Whistleblowers say lives are at risk from the scale of wrongdoing at Kosovo’s only international airport.
Bujar Ejupi has tired yet hawkish blue eyes beneath thick eyebrows. His skin is pale, his manner determined despite the threats and pressure of the past two years.
Ejupi, 37, was once deputy director and head of finances at Kosovo’s Air Navigation Service Agency, ANSA, the state body that manages air traffic at the country’s sole international airport run by a consortium between the private Turkish company Limak and Aeroports de Lyon since 2011.
Ejupi was fired in mid-2017, after a year in which he was repeatedly warned he would lose his job if he kept writing to the government about the negligence and mismanagement he had encountered.
He has spent most of the 12 months since trying to convince the police to take him seriously.
Ersen Shileku, the former head of operations at ANSA, faced a similar fate.
Now, after two years of Sisyphean effort to bring about change, the pair has gone public with allegations of nepotism, corruption and negligence that have led, among other things, to repeated power cuts and roadside repairs to a radar by a local car mechanic.
Air traffic control has effectively been handed to relatives of the man whose name Prishtina International Airport took in 2010, Adem Jashari – a revered guerrilla who was killed in 1998 along with 58 relatives in a hail of Serbian bullets as an armed rebellion against Serbian rule gathered pace.
Jobs have been handed out, Ejupi and Shileku say, to relatives of Kosovar politicians and to friends and family of senior managers, regardless of their qualifications. With more than 1.7 million passengers flying through the airport every year, they say lives are being put at risk.
“If something happens to flights and passengers, we would not be able to live with ourselves if we did not come forward and tell the public that the security and safety of flights is in jeopardy because of the deliberate negligence, lack of professionalism and the corruption that we saw,” Ejupi told BIRN.
The airport management disputes their accusations, some of which have also come to the attention of the European Union’s rule of law mission in Kosovo.
Kosovo’s only international airport is forever etched in history as the place where – as NATO soldiers took control of Kosovo from vanquished Serbian forces at the end of 11 weeks of air strikes – British general Michael Jackson rebuffed an order from the Western alliance’s US commander, Wesley Clark, to park helicopters on the runway to prevent Russian troops from reinforcing, telling him “Sir, I’m not going to start World War Three for you.” It was 1999.
Twelve years later, the airport became the object of newly-independent Kosovo’s first Public-Private Partnership, PPP, under which the Turkish-French consortium would run it for the next two decades on condition it invest 80 million euros in infrastructure upgrades, including construction of a new terminal. Limak holds 90 per cent of the shares in the consortium.
Kosovo’s government projected the deal would swell state coffers by 400 million euros over the course of the concession.
Three years later, the new terminal was inaugurated at a ceremony attended by Turkey’s then prime minister, now president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kosovo’s then prime minister, now president, Hashim Thaci.
“But behind the glitzy façade of this big terminal, there are a lot of things in the PPP agreement that remain undone – things that are key to aviation standards,” said Ejupi.
They include: widening the airfield for a runway safety strip at a cost of roughly 3 million euros; more space to park planes, valued at 5 million euros; a de-icing platform worth 2 million euros and a 1.5 million euro training area for firefighters.
Nor does the airport have a second backup power generator, a must-have for many businesses in Kosovo due to the country’s unstable electricity supply, let alone for its sole international airport.
“We had a power cut the day (then US vice president) Joe Biden was about to land in Kosovo,” on August 16, 2016, said Shileku. “I had just been appointed in the job as head of operations so it was my job to investigate why we had a cut.”
“The question totally backfired on me,” he said. “After a few exchanges my boss told me not to push it any further.”
Shileku’s boss was Bahri Nuredini, appointed as head of ANSA in 2011 by Thaci. ANSA is largely in charge of the Air Traffic Control Tower, while Limak manages the airport itself.
Nuredini’s uncle on his mother’s side is 43-year-old Bekim Jashari, the head of the ANSA board from 2008 until January 2016 when he left to become mayor of Skenderaj, the main town in Kosovo’s Drenica region, heartland of the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army that Thaci was a leader of.
Both Nuredini and Jashari were relatives of Adem Jashari, considered the KLA’s greatest martyr to the cause.
Ejupi estimates the failure to fulfill the contract has cost Kosovo roughly 14.5 million euros and that since 2011 the airport has made barely 30 million euros of the 400 million that the public purse was projected to reap over the 20-year concession.
“I started getting complaints from air traffic controllers that the tower was cold in the evenings and at nights when they had to operate flights,” said Ejupi. “This prompted me to check what was wrong with our heating system, only to find out it was never built by the Turkish company.”
Under the contract, Ejupi said, Limak “was obliged to build a tower with an independent heating and cooling system as well as a tower with continuous, 24/7 power supply – both of which we clearly did not have.”
Red flags have already been raised over the airport contract.
In two reports in 2014 and 2016, Kosovo’s National Audit Office warned about lax government oversight of the contract’s implementation.
The 2016 report complained that “the outstanding works are not finished yet and it is not specified when and how they will be finalised.”
Speaking to BIRN’s ‘Jeta ne Kosove’ program in April, Lorik Fejzullahu, the former head of the Private Public Partnership Unit within Kosovo’s finance ministry, said that Limak did not finish the works because it requires additional airfield space, which he said was occupied by KFOR, the NATO-led peacekeeping force stationed in Kosovo since 1999.
Limak could have walked away from the contract, he said, given the Kosovo government’s failure to secure the space needed from KFOR. “One day, sooner or later, Limak will have to do this remaining work,” said Fejzullahu.
KFOR, however, disputed this, saying it had received no such request to vacate airfield space.
“KFOR has not been involved directly in any planning or project for the improvement of Prishtina Airport facilities,” KFOR chief spokesperson Vincenzo Grasso told BIRN on July 11. “KFOR airport staff usually attend coordination meetings with Limak and sometimes those topics were mentioned, but KFOR was never blamed.”
“From what is visible on the ground and on the map, a possible extension of the runway and of the taxiway is not interfering with the part of the airport currently occupied by KFOR,” Grasso said.
Under the terms of the contract, the government has the right to fine Limak 10,000 euros per day for failure to complete the work. But it has yet to take this step, with Fejzullahu insisting “This is the best implemented contract in the region.”
Ejupi and Shileku say the delays are dangerous.