Electric Crypto Balkan Acid Test

Cryptomining in Europe’s most disputed state

English | Srpski
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In early 2018, millions of digital clocks across Europe began falling behind time. Few took notice at first as slight disruptions in the power supply caused bedside alarms and oven timers running on the frequency of electric current to begin lagging. Three minutes were lost in January, three more in February. In March, the Brussels-based European Network of Transmission System Operators of Electricity issued an apology. Whoever was causing the unprecedented power shortages “must cease”—but, until they did, the thirty-six nations plugged into Europe’s common electric grid were tasked with ratcheting up their voltage frequencies to speed the continent’s clocks back up.

European authorities soon traced the power fluctuations to North Kosovo, a region commonly described as one of Europe’s last ganglands. Since 2015, its major city, Mitrovica, has been under the control of Srpska Lista, a mafia masquerading as a political party. Around the time Srpska came to power, North Kosovo’s electricity consumption surged. Officials at the Kosovo Electricity Supply Company in Prishtina, Kosovo’s capital city, told me that the region now requires 20 percent more power than it did five years ago. Eventually, it became clear why: across the region, from the shabby apartment blocks of Mitrovica to the cellars of mountain villages, Bitcoin and Ethereum rigs were humming away, fueling a shadow economy of cryptocurrency manufacturing.

Elsewhere in Europe such operations could hardly be profitable; the cost of electricity is prohibitive. In North Kosovo, though, cryptomining is about as close to printing free money as one can get. The region is an anomaly—not just within the country, but across almost all of Europe—for the fact that it doesn’t charge its residents for their electricity. In a strange twist of fate, locals pay for almost none of their public services. The Serbian government, insisting on maintaining some degree of control over North Kosovo, covers its pensions system and creaking health care, not to mention water and much of its garbage collection services. As for electricity, that is covered by Kosovo, which is dominated by ethnic Albanians but is inclined to act like it cares for the ethnic Serbs concentrated north of its Ibar River.

When the crypto harvest began in North Kosovo, its beneficiaries were strictly the Kosovar Serbs. For a population struggling with mass unemployment and wages averaging four hundred euros a month, it proved to be a relatively effortless source of income. Some of the operations are quite sophisticated: last May in Mitrovica, I met a high school mathematics teacher who had outfitted the basement of a bistro with two hundred rigs along with a bespoke cooling system—all together costing one hundred thousand euros and at one point kicking back the equivalent of five hundred euros a day. Others are more improvised: in the border town of Zubin Potok, a group of pensioners told me they had pitched together three thousand euros for a rig that, at the time, returned the investment within half a year. Many crypto entrepreneurs are, unsurprisingly, teenagers, who have little else to do; youth unemployment in North Kosovo surpasses 50 percent.

But Albanian politicians in Prishtina soon caught on to North Kosovo’s crypto hustle. And for all their putative hatred of their Slavic counterparts, few could resist such an opportunity. By late 2016, these politicians—some of whom had led guerrilla units against the Serbs two decades earlier—had gotten into the mining business, too, pitching hundreds of cryptocurrency rigs north of the Ibar River and cashing in at the expense of the very taxpayers they incite against the lawless and freeriding north at every election. Today, over two-thirds of the currency farms north of the Ibar are Albanian-owned, or so I’m told by Veton Brahimi, an entrepreneur who opened one of Kosovo’s first Bitcoin ATMs in Prishtina. After decades of conflict, which has twice bordered on ethnic cleansing, all it’s taken for Serb and Albanian politicians to finally put aside their ancient resentments is the prospect of getting rich.

Mine Sweepers

The irony of North Kosovo being reduced to a cryptoquarry is that for millennia it was renowned across Europe for actual mining. To this day, stashed beneath its slumbering villages and forested hills, a multi-billion-dollar fortune awaits extraction: the region contains Europe’s greatest remaining deposits of lead and zinc, in addition to seventeen billion tons of coal and vast but undetermined quantities of gold, silver, nickel, and cadmium. Some forty mines—interconnected by rail to factories and smelters just east of Mitrovica, a complex collectively known as Trepca—exist throughout the hills north of the Ibar. Everything from the bullets fired in Mitrovica’s turf wars to steel pipes running beneath streets across the continent possess bits of North Kosovo within them.

Sweeping through the Balkans over the centuries, one wave of outsiders after another recognized this wealth and settled in to extract it. Ringing the vent of the extinct Zvecan volcano are fortifications laid by the Romans and bolstered in turn by Byzantines, Serbs, Turks, all of whom mined the surrounding hills, albeit with mixed success. Medieval Mitrovica lured engineers from Saxony and merchants from Ragusa. Railway gauges around the city still bear the standard of the Selection Trust, a British multinational that brokered ninety-nine years of mining concessions from King Alexander of the Yugoslavs in 1926. A new incursion of Germans voided those rights in April 1941, when the Nazis enslaved Mitrovica’s population to manufacture U-boat batteries—an occupation masterminded by Heinrich Himmler himself—and outsourced Trepca’s defense from the partisans of the surrounding foothills to a battalion of White Russians.

Parallel to the walls of the Zvecan Fortress, atop a round hill looking out over the Ibar, the man who commanded those partisans later constructed a six-story concrete miner’s trough to commemorate them. “We have spilt an ocean of blood for fraternity and unity of our peoples,” Josip Broz Tito proclaimed months after forcing the Germans out of the Balkans, making Yugoslavia the only place in Europe where a resistance movement went on to take over the postwar state. “And we shall not allow anyone to touch this or destroy it from inside.” Elections across Yugoslavia that November swept Tito’s Communist Party into power in Belgrade. He faced two major challenges. On a material level, Tito confronted the immediate task of rebuilding Yugoslavia’s devastated infrastructure: one in five buildings and nearly half of all industrial facilities had been destroyed by the years of Axis occupation. Then there was an older Balkan dilemma: How was he to knit Yugoslavia’s messy identity patchwork—six republics, five nationalities, four languages, three religions, two alphabets—into a functioning federation?

After decades of conflict, which has twice bordered on ethnic cleansing, all it’s taken for Serb and Albanian politicians to finally put aside their ancient resentments is the prospect of getting rich.

Tito’s brand of communism offered an answer to both problems: Yugoslavs, once divided along the lines of language or religion, would now be directed toward a new working-class consciousness and encouraged to identify with the “multinational workers’ federation.” In the years after the Second World War, this federation (brazenly refusing to align with either the United States or the Soviet Union) got to work renewing itself, embarking on a massive construction campaign—factories, mines, housing projects—to employ and lodge an ascendant working class.

The Trepca mines were an example—the foremost example—of how Yugoslavia’s vision of communism would be realized at the ground level. Tito promptly nationalized the complex, setting up working councils that gave diggers stakes in Trepca’s stock and self-management over the future of the operation. In the three decades that followed, the party centralized and diversified more and more industrial activity within North Kosovo. Mitrovica became a company town, the locus of a complex that didn’t just extract zinc and silver from the ground but directly converted it into products such as fertilizer, cutlery, and ammunition. For party ideologues, Trepca also served as metonymy for the conversion of Yugoslavs: a land of shepherds and farmers was on its way to becoming a federation of engineers and mechanics—a transformation embodied by Tito himself, the son of a Croatian peasant who led his first strike on the floor of a Zagreb bicycle factory.

Trepca soon became the largest industrial complex in all of Yugoslavia; by the 1970s, it employed more than twenty-three thousand Serbs and Albanians, or four in five workers in North Kosovo. It came to resemble, in its way, the Yugoslav state in miniature. Trepca dispatched many miners for three weeks a year to a resort it controlled along the Adriatic in Montenegro, put them up for retirement in apartments it constructed in the Kopaoniks, printed a newspaper (Trepca), and acted—though with mounting inefficiency and mismanagement—like a giant conveyer belt bringing prosperity down from the mountains into the households of the working class. “At Trepca . . . we had one engineer,” Svetozar Vukmanović-Tempo, a Montenegrin member of Tito’s inner circle, recounted in a 1978 speech celebrating how far Yugoslavia had come from the grim early postwar years. “From a small undeveloped country, we have risen to the ranks of the developed.”

Last autumn, I spent a few days with a Serb from North Kosovo who was one of Trepca’s beneficiaries. A lank, precise man—“I’m a Yugoslav!”—in a tan scally cap, Milorad Radivojevic arrived at the Trepca Cafe beneath Zvecan Fortress at the wheel of an immaculate 1978 Mercedes Benz W123 he restored by hand. In a career spanning four decades, Radivojevic climbed the bureaucracy of the mines—beginning as an engineer and ending as an associate director—even though he rarely descended into them. “The mines were just the tip of the Trepca iceberg,” he told me, then started checking off his fingertips. “We had everything: smelters, metal roasters, jewelry manufacturers.” At the height of his career, Radivojevic personally oversaw one of these ancillary operations: the on-site conversion of North Kosovo’s lead into a staple of postwar Europe: the Trepca battery.

The irony of North Kosovo being reduced to a cryptoquarry is that for millennia it was renowned across Europe for actual mining.

For decades under Yugoslavia, Radivojevic said, reciting each figure with exaggerated emphasis, Trepca extracted one hundred fifty tons of zinc every day, in addition to seventy-five tons of silver and one hundred seventy-five kilograms of gold a year—more than any other place in Europe. But Trepca’s true specialty was lead. Every morning, a train freighted three hundred tons of lead to—Radivojevic pointed south in the direction of Prishtina—a brick complex on the southern bank of the Ibar. There, Radivojevic commanded—he checks off his fingertips again, as if about to count them all out one by one—1,373 workers, approximately 80 percent of them Albanian. They were responsible for producing and assembling the batteries whose blueprint Radivojevic himself helped design. First, machines separated the lead out from the raw ore, which was then fashioned into two different types of lead plates. These plates were then submerged in a sulphuric acid solution.[*]From Mitrovica, six hundred thousand of these batteries were sent around the world every year, most to Lada car factories across Eastern Europe. “We bought our design patent from Globe-Union in Wisconsin. And we used it to sell batteries that mostly went to the USSR,” he remembered. “It was a unique production line for the Cold War—and something I think only Yugoslavia could have produced.”

Radivojevic considers himself the type of man only Yugoslavia could have produced. He was born into the Serbian minority south of the Ibar. After high school he left for another of Yugoslavia’s six constituent republics, Croatia, to study electrical engineering at the University of Zagreb. There he married a Croatian dentist before heading to another republic, Bosnia, to take up training at the Kakanj coal mine north of Sarajevo. “There were Muslims there,” he told me, “and we never had problems with them.” By the time he returned to Mitrovica in 1974 to work for Trepca, Kosovo had been elevated into an autonomous province and Albanians were given greater responsibility in the complex’s bureaucracy. Mitrovica had also become a household name across Eastern Europe. Radivojevic still keeps a trunk of letters sent to his office by Lada owners across the USSR impressed by the durability of his batteries. “Normal car batteries last five years,” he said. “But ours lasted ten. And do you know how cold it was in the Soviet Union?”

The Treasure of Stari Trg

Today, in the mountains north of Mitrovica, an aging contingent of approximately six hundred Albanians still digs out the metals that Radivojevic some twenty miles away used to put into his batteries. In October I drove there to meet Ajet Ferizi, an Albanian electrician who works at Stari Trg, one of the largest mines in the Trepca complex. A quiet man with large white teeth and leathery skin, Ferizi’s career in the mines began in 1977. Apart from a brief stint of military service in Slovenia, he worked there nonstop until 1990, the year most Albanians were expelled from Trepca. Ferizi returned to the mines in 2000, by which time almost no Serbs were employed there. “I’ve spent more than half my life underground,” he announced as he handed me a pair of oversized boots and navy overalls splotched with dried mud. After assurances that it had been years since someone had been trapped to death inside Stari Trg, he led me into a large industrial elevator covered in the graffiti of half a century of diggers. For seven rattling minutes it shuttled us into the earth at the speed of a golf cart. Eleven floors down—miners call these “horizons”—we reached a vein of zinc trapped almost three thousand feet below ground and extending thousands more feet into the surrounding hills.

Here, men like Ferizi dig away in knee-high, chilly water, splashing through chasms crisscrossed with collapsed walls and great earth-vanquishing machines that haven’t seen the light of day since Yugoslavia was a republic; the decades have silted them into subterranean crustaceans. “Made in Croatia,” Ferizi said, pointing to a tractor-sized excavator frosted in a generation of grime. His job is to mend the most salvageable of these machines back to life. Sloshing down a tunnel, he guided me to the origin of a dull heat that kept the air around us fetid: a group of Albanians soldering old equipment back together with an industrial welder. It produced a grinding chaw—a dentist’s drill at hellish amplification—that ricocheted through the mine before giving way once more to the dank silence of the underground.

Ferizi shares none of Radivojevic’s romance about the multiethnic worker’s state. He recalls the fact that his father, an ardent anti-communist during the Second World War, had been banned from traveling outside Kosovo after 1945; Ferizi insists that Yugoslav authorities kept him out of high school as a form of punishment for his father’s convictions. Many Croats and Bosniaks bear similar grievances; they saw the communists not as liberators but as coupists, and the party as little more than a vehicle for Serbian ambitions.

From his earliest days at Trepca—and over the decades of workers councils and vacations it sponsored for laborers along the Adriatic—Ferizi was witness to blatant imbalances in the treatment of Serbs and Albanians. An Albanian majority disproportionately dug the mines and disproportionately died in them. A Serbian minority disproportionately managed the mines and disproportionately profited off them. This was symptomatic of inequalities that developed almost as soon as liberation had set in. For despite Tito’s best efforts—he made a point of funneling an outsized chunk of Yugoslav tax revenue into Kosovo—a yawning wealth disparity developed between their province and the rest of the federation. Elsewhere, Belgrade had managed to measurably elevate the material standing of Yugoslavia’s working classes, with a republic like Slovenia economically on par with Italy by 1960. But the development indices in Kosovo—with the exception of Trepca, an economy of small-scale farming hampered by terrible mountain roads—remained statistically closer to the Global South than to the rest of the Yugoslav federation. In 1954, its per capita income was 48 percent of the Yugoslav average; by 1980, it had fallen to less than 28 percent.

Return to the Surface

Meanwhile, it was proving increasingly difficult to hold Yugoslavia together. Internal mismanagement and mounting inflation, exacerbated by the global oil shocks of the 1970s, meant that by 1980—the year Tito died—the economy that once turned men like Radivojevic into electrical engineers had taken on a series of high-interest loans from Western Europe and the United States. By then, GDP growth had slowed to a crawl and federal debt had exploded to nearly $20 billion. Over the next decade, half the export revenues of complexes like Trepca would go to debt service; at the same time, the door to Yugoslavia was opened to the IMF, which began a series of crippling bailouts: the gatekeeper’s toll for entry into the global free market.

These financial troubles unleashed national passions largely kept in abeyance under Tito. In his book Nationalism Reframed, the sociologist Rogers Brubaker explains how a rising generation of Serbs, entering political life in the economic twilight of the 1980s, came to develop a kind of persecution complex, envisioning Yugoslavia as a frontier of secession-prone republics where their majority was dwindling. Of the new class of Serbian apparatchiks that took power after Tito’s death, one man proved particularly adept at pushing the buttons of this nationalist paranoia.

Slobodan Milosevic personified another kind of transition in the economic trajectory of the Yugoslav federation. In 1978, he left his job as chairman of a gas company to become president of a Belgrade bank, where he specialized in securing lines of foreign credit. Six years later, he entered public life, cultivating a mass following by putting himself forward as a champion of self-pitying Serbs. By 1987, seven years after Tito’s death, he had clinched the loyalty of the Yugoslav Army; that September, having surrounded himself with like-minded nationalists, he effectively usurped the Serbian Communist Party altogether. In time, Milosevic would turn Belgrade’s attention with devastating effect to Bosnia and Croatia, but the biding object of his concern from the beginning was Kosovo: the place where the Serbian population really was dwindling due to a combination of Serbian emigration and high Albanian birth rates. From its earliest days, Milosevic’s reign was marked by rabid stump speeches calling for Serbs to take back control of the province. From 1989 on, he began mobilizing Belgrade’s power south in earnest: sending in detachments of military police, installing ranks of pro-Serbian bureaucrats in Prishtina, and eventually reducing the number of Albanian miners at Trepca to just twelve hundred, with replacement labor brought in from Poland, Bulgaria, and elsewhere.

A generation after the collapse of communism, one nation after another in Eastern Europe finds itself trading in its industrial bona fides for the prospect of becoming fake money factories.

Half a mile underground, the Albanians at Stari Trg had plenty of time to contemplate the resentments accruing against Milosevic. Their struggle for rights in the mines, it was clear to men like Ferizi, was proxy for the greater struggle of unyoking Prishtina from Belgrade. “Who does Trepca work for?” “We are Albanians—not Yugoslavs!” ran the slogans of their protests in Mitrovica, which by early 1989 had swept up the entirety of the province. That February, as popular movements simmered beneath the surface across Eastern Europe, Ferizi and over a thousand other Albanians stayed exactly where they were. Locking themselves in the eighth horizon of Stari Trg, they refused to leave until planned amendments to Kosovo’s constitution—namely, those granting Serbia unchecked power over the region—were axed. Many of the miners got sick; volunteers arrived with food and medicine that was sent down the graffiti-etched elevator. Across Yugoslavia, republics gearing up for their own secession movements voiced their support. But when the last of the Albanians agreed to return to the surface, convinced that Belgrade had agreed to their demands, most were greeted with a half-year jail sentence. Released after three months, Ferizi emerged to find a changed world. Public gatherings were banned in Kosovo; Milosevic had encircled its parliament with tanks; the province was losing its autonomous status; and the contingent of Serbian police that had arrived earlier in the year were now a de facto occupying force.

In the years that followed, Milosevic’s wrecking ball to Yugoslavia’s secession movements swung elsewhere—Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia—before finally rounding back south on its long-time target. From Kosovo, Albanians watched as incipient nationalisms to their northwest invited ruthless retribution on the part of Milosevic. An outpouring of refugees trickled into their villages and towns. By 1995, the Albanians were honing their own shadow resistance movement, drawing on funding from the vast Albanian diaspora, to mount a military challenge against Belgrade. In February 1998, more than fifty years after Tito’s forces took to the hills to flush the Germans out of the Balkans, Albanian guerrillas bearing the ragtag standard of the Kosovo Liberation Army commenced their own mountain war against Milosevic.

Retaliation was swift. Some forty thousand Yugoslav soldiers were sent in to crush the rebellion; within eighteen months, nearly ten thousand Albanians had been killed, with another million driven out to neighboring Albania and Macedonia. Ferizi remembers the exact day his war started: September 17, 1998. He watched that afternoon as Serbian paramilitaries swept over the mountains and approached his worksite at Stari Trg. He fled to nearby hills, where he watched soldiers torch his house and car. Sensing that his family would be next, he shepherded his wife and two children by foot over sixty miles to the edge of Albania, where they found themselves cut off by more paramilitaries lining its border. “We weren’t allowed to leave, and we weren’t allowed to stay,” Ferizi recalled. And so he camped out in the mountains with his family, smuggling food by night from towns to keep them alive. He owes his life, he says, to NATO intervention. In March 1999, after their disastrous failure to halt Milosevic’s genocidal campaign in Bosnia, NATO forces rallied behind the Kosovo Liberation Army, overseeing a three-month bombing campaign on Serbian military installations and factories. In June 1999, the Albanians forced a peace accord that, nine years later, would result in a state of their own: the Republic of Kosovo.

In North Kosovo, cryptomining is about as close to printing free money as one can get.

No sooner had NATO concluded its mission than did the UN arrive to preside over it, setting up the cornerstones of the future state. To fill in the ranks of the incipient public sector and governmental system, cadres of war veterans were given “political modeling” lessons by Western technocrats. Ferizi relocated his family from Serb-dominated North Kosovo to a new apartment south of the Ibar, where they live to this day. Just over ten years after being arrested for his protest, Ferizi returned to Stari Trg; it was, he said, the happiest day of his life. It took weeks to pump out the millions of gallons of water that had flooded its horizons before excavation could begin again.

Yet the formal cessation of hostilities did not spell the end of conflict. The Albanians had not forgotten the decades of perceived mistreatment at the hand of Belgrade—nor, more recently, the atrocities carried out by Milosevic’s militias. Their retribution in the years following the NATO-brokered peace is now as notorious as the initial Serbian aggression: an estimated two hundred thousand Serbs and other minorities were expelled from their ancestral villages by troops of vengeful Albanians, often with the tacit approval of NATO.

Radivojevic remembers the date his house was torched by his former countrymen: March 18, 2004, nearly five years after the peace treaties were signed. That morning, a mob of Albanians—none in military or police uniform, he maintains—converged on his village of Svinjare from every direction. Some carried torches, others machine guns. “I had been told before this that if I stayed, I would die,” he remembers, insisting he considered the threats empty. Several kilometers to the north, an encampment of international peacekeeping troops watched as the mob set Svinjare ablaze.

Svinjare was only one chapter in the larger story of Serbian displacement from the lands south of the Ibar. Some were evicted by systematic Albanian violence. But the majority simply concluded that they had no future in Europe’s newest state (whose boundless potential was already being much discussed). Seven years after Ferizi fled with his family to the south, Radivojevic shepherded his in the other direction, crossing the Ibar to resettle in an apartment in the shadow of Zvecan Fortress that Trepca had given him decades earlier. Despite having filed more than eighty police reports, he is yet to be compensated for the loss of his property.

Canary in the Cryptomine

The material Radivojevic once needed to make his batteries is still present at Trepca. The war for Kosovo’s independence destroyed many things—at least seventy thousand homes and up to two hundred mosques—but not the complex or its mines. NATO bombers, who had little compunction destroying oil refineries and fuel depots across the rest of Yugoslavia, were careful to fly a wide berth of Trepca for fear of unleashing dangerous chemicals into the Ibar, something that now happens anyway. Stepping off the bus in Mitrovica today, the most arresting thing is the stillness of a once-bustling complex seemingly halted mid-pick-swing. The smelters and factories east of Mitrovica are slunk down in slow-motion decay, encamped outside the city like a disbanding army. Battalions of derelict factories with smashed windows and battered doors wait to be entered. Troops of smelter chimneys still bristle hundreds of meters high, like raised hands beckoning the attention of their erstwhile operators.

Chernobyl comes to mind, only the fate of the mine may be even more confounding: not a scientific achievement gone spontaneously and catastrophically wrong, but a fabled industrial endeavor largely abandoned because of ethnic conflict. Within Mitrovica, only a tiny number of Serbs are still employed at the complex. The rest work at NGOs now, or at cafes, or—the most likely scenario—they don’t work at all. Trepca has come to mean nothing to them, a strange relic left behind by some earlier, more archaic age.

Radivojevic blamed this degradation on the Albanians. NATO had made a great fuss of handing the complex over to them with their own state—and look at what Prishtina did with it! Piled up near the Ibar, slow-dripping poison into its tributaries, three million tons of black slag congressed in a vast anthill, trucked off in chunks for refining—though not across the river, where under Yugoslavia it was done for half a century, but hundreds of miles east to Bulgaria, or even farther to the Adriatic coast of Montenegro, where it is in turn shipped off to Swiss or Chinese conglomerates. Weeds overwhelmed a pair of train tracks leading south, ending at sagging hulks of metal where Radivojevic once drafted designs for his batteries. Beneath all this ruin, he kept reminding me, unfathomable deposits of lead and zinc and gold and silver lay mere meters away.

On further reflection Radivojevic conceded that the mine’s fate had been sealed with Yugoslavia’s implosion. The federation lured students from Kosovo to Zagreb or Belgrade for world-class educations in geology and engineering. The University of Prishtina offers few comparable programs. Radivojevic pointed to the river: it has become all but impossible for trucks and trains to cross it to shuttle ore from mines to smelters because of the swarm of checkpoints and UN vehicles lining its edge. Besides, people no longer bothered to learn each other’s languages. On the north bank of the Ibar, most of the new generation of Kosovars speak only Serbian; on the south, only Albanian. “Imagine resurrecting the Titanic out of the water. But when it comes out, you don’t know what anything does—the furnaces, the control room—or why it even existed in the first place,” he rued on our last day together.

If the collapse of Trepca was a bleak slight for the Serbs like Radivojevic, it was an even bigger calamity for the newly independent Albanian Kosovars. The mines were the basis of the region’s prosperity. For all the debts that were dogging the complex by the late 1980s, it had still amounted to 70 percent of Kosovo’s GDP. As there were virtually no other industries to speak of, the failure to revive Trepca would leave a gaping $2 billion crater in the new state’s foundations.

At NATO’s suggestion, the mine was initially privatized, transformed into an asset to be picked off by the highest global bidder. But over the 2000s, every attempt at Trepca’s resuscitation proved futile. A revolving door of multinationals flew in from countries like Greece and France, only to encounter a host of inscrutable problems, foremost among them ownership, which Belgrade still contests. The impasse foreshadowed the separate plans being hashed out to integrate Kosovo into the global free market. At a series of “Donors Conferences” convened in Brussels in anticipation of Kosovo’s formal statehood, marketization was given priority. Now that NATO had provided security, a collection of loans was to lasso Kosovo to the Western credit system and put it on a runway to eventual EU membership. A UN ombudsman, meanwhile, would oversee the flogging of more than half of all state assets at bargain rates, everything from Prishtina’s airport to large-scale farms. Tranches of United States Agency for International Development funding would be channeled to small and medium-sized businesses that would underpin a country of commerce in which legal tax-paying businesses would prevail over, say, bootleg racketeering operations across the Kopaoniks. In no time at all, a rule-of-law market democracy would blossom over Europe’s most recent battlefield.

Yet look past the smokescreen of boosterism and it’s clear that Kosovo’s economy now resembles little more than a fun-house mirror reflection of what Trepca aspired to offer.

Twelve years into Kosovo’s statehood, all that backroom glad-handing has little to show for itself. Beyond loss-making agriculture and an unrelentingly corrupt public sector, Kosovo’s greatest employers are some five hundred NGOs, propped up by American cash, which exist largely to perform autopsies on the country’s proliferating problems: among the most recent of which is the growing number of recruits Kosovo sends to the Islamic State, more per capita than any other European nation. Perhaps the most bitter indictment of Kosovo’s much-touted economic overhaul is the fact that its greatest export over the last decade is metal—not extracted from Mitrovica’s hills but collected by its destitute Roma population from scrap junkyards and abandoned industrial complexes like Trepca.

Then there is the cryptocurrency, fake money befitting a country of phantom sovereignty. Its production results in no material object—apart, that is, from the megatons of carbon it releases into the atmosphere—and nothing in the way of societal benefit. Still, Western worthies would have you believe that cryptomining might finally prove the ignition that pushes Kosovo’s economy into lift-off; just last year, Ryan Zinke—Trump’s former interior secretary and a veteran of the 1999 intervention—ventured to Prishtina to pitch blockchain to Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj. Yet look past the smokescreen of boosterism and it’s clear that Kosovo’s economy now resembles little more than a fun-house mirror reflection of what Trepca aspired to offer. A place that once dug up real lead to produce real batteries to power real cars driven by real Russians who wrote letters to thank them for their hard work has now given way to coding out bogus internet tokens.

Kosovo’s fate also has something to tell us about the transition of the post-communist space as a whole. Through the 1990s, western orthodoxy had it that with enough “political modeling” seminars and financial tinkering from the IMF, it was only a matter of time before former socialist command economies and satellites of the USSR would come to resemble their Western European counterparts. This was arrogance dressing up as insight. For a generation after the collapse of communism, one nation after another in Eastern Europe finds itself not in capitalist growth dreamland but bogged down in a Mitrovica-like morass: trading in their industrial bona fides for the prospect of becoming fake money factories as crypto production also sets its roots in soil as unfamiliar as that of Donetsk, Abkhazia, Transnistria.

Each of these borderlands ringing the Black Sea has different incentives for harvesting Bitcoin, Ethereum, Ripple. In Donetsk, whose workers once dug the coal that kept Soviet houses lit, the same men who led the secession movement from Ukraine are now pushing for the implementation of a blockchain state that can bypass the American-led international monetary system. In the highlands of South Abkhazia, whose cattle kept the Soviets fed, pro-Russian elites are outflanking Western sanctions (and Georgian police) by shifting their assets into—or simply laundering them through—the crypto sphere. Along the Dniester River, in the pseudo-republic of Transnistria, former steel manufacturers who once supplied Soviet factories are compiling Bitcoin fortunes courtesy of the Kremlin, which agreed to front the breakaway state’s gas bills years after it splintered from Moldova in 1990. Last century these places were indispensable to Soviet communism. When the USSR fell, so too did their standing, and disproportionately so. When secession movements corralled them into a belt of new nation states around the old Soviet frontier—Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova—they found themselves minorities of their new countries, speakers of languages no one else bothered to learn, relics of the working-class struggle in what had become—all but overnight—the most backward and impoverished parts of Europe.

Elites and unemployed alike now huddle around the dying embers of their gutted welfare state—the free electricity that once kept the lights on at battery factories and in mineshafts—to perform a caper on the capitalist world that triumphed over them. How ironic that they are using its greatest symbol, currency itself, to enrich themselves.


“Electric Crypto Balkan Acid Test” was supported in part by New York University’s Matthew Power Literary Reporting Award.

[1] Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the process by which lead-acid batteries are manufactured. It has been corrected.

Alexander Clapp is a journalist living in Athens.

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