Turkish miners eye Balkans' mineral wealth

By bne IntelliNews November 1, 2011

Agostina da Cunha in Istanbul -

In the wake of the Ottoman's advance across the Balkans, the conquerors put Serbian and Bosnian mines at the service of the empire. Centuries later, the Balkans' mineral wealth has once again become a sought-after prize for Turkey, whose domestic mining sector is quickly expanding, but not at a rate able to meet the demand of its booming economy.

After the collapse of Yugoslavia, the region's mines lay largely underexploited, if not abandoned, for years - sometimes leading to severe environmental impacts. But the continuing stabilisation and development of the region is now paving the way for a rebirth of the local mining industry.

Turkish mining companies are busy securing licences in the region, with top officials backing their efforts, continuously travelling between Ankara and Balkan states' capital cities. Western European countries are also vying for their share of the region's mineral wealth, leading one slightly over-wrought Turkish columnist, Gazikent University's political science professor Mesut Ä°driz, to write that control over the area's mineral resources, particularly in Kosovo and Macedonia, risks becoming "the biggest struggle between Turkey and European powers."

The players

In 2009, the third Balkan Mining Congress was held in Izmir, south-west of Turkey. In an early move to support their increasing ambitions over the Balkans' mineral wealth, Turkish officials welcomed representatives of the mining sector coming from Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia.

With deposits of some 6m tonnes of chrome and copper ore, Albania is proving to be a particular favourite, and Tirana's government is expected to tender some 150 mining licences in the coming months. "Turkey is ready to extend all kinds of support to Albania as it always does," stated Abdullah Gül, president of Turkey, during a recent visit to his Albanian peer, Bamir Topi. Gül pointed out that the trade volume between the two countries now exceeds $350m, with nearly 100 Turkish companies investing $1.5bn in banking, telecommunication, mining, health and education areas.

Turkish mining firm Ekin Maden has strengthened its presence in the country in March of this year by signing an agreement with Canadian Tirex to commence commercial production of copper and gold from six areas of the Mirdita District. The resulting joint venture is gearing up to reach a processing capacity of 2,000 tonnes of ore per day. Tete Mining, which has been mining at the Albanian Muenella copper project since early 2000s, is developing another copper mine - the Spac copper project - alongside plans to open a new chromite mine. The Chinese are, inevitably involved. Kurum Energy and Sichuan Jiannanchun have agreed to jointly explore some chrome mines in order to achieve a future production of about 210,000 tonnes per year of chrome.

Kosovo has had mixed results since independence from Serbia in 2008 in attracting foreign investors, but the mining industry is one bright spot.

Novo Brdo's mines have been renowned for centuries. In the words of Konstantin the Philosopher, a famous Byzantine historian, this town was "in truth, a city of silver and gold." Kosovo can still boast 50% of ex-Yugoslavia's nickel reserves, 48% of zinc and lead, 47% of magnesium, and 36% of lignite. Kosovo is also rich in asbestos, bauxite, chrome, limestone, marble, and quartz. In the words of the International Council on Mining & Metals, the "small territory (is) home to one of Europe's most concentrated and potentially most lucrative mining sectors. With upwards of 14.7m tonnes of exploitable reserves, Kosovo is host to the fifth largest accumulation of lignite coal on the planet."

Turkey is already Kosovo's fourth largest trading partner with $284m in trade volume and Turkish companies are working hard to acquire assets. Two of the country's largest conglomerates, the Ciner group and the Koç group, are bidding for a couple of coal-fired power plant projects. The winner will be assigned the mining rights concerning 330m tonnes of lignite from the Sibovc South area. Both groups have a mining subsidiary operating in coal mining at home: Ciner's Park Mining and Koç's Demir Export. Tete Mining is also on the look-out for new opportunities in the area. "We want to strengthen our projects especially in Kosovo," the management has said in a statement.

Beyond Albania and Kosovo, the Balkans' mineral wealth is scattered over the entire region, which is home of some of the largest mineral deposits left in Europe. The Bor district in Serbia has 12m tonnes of copper and 13m ounces of gold, the Panagyurishte district of Bulgaria has 5m tonnes of copper and 7m ounces of gold, and a Tertiary belt through Serbia, Macedonia and Greece contains several major deposits including Trepcha and Sasa.

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