A Private Bank in Belgrade Funnels Money for Serbs Busting UN Trade Sanctions

NEVER MIND THE EMBARGO

ZIJAD ODEH'S bank has no savings or checking accounts. It offers no loans, deposit certificates, or investment counseling.

In fact, the small office in a first-floor apartment overlooking Belgrade's noisy Street of the Serbian Rulers resembles few banks anywhere else in the world.

Soko Bank was set up for one purpose: to make money by circumventing the United Nations trade and petroleum embargoes imposed on rump Yugoslavia 14 months ago for fomenting the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"This is the only job you can do in this country," Mr. Odeh says, smiling. That he is willing to discuss his operation openly provides a window on a tiny facet of the multi-billion dollar embargo-busting business that continues to rage with the apparent knowledge of the Western states that devised the sanctions. But unlike others reaping fortunes, Odeh does not have to smuggle goods or bribe officials from Serbia's neighboring states.

The key to Soko Bank is that Odeh and his partners are foreigners. They are, therefore, not subject to the freezes that countries around the world have slapped on Yugoslav assets.

For that reason, asserts Soko Bank's assistant manager, Zafid Mohed, the company is not technically violating the sanctions. "We have not broken any rules. We have not brought anything across the border," he says.

Soko Bank works in two ways:

* It helps Serbia-based gasoline smugglers skirt the UN oil embargo and the ban on financial transactions. As Odeh describes it, a state company or private businessman brings him a large quantity of a convertible currency, usually deutsche marks. Odeh then instructs banks in Europe in which he maintains accounts to pay the equivalent amount to the client's gasoline wholesaler.

The fuel is sent to the northern Greek port of Thessaloniki, where it is shipped into Serbia through Macedonia's porous border. Odeh refuses to disclose the names of the suppliers to which he makes payments on behalf of Serbian sanctions-busters, saying only that, "They are even buying it from American companies."

* Soko Bank also disposes of the hard currency that accumulates from the sanctions-busting business, but which cannot by law be taken out of Serbia.

Under the liberal policies of the late communist dictator Josip Broz Tito, hundreds of thousands of people left former Yugoslavia to work in Western Europe. Many of the expatriates accumulated significant savings in banks there. Others labored long enough to qualify for pensions, which are still paid into accounts in Germany, France, and other countries where they worked.

The UN sanctions forbid the transfer of those funds to Serbia and Montenegro. That is where the Soko Bank comes in.

The repatriated Serbs have their banks in Western Europe transfer funds to an account Soko Bank maintains in Zurich. Once the money is deposited, the hard currency that Soko accumulates in Belgrade from the fuel transactions is used to pay them.

IN both phases of the operation, Odeh and his partners keep 10 percent of each transaction.

The result, Mr. Mohed says, has been an average monthly profit of 250,000 deutsche marks (about $150,000) since the Soko Bank opened six months ago. "We are really not a bank," he adds. "We are a private financial institution."

Dapper, soft-spoken men, Odeh and Mohed are Palestinians from the Israeli-occupied West Bank. They have lived in Belgrade for years and speak fluent Serbo-Croatian. The pair were among thousands of Arab students who came here to study while Tito, who died in 1980, staunchly supported Arab states in their confrontation with Israel.

Odeh says he went to Kuwait after completing a geology degree at Belgrade University in 1984. But he says he could not endure the severe discrimination he faced there and returned to Belgrade with little more than 100 deutsche marks. He claims that by using the money to trade on the black market, he was able to build enough capital to set up a legal import-export firm, which then funded Soko Bank.

Odeh denies that he indirectly supports a regime that backs forces killing fellow Muslims in neighboring Bosnia. "The war in Bosnia is not a religious war," he says. "They have been living together for 50 years. This is the same as in Lebanon." But he says business is getting tougher as Serbia's economy crumbles. And there are other difficulties.

The Soko Bank was registered as a foreign trade firm and is technically breaking Serbian laws by operating in the way it does. For now, the regime has not acted against it, apparently because the bank helps bring in desperately needed hard cash. But that could end at any time.

"You feel as if they are looking at you and concentrating on you," Odeh says. "You cannot say anything or you get a lot of problems."

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