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Feature 23 Jan 17

Kosovo Shoppers Find it Hard to Shun Serbian Goods

The latest friction with Serbia over a train has revived calls in Kosovo for a boycott of Serbian products - but shops that do not stock Serbian goods remain few and far between.

Die Morina
The Plus Market shopping centre in Ferizaj/Uroshevac that boycotts Serb products. Photo: BIRN

In the Plus Market shopping centre in the Kosovo town of Ferizaj/Uroshevac, customers cannot buy any well known Serbian brands of chocolate, milk or any other products, no matter how hard they look.

All of the old familiar Serbian products there have been replaced with similar ones from Kosovo and other countries.

“When Dacic and Vucic [Serbia's Foreign Minister and Prime Minister] appear on TV saying 'We will never accept Kosovo as a republic', it makes me want boycott their products for 100 years more. Serbian products will never be in my shop,” the owner of Plus Market, Sylejman Neziri, told BIRN.

After the war in Kosovo ended in 1999, the former province declared independence from Serbia in 2008, which Belgrade does not recognise. The mistrust and hostility between Albanians and Serbs runs deep.

Despite the hostility, Serbia remains the biggest exporter of goods to Kosovo, with trends showing those exports continuing to increase.

However, this vendor has strictly boycotted Serbian products ever since 2006, when the owners ran a much smaller shop.

Plus Market's manager Remzi Bytyqi says it was far from easy replacing all the Serbian products that have been traditionally bought in Kosovo for decades.

“I had difficulties finding replacements. Only then did I realize we had so many products from Serbia," he said.

"But when I started to remove those products, I realized that we are even importing water, which Kosovo has plenty of, and in good quality, from Serbia,” he said. “Products originating from Serbia are suspicious," he told BIRN.

Kosovo's Inspection of Food and Veterinary Agency told BIRN that it carries out regular checks on sold food and that in recent years it found no carcinogenic ingredients in products from Serbia.

Issues with the safety of products from Serbia remain rare. These include a 2012 case when imports of Serbian corn were banned from Kosovo and other European countries after it was established they contained aflatoxin, and in 2014, when a Serbian sweet was barred from shops in the EU over ochratoxin.

However, Bytyqi is convinced that food from Serbia may be contaminated.

"We have had many cases ... of even carcinogenic [substances in them]. For that reason, because of the hostility [to these products] and due to the damages they caused us, we have definitively decided to say 'no' to them,” Bytyqi said, appealing to citizens to join the boycott.

Calls to boycott Serbian products in Kosovo are nothing new. Yet, shops like the one in Ferizaj/Uroshevac, which decline to sell any Serbian goods, remain rare.

Recent political friction with Belgrade has revived calls for shoppers to avoid Serbian goods.
After France arrested former Kosovo Liberation Army head Ramush Haradinaj under a Serbian warrant, and after Serbia attempted to send a train to Kosovo that was covered with banners saying "Kosovo is Serbia", people on social networks renewed the boycott calls.

One poster shared on social media urges people not to buy Serbian products, saying: “Since 2002 we gave 3 billion euros to Serbia. Boycott barcode 860 [Serbia’s barcode].”

An image shared on social media appealing for a boycott of Serbian products.

Adelina Sejdiu, aged 31, is one of those who joined the boycott.

“In my family, we boycott Serbian products because we have read in the media that they contain carcinogenic ingredients. And, I think we have enough products in Kosovo to replace those from Serbia.”

Whether others follow these calls remains to be seen. Many Kosovars reluctantly admit that, despite supporting such campaigns, in practice they continue buying stuff from Serbia.

“Kosovo Albanians support this campaign publicly, but on the other hand all of them still buy those products,” Vlora Dervodeli, aged 35, from Pristina told BIRN.

Import figures seem to support this claim, showing how deeply rooted Kosovo's buying habits are, and how hard it is to resist the influx of Serbian goods.

“During 2016, Kosovo imported 389 million euros worth of goods from Serbia,” the spokesperson of Kosovo Customs, Adriatik Stavileci, told BIRN. "This was more than the 372 million euros worth of imports in 2015," he added.

Serbia is the single biggest exporter to Kosovo, with countries from the EU lagging slightly behind.

“Despite all the existing problems between Serbia and Kosovo, I don't believe they should impact on trade between two countries. There are cases when I boycott Serb products, but only because I find same products but with higher quality from other countries.

“But if I like a product, I do not boycott it regardless of where Kosovo imports it from. In fact, there are cases when I don’t even read from which country the product is, as our stores mostly have Serbian products and we don’t have anything to replace them with," Dardan Hoti from Pristina said.

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