Brussels, 3 December 1999
Today, 3 December 1999, it was agreed by Mr Chris Patten, European Commissioner responsible for External Relations, that the fourteen trucks carrying heating oil for the opposition-controlled towns of Nis and Pirot which have been held up for nine days by Yugoslav authorities at the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, should return to Skopje for the sake of the drivers. During the whole of the period, the drivers had remained with their lorries at the border post, unable to leave.(1) Nor would the Yugoslav authorities agree for them to leave and be replaced. The programme will continue and further deliveries are under preparation.
Chronicle of events
Fourteen trucks carrying heating oil for the opposition-controlled towns of Nis and Pirot were held up by Yugoslav authorities at the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, where they arrived on 24 November 1999(2). The tanker trucks passed the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia customs clearance approximately on schedule. According to information received prior to the delivery, the formalities at the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) side of the border would be swift with the customs clearance taking place in Nis. Upon the arrival of the tankers, the customs authorities decided that each vehicle was to be individually cleared.
After approx. six hours (at 19h00) during which the customs formalities for most of the trucks had been completed, there was a sudden change of procedure, requiring that all trucks would have to pass the customs clearance at the customs terminal located in the nearby town of Presevo. This necessitated changing all the customs documents and prevented the clearance of any of the trucks on that day as the Presevo customs terminal was only re-opening at 08h00 the following morning. The EU Presidency, the Head of the European Commission Delegation in Belgrade, Mr Michael Graham, as well as representative of the Portuguese and the Dutch Embassies and the Mayors of Nis and Pirot were present at the border to oversee the arrival of the energy assistance and in spite of their appeals the customs officer in charge stood by this decision but promised a smooth procedure on the following day.
Following an impromptu press conference at the border and in agreement with the Mayors that the Commission's Representative, Mr Michael Graham, would spend the night in Nis and be back at the border the following morning, the Member States Representatives returned to Belgrade. Contrary to expectations, the tankers did not move to Presevo the following morning 25 November 1999.
New instructions had arrived, according to which the tanker trucks would not be allowed to proceed to the Presevo customs station until samples of the oil had been taken from each of the trucks for analysis at a laboratory in Pancevo. Such analysis is in accordance with the law but it is highly unusual and can be considered as being a move by the authorities to slow down the delivery of the heating fuel. The process of taking samples and sending them to Pancevo near Belgrade took all day. The Commission's Representative and the Mayors of Nis and Pirot tried to get access to the customs authorities but were prevented by the police from entering the border area.
On the morning of 26 November 1999, the Commission Delegation and the Finnish Presidency held a press conference in Belgrade, explaining the developments of the previous two days and appealing for flexibility on the part of the authorities. Additionally the Presidency sent a letter to the Director of the Federal Customs Administration (Mr. Kertes) to ask for his assistance in speeding up the formalities and in facilitating the customs clearance of future deliveries. The representative of the Commission, the Ambassador of Finland and the Dutch Chargé d'Affaires then travelled to Nis and Pirot where they observed the local rallies, with protests against the delay of the fuel deliveries which are desperately needed in Nis and Pirot. The group also took part in a well-attended press conference in Pirot.
After a whole day's analysis of the oil samples the results arrived by late afternoon on 26 November 1999. The laboratory in Pancevo had no complaints about the contents of the tankers. However, the customs authorities decided on the morning of 27 November 1999 that all the trucks were as much as approximately one day per truck.
Technical Specifications of trucks
Also on 27 November 1999, the customs authorities also stated that six of the tankers had been found to weigh over 40 tonnes and thus required a permit from the Serbian Ministry of Transport to be allowed to travel on Yugoslav roads. The trucks had already been weighed on 24 November 1999 when they arrived at the border, but the customs authorities had not at that stage drawn attention to the overweight. By this time, on 27 November 1999, the Ministry was closed for the weekend and as the 29 and 30 November 1999 were public holidays in the FRY, was effectively closed until 1 December 1999. A special request was faxed on Tuesday 30 November 1999 and delivered by hand on Wednesday 1 December 1999, when the Ministry reopened. There was no reaction for a day and on Thursday, 2 December 1999, according to information from the local freight forwarder, the Serbian Ministry of Transportation requested additional information for six trucks that had excess weight (over 40 tonnes) and required special permits to travel along Serbian roads. This information includes technical details about height, weight, dimensions of the trucks, pressure per axle, etc. The processing of this information could take a couple of days, the freight forwarder was told, but even then it was not certain that the permission to move would be given. The remaining eight trucks that meet the standards were also at the border and the forwarder tried to get the permission for them to travel to Nis and Pirot. For some reason these trucks were also being held up, and the freight forwarder was told by the customs officials that they had to wait for the other six to pass through the required procedure.
On 1 December 1999 the Yugoslav Customs Administration gave an oral statement to TANJUG, the State news agency, which was subsequently read out on RTV Serbia, stating that the only reason for holding the trucks was that the importers had failed to present appropriate documents proving that the shipment was of humanitarian aid, since it was presented as a shipment of a commercial nature between OKTA from Skopje and NIV KOMERC from Nis (FRY). The statement also said that the shipping company had failed once again, on 27 November 1999, to present all the information required including a report on a foreign trade deal, which must be verified by the Yugoslav Ministry of Trade. This, however, is not required since 13 May 1999 when the Yugoslav Customs Authorities informed their branches that the customs procedures for oil are to be performed without reporting to the National Bank of a concluded foreign trade deal.
Questioning of Dehon
Luc Dehon, the representative of the Commission's Procurement Agent, who arrived with the trucks last week, was released from the Police Station at the border crossing Presevo, where he was detained on 2 December 1999 for three hours for informative talks about the Europe for Democracy Project and his role in it. His car was thoroughly checked.
Reaction of the Serb opposition
Mladjan Dinkic, chief co-ordinator for the G-17 Group of independent economists, which had contributed technical expertise to the "Energy for Democracy" scheme, told Reuters on 1 December 1999 that "Milosevic finds himself in a no-way-out situation. There is no good move he could possibly make. And that creates a huge problem. (...) If he decides to stop the fuel, he would prove that he is more concerned with not being defeated by the opposition than with the well-being of the citizens". The G-17 is happy that the European Union has decided to move on with this plan to prove to ordinary Serbs that it cares for them. In any case neither the EU nor the Serbian Opposition stand to lose anything"
Situation in Nis and Pirot
Nis ran out of heating oil on 26 November 1999 and the district heating systems in Nis and Pirot were shut down on that date. In Nis, this left around a third of the city including schools, kindergartens and hospitals without heating. The Yugoslav authorities had consistently failed to reply to requests by the Mayor of Nis to release over 2,000 tonnes of heating oil held in reserve in a Republican depot in the city. In a separate development the Director of the District Heating Plant in Nis, Mr Zlatanovic, was detained and interrogated on 26 November for having misused his position by not providing heating for the population in Nis reportedly claiming he had shut down the district heating systems prematurely. While the Director of the heating plant said that there was only 89 tons of fuel left (enough for less than one days heating) the Chief of Police Zdravko Skakavac claimed that as much as 300 tons remained.
The City Assembly in Nis decided on 27 November 1999 that the district heating plant would start using the republican fuel reserves (over 2,000 tons) that were stored in the city and call for the removal of the Chief of Police, the Director of the Federal Customs Administration and the Director of Jugopetrol. The police also tried to arrest the Director of the district plant in Pirot but failed as local counsellors protected him at the Municipal Assembly.
On the afternoon of 27 November 1999, the mayor of Nis called an emergency meeting of the Nis City Assembly. This meeting called for the removal of the Police Chief in Nis and the immediate use of the strategic oil reserve of 2,000 tonnes.
There have been demonstrations in Nis and Pirot demanding the release of the EU Energy for Democracy fuel, of the 2,000 tonnes reserve, as well as the dismissal of the Head of Jugopetrol for failing to deliver 400 tonnes of fuel oil already paid for by the city of Nis Since the morning of 28 November 1999 the district heating system in Nis was reported to be operating again.(3) According to reports from the Municipality of Nis, the State Company JUGOPETROL announced on 3 December that they would be delivering immediately two tankers of fuel to Nis and a further two tankers during the weekend. It is to be noted that JUGOPETROL ceased the delivery to Nis as soon as it heard that the Energy for Democracy project was underway and had been refusing to respond to requests from the Municipality for the delivery of some 400 tonnes of heating oil, which had already been paid for.
The local and national media coverage of the Energy for Democracy pilot project has been extensive from the beginning.
The main Serbian newspaper, Politika, reported events surrounding the fuel convoy, basing their story mainly on the statement from the Federal Customs Authority and claims made by the socialist MPs in the Nis local assembly. Politika centres its coverage on the fact that the documentation the trucks had did not mention that this is "humanitarian assistance".
Vecernje Novosti, the highest selling pro-government newspaper reported on the situation and objectively conveyed the situation in both towns, even listing that 1,300 pupils of a school in Pirot had to be let out of school because of the lack of heating.
The Delegation in Belgrade continues to be very active with the Press as the independent media continue to cover the story and regularly call the Delegation, the local governments in Nis and Pirot and the relevant State authorities for updates. The Head of Commission Delegation in Belgrade has given daily statements (a number each day as the situation developed) to the Fonet News Agency and Radio B2-92. He has also been interviewed by BBC World TV, BBC World Radio, FR2, ARD-TV and by CNN.