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What's an old mine worth in Kosovo?

Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo covet control of the old

(Page 2 of 2)

Perhaps the biggest question, rarely asked in Kosovo, is how much Trepca is really worth. Western officials say that the expectations for Trepca exaggerate its true value - a problem, they say, with most state-owned enterprises here. To these officials, Trepca is a Communist-era antique that should be broken up and only the profitable bits salvaged from the dustbin of history.

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"The problem is that a lot of people look backward and this is what I don't like," says Renzo Daviddi, head of private sector development for the United Nations administration in Kosovo. "They talk about 1989, about Trepca, about the giants of the past. If they continue to look into the past, they are in trouble."

Kosovo has a long mining past. The region contains the greatest concentration of mineral wealth in southeastern Europe. Silver was mined here even before the Romans came. During World War II, when Germany occupied most of Yugoslavia, Stari Trg supplied 40 percent of the lead used in German war industries. It is widely suspected that the real reason Serbia fought to keep possession of Kosovo is the wealth of the Trepca mines.

In the tradition of miners everywhere, the men at Stari Trg were at the forefront of protests against the Serbian regime in the late 1980s. At the time, Stari Trg employed 3,000 miners, most of them ethnic Albanian. But in 1989 Belgrade began to wrest control of Kosovo away from its ethnic Albanians, and ethnic Albanian miners were fired. Without experienced workers, the mine and the rest of Trepca declined.

So far, Kosovo's UN administration has been unable to shine much light into Trepca's future. Two teams of foreign experts plumbed the question of Trepca's value but failed to reach bottom.

Nor has the UN resolved the rival claims over ownership and management. It has tried, so far in vain, to persuade Trepca's Serbs and ethnic Albanians to work together. An early, ambitious plan to install an international management team came to nothing when foreign donors refused to pay for it.

"Something has to be done with the bloody thing," says Carolyn McCool, head of the Mitrovica office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "The question is, what?"

Plans unknown

UN officials have been tight-lipped about their plans. Last week, Serbian officials refused to admit a reporter to their headquarters next to the lead smelter in Zvecan, just outside Mitrovica.

"It will work, but nobody knows when," says a guard at the entrance, gazing up at the clear sky above the smelter's smokestack. "The Albanians have Stari Trg."

Of all the parts of Trepca, Stari Trg may be the real prize. The mine probably still contains valuable minerals, although officials say it will need an injection of capital to be truly profitable.

For the moment, only 200 miners have returned to work, a mere handful of the legions that once labored there. With the UN's blessing, they are assessing the condition of the mine, repairing equipment, pumping out water - preparing, they believe, for the day when Stari Trg will work again.

"I feel optimistic that we can start producing again, to earn money to buy our bread," says Aziz Neziri just before he leaves the mine. "How can I not be optimistic?" All of Kosovo is watching.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society