Kosovo - a pirate's paradise

By bne IntelliNews February 15, 2008

Beth Kampschror in Pristina -

Given the vast array of goods on offer in the four-story Mini-Max shopping mall - DVDs in various languages, Prada wallets, Gucci watches, North Face jackets, D&G jeans, Ray-Ban sunglasses and more - a shopper might be forgiven for thinking he was in a duty-free shop in Dubai. The decaying hillside outside, with acres of gloppy mud and blowing rubbish, hordes of soldiers browsing the wares and the €9 this shopper will pay for the shabby stitch job on a hot pink Hermes wallet, however, give it away: this is Kosovo, and these are fakes.

The Mini-max chain might be the most obvious example of the extent of Kosovo's piracy problem, but it's certainly not the only one. Pirate software and music CDs with gross misspellings - "Buns N Roses" for example - are found at outdoor stands on every street block in the larger towns. Tinny-looking Rolex watches are displayed next to stands of cigarettes that may say "Marlboro" but taste more of burnt sawdust than they do of tobacco. Piracy makes up some 35% of Kosovo's economy, according to an economic crime source in the Kosovo police, and to date, no law enforcement agency, whether local or international, has made a dent in the trade.

"It's very bad for business, it's very bad for investors," says Captain Veton Elshani, spokesman of the Kosovo Police Service (KPS). Kosovo itself produces nearly nothing - except for the province's ubiquitous mud - and experts here note that Kosovo's economic viability will depend entirely on whether the province can attract green-field investment projects from abroad. Elshani also acknowledges that the rampant piracy doesn't leave a positive impression on anyone, foreign or local, when it comes to the rule of law.

It's not that piracy is legal here. Kosovo does have an intellectual property law that prohibits these frauds. But like many laws in this neck of the woods, it's not worth the paper it's printed on without police and judicial follow-up. Just three months ago, the government opened its Intellectual Property Office, but the office's job is merely to accept applications or renewal forms for trademarks, patents and designs - not to bulldoze pirate CD stalls or arrest their owners.

Law enforcement, like everything in Kosovo, is complex thanks to the de facto protectorate run by the UN since 1999, when Nato bombing forced Serbian forces from the province. UN police and Nato's Kosovo peacekeepers, known as KFOR, are supposed to be providing what they call a "safe and secure environment," but balk at doing on-the-ground police work. Meanwhile the local KPS are supposed to be the province's police, but still aren't responsible for 100% of the law enforcement duties - full control still belongs to the UN. This dual system means that things just don't get done. In any case, there's simply no interest on the international side in shutting the piracy down.

Pulp friction

International cops, UN staff and other foreigners outnumber the Kosovar Albanians flipping through the dusty piles of CDs in the glass-fronted music shanties in downtown Pristina. Foreign civilian hires who fear air travel or need to take the edge off outnumber the Kosovar Albanians queuing up to buy Turkish-produced Valium in Pristina pharmacies. And camouflage-clad KFOR soldiers were the main customers in the Mini-Max on a recent Saturday afternoon, turning trained eyes on the considerable offer of pornographic DVDs, including one title called "Pulp Friction."

The local police, meanwhile, have two excuses for not leading the crackdown. First, there's the typical Balkan pass-the-buck attitude, with the police saying that it's the municipal officials who give copyright pirates the business permits that should regulate the trade. They also blame customs officials for not blocking shipments into Kosovo. Second, the police force is only in its infancy and should be given a break.

"It's not that we are closing our eyes," says Captain Elshani. He points out that the police have arrested individuals for pirating Serbian mineral water and alcoholic drinks, but to date have only focused on piracy that could affect people's health, and not on intellectual property. "The bottom line for us - we do know that this is happening, we do know that we will have to deal with it, and we do know that it's a problem for all of Kosovo."

The blind eye turned to the trade can be better explained, says Alban Bokshi of the anti-corruption organization Cohu (Stand Up). "There are powerful people behind this," he says, noting recent local press reports that two sons of Pristina's deputy mayor were pirating CDs and no investigation came of it. "UNMIK and the internationals are closing one eye to what happens in Kosovo because they need stability. We have stability at the expense of the rule of law."

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Kosovo - a pirate's paradise

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