Serbia + 1 more

Expatriates: a key to bailing out Kosovo

By Richard Mertens, Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It's midmorning, and in the dim lobby of the Grand Hotel here, Milaim Oruglica is slumped in an imitation-leather chair. The Toronto businessman is fretting about a shipment of asphalt roofing shingles.

The shingles had landed in the Greek port city of Thessaloniki and were heading north, by truck, to Kosovo. But trucks have been known to wait a week or more at the border with Macedonia. And once over the border, the shipment might easily be stolen or lost. When and if they arrive, he will receive payment in cash - a prospect he does not relish since he'll then have to walk around with a wad of German marks in his pocket.

Yet Mr. Oruglica is no stranger here. Like many young ethnic Albanians, he fled the province at the beginning of the 1990s, as the Serbian regime in Belgrade began what would become a decade of repression. Using forged documents, he eventually made his way to Canada, where he prospered in the import-export trade.

Now, nine years later, he is back. "I came here to start something," he says, sounding confident again. "It's my first home. I'm looking around, talking to people."

Even while he frets over shingles, he is hatching new and more ambitious schemes, such as exporting Kosovar mineral water to Canada and starting a small factory to make nails and screws.

This kind of entrepreneurial daring, experts say, offers the best hope of building up Kosovo's economy, which has been devastated by NATO bombing and a decade of Serbian misrule. Already, many small businesses are thriving, most of them supplying the first stirrings of reconstruction. Stores are stocked to the ceiling with stoves, ovens, and television sets for Kosovars whose houses were looted and burned this spring.

Construction-supply firms do a brisk trade in lumber and building blocks. At open markets, men sell boards straight off the truck.

Most of these businesses are old ones that have been revived since the war. But expatriates like Oruglica are also beginning to return, taking advantage of opportunities to profit while they help rebuild their ravaged homeland. They are bringing money, ambition, and, just as important, business savvy honed during years of exile in the West.

An estimated 500,000 Kosovars, or more than a quarter of the ethnic Albanian population of the province, were already living outside Kosovo before NATO airstrikes this spring. Many of these Kosovars have been reluctant to give up good jobs abroad to come home right away. But the more enterprising among them are loath to wait.

"In business it's important to be first," says Hetem Ramadani, who lived in Slovenia for nine years. "If you start now you can have a chance to win."

Kosovo needs all the help it can get. It was the poorest region of the former Yugoslavia with high unemployment and relatively little industry. Its poverty deepened over the past 10 years as Serbian authorities sacked ethnic Albanian workers and by neglect and mismanagement ruined much of the modest industrial capacity the province had.

Today most of Kosovo's factories stand idle, and rough estimates put unemployment at 60 to 70 percent. Furthermore, Kosovo's infrastructure - its roads, power supply, and phone system - is in terrible condition.

Western officials in charge of reconstruction say prosperity requires discarding the old Yugoslav socialist system in favor of the free market. A World Bank report on Kosovo says that new private businesses "have proven to be the main source of growth and employment in transitional economies."

But making Kosovo hospitable to private business is a huge task, officials say. "We are starting from below zero," says Renzo Daviddi, head of private-sector development for the UN administration in Kosovo. "There are no institutions, no policy, no framework. Everything has to be constructed from scratch."

But Kosovars may have an advantage: Ten years of exclusion from state enterprises forced them to do business privately. Rames Fazlia, for example, started a gardening business in Germany after he fled Kosovo in 1990. He returned a few weeks ago, planning to start a sand and gravel business.

"If you have a good company, making good materials, you can do well here," says Mr. Fazlia. Like many Kosovar businessmen, he intends to hire mainly brothers and cousins.

Hetem Ramadani's ambitions reach beyond sand and gravel. While in Slovenia he started a company that now trades metals worldwide. Since returning to Kosovo he has formed partnerships with DHL, the international courier, and with manufacturers of tires and electrical appliances. He has also exported ore from local stockpiles, and recently he won a $1.1 million contract to import transformers for Kosovo's power grid.

Mr. Ramadani is determined to make good in his native land. "Now is chaos," he says. "But in chaos [there is] is opportunity."