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Serbia's Back-Door Bid To Embed Chinese Snooping Tools In Kosovo

Cars drive past a Huawei logo on a building in central Belgrade, Serbia (file photo).
Cars drive past a Huawei logo on a building in central Belgrade, Serbia (file photo).

BELGRADE/PRISTINA -- Kosovo risks becoming a reluctant laboratory for invasive Chinese surveillance technology at the hands of neighboring Serbia, an "iron-clad" friend to Beijing.

Belgrade is quietly financing an effort to install advanced and largely unregulated Chinese surveillance tools in Kosovar communities that are partly outside Pristina's control, RFE/RL's Balkan Service has learned.

A predominantly Serb provisional authority in southeastern Kosovo signed a deal last month to purchase tens of thousands of euros' worth of small surveillance cameras, digital recorders, and other equipment from the U.S.-blacklisted company Zhejiang Dahua Technologies to monitor schools in a dozen communities, according to publicly available documents.

The documents said a Serbian government office that steers relations with the former province provided the funding.

Central Kosovar authorities including the government, police, and customs office have responded with silence or said they have no information about the plans by Belgrade, which still does not recognize Kosovo's 2008 independence declaration.

The scheme could contribute to a Chinese foothold in facial-recognition and other artificial-intelligence-based technologies in Kosovo, one of the Western Balkans' staunchest holdouts against the presence of Huawei, Dahua, and other technology and infrastructure companies that are thought to cooperate closely with Beijing.

U.S. ally Kosovo has largely spurned such products and pledged support for Washington's "Clean Network" initiative to ring-fence advanced Chinese technology.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, on the other hand, has aggressively courted Beijing within a "four-pillar" foreign policy to leverage Serbian relationships with the European Union, the United States, Russia, and China.

He has embraced Chinese trade and investment, particularly in the high-tech sector, while shrugging off Serbian protests at the rollout of thousands of cameras and other smart surveillance tools purchased from Chinese vendors amid accusations of creeping authoritarianism.

China has meanwhile withheld recognition of Kosovo and has no formal diplomatic relations with Pristina.

Stefan Vladisavljev of the Belgrade Security Forum recently noted U.S. and EU pressure in the Western Balkans to limit China's high-tech presence there.

"If China gains ground in the current and future development of digital infrastructure in the region, it could represent a security challenge not only for the region, but for the United States as well," he warned.

China has intensely marketed its "smart cities" project abroad to provide integrated biometric, sensory, and analytical technologies to help foreign governments monitor and govern urban centers, contributing to fears of Orwellian controls on residents who are ill-equipped to check potential official overreach.

In comments this week to RFE/RL, Vladisavljev said he thought the Dahua deal did not mark a major Chinese inroad but rather a small public procurement that highlights the messy state of affairs in which Pristina does not exert authority over Serb-dominated regions of Kosovo.

"If, let's say, the city of Pristina comes out tomorrow and says, 'We are implementing a "safe cities" project with the partnership of Huawei despite us aligning with the Clean Network initiative,' then I would see it as a direct confrontation with the interests of some other actors like the European Union or the United States," Vladisavljev said. "But in this specific and limited case, I'm not really seeing it as something that should be put in the grand scale of things, because I really think it is an exception, an interesting case but not as significant as maybe other examples [of adopting Chinese technology] in the region are."

A predominantly Serb provisional authority in the mostly ethnically Albanian Kosovar municipality of Gjilan (Gnjilane in Serbian) signed a deal on December 16, 2021, to purchase 39,000 euros' ($44,250) worth of Dahua technology via a company called Neva Company 2020, which was registered with Serbian authorities in September.

It specifies the purchase of 196 small surveillance cameras known as "bullet cameras," 30 hard drives, 30 DVR recorders, and 9,000 meters of cable. The contract calls for the delivery, installation, and operation of the equipment within 30 days.

It is earmarked for about 30 facilities, mostly schools, in 12 Kosovar communities.

The Serbian business registry claims that Neva's headquarters are in Ranilug, Kosovo.

But the Kosovo Business Registration Agency lists no such company.

Ranilug resident Milos Djordjevic says he's Neva's owner, although the Serbian registry lists the owner as Milena Djordjevic. Milos Djordjevic failed to respond after telling RFE/RL's Balkan Service to e-mail him its questions.

Sasa Milosevic, the president of Gnjilane's provisional Serb leadership, which is financed by Belgrade, was not available to discuss the Dahua deal.

Documents related to the purchase say the funding was provided by the Serbian government's coordination body, the Office for Kosovo and Metohija.

Belgrade openly supports and finances Serb political parties and other organizations in Kosovo, in part to bolster its regional influence among fellow ethnic communities throughout the former Yugoslavia.

Pristina's ethnic Albanian leadership says the resulting "parallel" administrative, social, and political structures are intended to stymie the Kosovar government and hinder European and international integration efforts.

The Serbian government did not respond to RFE/RL's questions about the Dahua deal and whether it had informed Kosovar authorities of the school-surveillance scheme.

Vucic and ally Prime Minister Ana Brnabic have faced a backlash at home over the quiet introduction since 2019 of Chinese surveillance technology in Belgrade as part of a "safe city" initiative, along with facial-recognition and other advanced technologies to track the public.

The plan envisaged more than 1,000 surveillance cameras with facial-recognition technology at 800 locations in the Serbian capital.

Belgrade's Chinese Surveillance Cameras Spark Backlash
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The scheme fueled a citizens' group called Thousands Of Cameras (Hiljade Kamera) to protest the assumption "that we are all potential criminals" and the lack of consultation with the public, in addition to street art and other efforts at resistance.

So far, Belgrade has faced little public resistance over its financing of a plan to implement similar Chinese snooping tools in Kosovo.

Neither Kosovo's government, its national police, nor its customs authority has publicly responded to the Dahua deal.

The Kosovar Interior Ministry told RFE/RL last month that "at the moment we do not have any information on this issue."

The Education Ministry noted that most schools are equipped with video monitoring and there is no specific law regulating such surveillance.

But the Kosovo Information and Privacy Agency (IPA), an independent watchdog that safeguards personal data protection, cited a prohibition on video tools that identify specific individuals. Only the police have a right to such surveillance "in special cases," the IPA said.

Permits for CCTV monitoring of schools are safe because images can't be transmitted to phones or other devices, the IPA said.

The IPA acknowledged that it didn't know whether cameras were being used in schools in majority-Serb areas because it has not had staff to monitor those places.

Kosovo's parliament in July appointed a commissioner for such inspections within Serb communities, the IPA said.

Western governments have targeted Dahua and the larger and better-known Huawei over their alleged roles in helping China's government monitor and persecute its own citizens.

The United States added Dahua Technologies to its list of restricted vendors in 2018 over its supply of equipment to help China's government surveil its Uyghur community in Xinjiang, where Washington has accused Beijing of carrying out a "genocide."

Dahua expressed its "strong protest" and said it "adheres to the business code of conduct and follows market rules as well as international rules."

In 2020, Chinese tech and communications giant Huawei opened a regional innovation center in Belgrade in part to boost perceptions of Serbia as a Balkan leader in the high-tech sector, which already accounts for more than 6 percent of Serbian GDP.

Last month, a Washington Post investigative report alleged that Huawei "has had a broader role in tracking China's populace than it has acknowledged."

Then-Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti signed a "U.S.-Kosovo 5G Memorandum of Understanding" in October 2020 in support of the "Clean Network," a Trump administration initiative to counter perceived threats to data privacy and security from "malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party."

After news of the Serbian purchase of Dahua technology for Serb areas of Kosovo, the U.S. State Department said in a written response to RFE/RL's Balkan Service that "The United States is working with allies and partners on an initiative to draft principles for the responsible government use of surveillance technology in line with our shared democratic values and respect for human rights."

Written by Andy Heil in Prague based on reporting by Mila Djurdjevic in Belgrade and Sandra Cvetkovic in Pristina
  • 16x9 Image

    Mila Manojlovic

    Mila Manojlovic is a social-media producer for RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

  • 16x9 Image

    Sandra Cvetkovic

    Sandra Cvetkovic is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Kosovo Service.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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