June 3rd, 2006

Seeking out Corruption in Kosovo

Rumors about corruption in Kosovo have driven me to the point of madness. I’ve been so frustrated about the continuous chatter on corruption that infiltrates the majority of conversations I’ve had here in Kosovo that I was willing to do the unthinkable, the unimaginable, the unspeakable. I ventured out on my own (with my trusty bilingual friend Alban) to see if one of the rumors was true. (If this were a speech, I’d be expecting to hear a deafening, collective gasp from the audience right now.) In Discovery channel myth-busting fashion, Alban and I set out to get a permit for a street-side kiosk from the municipality of Pristina.

If all this sounds underwhelming, bear with me please. Some time ago it was made illegal to put up a kiosk anywhere in Pristina. Or this is what I “had heard.” I also “had heard” that for the numerous kiosks that still illegally remained on the streets and sidewalks of Pristina, that they perhaps were giving the police a small bribe to remain in operation. For the very visible kiosks near the Grand Hotel, I “had heard” that perhaps they had a permit to be there. Of course, this permit would presumably be gotten through corrupt means. This is more or less the kinds of things that I “had heard” about kiosks in Pristina.

Marching down to the Pristina municipality, I was ready for anything. I couldn’t wait to shout at the sinister, corrupt faces that would subtly insinuate that all things were made possible through a generous donation to the “I’m just a low-paid government worker” charity organization. Knocking on the first office door Alban and I came to; we were naturally redirected to another office that handled these matters. We walked into this new office that was just across the hall from the first with barely a knock, in order to catch this lair of liars unsuspectingly. There were four. Two were reading the daily paper during work hours; they were probably the most corrupt. I explained that I was interested in buying a permit for a kiosk. I wanted to sell books on the street.

The paraphrased conversation went as follows:

“I would like to open up a roadside kiosk in this city, and I would like to get a permit to do so legally.”

“I’m sorry sir, but that is not possible as it is not legal to operate a road-side kiosk anywhere in the city.”

“So all the kiosks that I saw on my brief walk to the municipality are operating illegally?”


“What about the kiosks selling books in front of the Grand Hotel, are they illegal?”

“No. The have temporary permission to be there.”

“Oh, I see. Well, I would like this temporary permission, too. Where can I get it?”

“At municipal building…” (It was different building on a different street.)

We left the municipality without paying one single bribe. Damn! Ok, to summarize the story further, we were told that by a group of men at the next municipal building that we needed to fill out an application, leave a copy of our IDs, and pay 30 euros a month for the right to this temporary permit. We needed to agree on a less congested area of Pristina to set up shop, but our permit would be ready within a couple of days. No funny business whatsoever. I couldn’t even extort the man through my offering him one of the delicious cookies I had in hand, effectively ending our municipal witch hunt there.

Not yet satisfied, however, Alban and I talked with a few kiosk owners to get their side of the story. Here is a summary of one conversation I had:

“Excuse me, would you mind telling me if it is legal to set up a road-side kiosk here in the city. I would like to open up a kiosk of my own here.”

“No, in fact it is illegal.”

“Don’t the police ever confront you about this?”

“Yes, every now and again they tell me that I need to leave.”

“But you are still here. Do you give them a small amount of your profits to be able to remain selling here?”

“No, they won’t accept anything. I sometimes leave and come right back. Sometimes the police confiscate some of our products instead. This is what I ‘have heard’ they are doing from a friend in Peja.”

“But you have never had inventory confiscated or been asked for money, correct?”


Another conversation with a much less mobile kiosk operator told us he had been fined 160 Euros on two occasions. The fine produced a physical ticket that documented the incident. The police would not even accept an invitation out to lunch to “talk about” the matter. Damn! This lack of corruption reminded me, horrifyingly, of my former auditing days, where records were disappointingly clean, or messy by error rather than through intent.

Dejected and confused, Alban and I meandered back to the Hotel Victory where I am staying. Alban suggested that due to the fact that I was American, perhaps it had been easier for me to get a permit. These friendly reassurances rang painfully hollow. I knew in my heart that although perhaps lazy and unorganized, there was no permit conspiracy to report on. In a city of rampant corruption, perhaps perceptions of such corruption are even higher than the actual level of corruption itself. For the sake of fairness, maybe people should be adding this experience to the list of things that they “had heard.”