
Veselinovic has portrayed himself as a bulwark against the Kosovo Albanian authorities, garnering support from successive governments for what he describes as his defence of Serb interests in the former province, including from the current Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.
Arena Invest’s owners do not deny working with Veselinovic, although they argue that they were not responsible for the actions of a “sub-contractor”.
Working with ‘the enemy’
|Zvonko Veselinovic protests in north Kosovo
In January 2012, Thaci, then Kosovo prime minister, warned his countrymen not to “act with the mentality of Zvonko Veselinovic”.
But just a few months earlier, Arena Invest, a firm owned by his associates, had started doing business with Veselinovic, using his logistical services as they attempted to profit from the huge boom in construction brought about by Thaci’s decision to build the one-billion-euro highway, a symbol of cooperation between ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and Albania.
Veselinovic rose to international prominence for his role in the 2011 unrest, but he had long been on law-enforcement agencies’ radar and admits to having enriched himself by avoiding paying taxes to Kosovo authorities.
He was tried and cleared of heroin smuggling in 2003 in Serbia, questioned but never charged for a murder in Gracanica, a suburb of Pristina; and arrested by UN police in Kosovo, but later released, on suspicion of another murder committed in 2004. He denies any wrongdoing.
In the following years he was able to take advantage of Serbia’s 2005 decision to remove VAT on goods sold in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo, beyond the control of Pristina, which became a de facto duty-free zone.
The Veselinovic family own two petrol stations and are alleged to have been involved in the smuggling of fuel, cigarettes and alcohol, according to documents seen by BIRN from prosecutors in Mitrovica linked to a current investigation.
Zarko Veselinovic, Zvonko’s brother, was found guilty of obstructing a Kosovo Police officer as he attempted to stop a tanker of smuggled fuel reaching the family’s petrol station in 2010.
To date, however, Zvonko’s close cooperation with senior Albanian figures has remained solely the subject of speculation.
Arena Invest’s co-owner Akan Ismaili was ambassador to Washington from 2012 until early 2015, arguably the most important job in Kosovo foreign diplomacy. The millionaire founded IPKO, Kosovo’s second mobile phone operator.
Alongside Ismaili is IPKO director Bujar Musa, a friend and landlord to former PM Hashim Thaci.
The third owner, Fadil Demiri, was a senior figure in the Kosovo Liberation Army, out of which emerged the PDK political party. He also owns an Albanian branch of Arena Invest which, according to reports in the Serbian press, is due to invest 60m euros in the building of dams in Albania alongside Serbian-state owned firm, Hidrotehnika-hidroenergetika.
The final shareholder, according to official records, is Aleksandar Mihajlovic, who unsuccessfully stood in the Kosovo parliamentary elections last year for the pro-Belgrade party Serbian List. He was formerly a director of public services with the Gracanica municipality, a Serb-enclave on the outskirts of Pristina.
Journalist Berat Buzhala, a member of parliament for Thaci’s PDK until 2014 who has links to Ismaili and Musa, was also briefly named as co-owner of the firm in 2009, before it began operating the quarry
Fidan Kalaja of the Pristina-based anti-corruption NGO Fol told BIRN it was ironic that “a so-called Bridge Watcher who barricaded a whole part of the country benefited materially from the nation’s highway construction”.
Veselinovic ‘in direct contact’ with Arena
Veselinovic admitted to working with Arena Invest via the firm Euro-kop and its owner Dragan Curcic, which manages a 100-strong fleet of vehicles, to provide construction material for the ‘Patriotic Highway’ during a recent trial at the Organised Crime Court in Belgrade.
He had been facing charges of aiding and inciting the abuse of office after allegedly receiving 31 stolen trucks in Kosovo from Euro-kop against the will of the owner – Hypo Alpe Adria Leasing Belgrade – leaving the Austrian bank 2.2m euros out of pocket.
During the trial, he told the court he had received the trucks from Curcic to settle a debt but insisted he had not known they had been unlawfully taken from Hypo.
While admitting to using the Hypo trucks for building barricades and “alternative routes”, illegal roads built to avoid the EULEX (the EU’s rule-of-law mission in Kosovo) and Kosovo Police crackdown on smuggling, he argued the Hypo trucks were not used to transport material to Bechtel or in other construction jobs.
In February 2015, Euro-kop’s owner Curcic was found guilty of abuse of office at the same trial and given a two-year sentence while Veselinovic was cleared, although BIRN understands that the prosecution intends to appeal the verdict.
|Arena Invest quarry
Photo by: BIRN
Euro-kop is also named in another trial against Veselinovic, in which he also faces charges of aiding and inciting the abuse of office at a court in Pirot, Serbia. It is alleged he and three co-accused provided illegally quarried gravel worth around 500,000 euros, transported by Euro-kop and other firms, to the Austrian construction giant Alpine Bau for the construction of a highway in southern Serbia.
Veselinovic and the three other defendants deny the charges.
Veselinovic told the Belgrade court that he was in direct contact with “Aca from the quarry”, referring to Arena Invest owner Aleksandar Mihajlovic, and Euro-kop owner Curcic to organise trucks for the transportation of stones to Bechtel-Enka.
He told the court: “I’m calling Dragan [Curcic, official owner of Eurokop] saying “how many trucks can you give me?”
“We started working, so we once had five and once seven trucks. For twentyish days, a month, we were working and then the barricades started and all the troubles.”
Veselinovic declined to answer questions related to the Arena Invest deal.
|Veselinovic’s powerful backers
The Veselinovic brothers, Zvonko and Zarko, are routinely mentioned in public as not only being close to the current and previous Serbian governments, but as also being capable of ordering the erection and removal of barricades and inciting unrest in northern Kosovo.However, after the violence of July 2011 in Jarinje, a border crossing between Serbia and northern Kosovo, the international community increased the pressure on the Serbian government to arrest Zvonko. As a result, the Serbian government, then led by the Democratic Party, distanced itself from him.Veselinovic admitted to the Organised Crime Court in Belgrade that the Euro-kop trucks – including those ruled to have been stolen from Hypo – were used to build the barricades and “alternative routes”, illegal roads built in 2011 as EULEX and Kosovo Police attempted to crackdown on smuggling.“Those ten Hypo trucks were in bad condition so we used them for barricades,” he told the court.In February 2015, Euro-kops owner Dragan Curcic was found guilty of abuse of office in relation to the theft of the Hypo trucks at the same trial and sentenced to a two-year jail term. Veselinovic was cleared of all charges, although the prosecution intends to appeal.
He also told the court that he had erected the barricades in close cooperation with the previous government, led by the Democratic Party, something the party denies.
“Everything started when ROSU [Kosovo Special Police] came to [the] north of Kosovo,” he told the court, referring to an attempt by Kosovo Police in July 2011 to take control of the northern border crossings, triggering the unrest.
“I was with my family in Budva. I got a call from a friend from the ‘city defence’, so I left my wife and kids and came back to [the] north of Kosovo.
“With our bodies we defend the north of Kosovo,” he told the court. “We came to the conclusion that we had to build barricades, so we sat in Rudare [northern Kosovo] all together and make plans where to build barricades and where to put people.
“All my trucks, I made them available for the defence of north of Kosovo. And at that time, I was short of trucks for my business.”
Aleksandar Vucic, then vice president of the governing SNS party and now Serbian prime minister, publicly supported Veselinovic by stating in October 2011 that if he was arrested, Borislav Stefanovic, chief negotiator in the Pristina-Belgrade talks, and Goran Bogdanovic, then minister for Kosovo, should also face the courts.
According to Vucic, criminalising Veselinovic amounted to criminalising all Serbs from Kosovo.
Zvonko, 34, and his brother Zarko, 30, are currently under investigation by the EU’s rule-of-law mission in Kosovo EULEX, for crimes allegedly committed during the 2011 uprising.
A warrant has been issued for their arrest on suspicion of murder, endangering the lives of international peacekeepers and smuggling but the duo continue to move freely between Kosovo and Serbia. They deny the charges.
Despite the charges against the Veselinovic family, which include court cases in Kosovo and Serbia, their businesses continues to thrive thanks to patronage from Belgrade, including a share of a 75m dollar Serbian construction contract quietly handed out by a state-owned company.
Patriotism or profit?
Arena Invest do not dispute having done business with Veselinovic, but claim that they were not responsible for Euro-kop’s “sub-contractors”.
Mihajlovic told BIRN that Euro-kop were contracted by Arena Invest to transport all the material to Bechtel-Enka’s asphalt base in Prizren, although he said he dealt with the actual owner Curcic, in contradiction to Veselinovic’s statements in court.
“We had signed a deal with their owner [Curcic] about using their trucks for supplying Bechtel with asphalt for that highway,” he said, adding that the fuel used for the trucks came from Veselinovic.
Leaked documents from the Bechtel laboratory reveal that Arena Invest’s material was being delivered between, at a minimum, the four month period between April and July 2011.
A report published by Croatian firm Ramtech, employed by Bechtel-Enka to perform quality control tests on construction material, shows that Arena Invest was due to provide Bechtel with 80,000 tonnes of construction material as the sole supplier of the top layer of asphalt for half of the 77km highway……………………….
Russia: Five Years Since Anna Politkovskaya’s Murder
Exactly five years after Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in her apartment building, a convicted criminal has been indicted as her slayer.
According to prosecutors, the man is Lom-Ali Gaitukayev, a native of Chechnya currently serving a term in jail for an unrelated murder case.
According to the Guardian, the court will also announce new charges against the suspected hitman, Rustam Makhmudov, and several others involved in the killing as well.
Analysts have often noted that Politkovskaya was assassinated on then-president Vladimir Putin’s birthday. While human rights groups welcome the announcement that someone will be held responsible for the journalist’s death, revelers across Russia have been been celebrating their next president’s birthday.
Since Putin became president in 2000, 19 journalists have been slain in Russia, and until today, no one has been legally punished for any of the crimes. Since 1992, a total of 76 journalists have been killed in Russia, according to the country’s Committee to Protect Journalists.
Maybe they should arrest the people who ordered the murders on Politkovskaya’s birthday. But in likelihood they will never be brought to justice.
Instability Continues in Kosovo
Kosovo has made its share of global headlines this week. The trial of seven accused of organ trafficking began Tuesday in the capital city of Pristina. A protected witness from Belarus testified Wednesday about his journey to Kosovo to surgically remove his kidney, and said he was not paid the amount he was promised, €15,000.
Meanwhile, violence along the country’s border with Serbia and the northern city of Mitrovica has been linked to organized crime operatives. Serbian daily newspapers Blic and Press have been linking the unrest to Zvonko Veselinovic, who Press refers to as a “a dubious Serb businessman from Kosovska Mitrovica whose name has been mentioned by media as the organizer of the recent conflict with KFOR [the UN peacekeeping troops] at the Jarinje border crossing.” Press writes that he is “purportedly the leader of the largest criminal group in northern Kosovo.”
According to Serbian news outlet B92, “Some of the media in Belgrade have stated that Veselinović is the most important figure in northern Kosovo when it comes to petrol and cigarettes smuggling.” ……………………
May 22, 2012 … At 5:00 am local time two EULEX helicopters and several armored SUVs conducted a raid on the family home of Zvonko Veselinovic in the Serb …