A battle is raging, and being fought by all available means, because of the importance of the goal: that Serbia must become an energy colony of Russia. According to the Russian lobbyists in Belgrade: “This is good for both Russia and Serbia.” At the same time Mlađan Dinkić, the minister for the economy who insists that it is not good for Serbia to give its oil industry ( NIS) to Russia for 400 million euros, has been denounced as an agent of the Austrian OMW, a Satan and a traitor.

Over the past month and more, not a day has passed without a Russian lobbyist (and sometimes several of them) assuring the Serbian public that milk and honey, in addition to gas and oil, will flow from Russia to Serbia if only Serbia does not refrain from selling NIS to the Russian Gasprom for 400 million euros. The former Russian ambassador Alexeyev, the current ambassador Konuzin, a certain Malishev, Sergey Lavrov, Sergey Ivanov, and Toma Nikolić [of the Radical Party] all insist that “Only Gasprom Saves the Serbs”. The occasional threats that pass their lips serve to “freeze” us and make us thankful that Serbia is not as close to them as Georgia.

Since Dinkić continues to demand that an independent auditor should establish the true value of NIS, the lobbying has become more strident, causing a key Russian lobbyist in Serbia to emerge from the shadows and join the chorus of the Russian boys.

On 22 August the information service of the Serbian Democratic Party (DSS) issued a written statement by Nenad Popović, president of the party’s Economic Council, in which he accused minister Dinkić of seeking ‘to cancel in full the oil-gas agreement with Russia’. By doing this, says Popović, Dinkić “is placing in jeopardy the opening of 100,000 new jobs, hindering Serbia’s entry into the European Union, discouraging foreign investors and endangering the country’s long-term security”. Popović concludes his written statement by saying that “no one individual has the right to ruin Serbia’s national and state interests for the sake of personal gain and the interests of the oil lobby”.

In order to grasp the gravity and meaning of this charge, especially the part about ‘personal gain’ set to ‘ruin national and state interests’, it is necessary to examine who this Nenad Popović is, who has signed the statement by the Democratic Party of Serbia and acts as the head of its Economic Council. This is how the Serbian ambassador to Rome and former head of the Kosovo Coordination Centre, Sandra Rašković-Ivić, described her first meeting with Popović at last year’s promotion of his book ‘Openly about the Kosovo Economy’: “Following my appointment as head of the Coordination Centre, prime minister Koštunica called up to tell me that he was sending a highly talented Serb of ours from Bosnia, who was a businessman, to help me run the Coordination Centre. Half an hour later Nenad Popović arrived in my office.” In this way Nenad Popović became head of the economic team at the Coordination Centre for Kosovo.

Before becoming “a Serb of ours from Bosnia”, Nenad Popović at the end of the 1990s and the start of the new century was the president and owner of the company ABS Holdings, which had emerged from the ruins of the Soviet economy on the foundations of the Russian transition. A man perfectly ready to participate also in the Serbian transition at a suitable moment. That moment came with the advent to power of Vojislav Koštunica. Nenad Popović became the financier of the Democratic Party of Serbia, politically a very close ally of the prime minister, and an inescapable participant in the privatisation of Serbian firms in the state sector for the production of electrical goods, a sports ‘worker’ and a high state official.

As early as 3 June 2004, the weekly NIN carried a text “Koštunica facing a wonderland” in which Popović was introduced as one of the more successful Serb businessmen in Russia, whose firm ABS Holdings, with around 5,000 employees and $200 million annual turnover, was a partner of the Russian Electricity Board, Gasprom, Lukoil, BP-Tank, Russian Railways and many other firms.

At the start of 2005 the same paper quoted the “Bosnian businessman” from Moscow, Nenad Popović: “We are closely following the announced privatisation of the production of electrical energy in Serbia, and I must say that we have the intention of participating in every way.”

It took indeed no time at all for this announcement to be put into practice.

The daily Politika of 22 February 2005 reports that “the producer of electrical power distribution equipment Minel Fepo in Zrenjanin was sold at the starting price of 61,872 million dinars to the Belgrade man Nenad Popović”. The same paper wrote on 29 July 2005 that “the firm Minel, producing electrical equipment, was sold to Nenad Popović, owner of the firm ABS Holding from Moscow”. On 28 December 2005 Politika reported also that “at the auction sale organised by the Privatisation Agency, the firm Minel Project Engineering was sold for 91 million dinars to ABS Holdings, owned by Nenad Popović. The firm’s starting price was 26.9 million dinars.”

The same paper wrote on 6 March 2008 that “ABS Holdings includes ABS Minel Transformer, ABS Minel Electrical Equipment and Plant, ABS Minel Fepo, ABS Minel Electrical Plant Transmission, ABS Minel Contact Network, ABS Minel Project Engineering and ABS Control Systems.’

On 20 November 2006, the [Belgrade paper] Blic, searching for the latest Serb businessmen, wrote that “among the buyers who have won five times at auctions is the head of the government Economic Team for Kosovo, the owner of ABS Holdings, Nenad Popović, who at auctions bought only firms that used to belong to Minel Holdings. Popović paid a total of 577.8 million dinars (7.2 million Euros) for four firms which he either bought outright or as representative of a consortium of the employees.” As to why Popović, the owner of a firm which in Russia alone employed 5,000 people, should appear as the direct buyer, Blic responded: “According to the Law on Privatisation, legal persons acting as buyers pay at once and in whole, while physical persons have the right to pay in six annual instalments.”

In the spring of 2008 a tender for the sale of Minel Transformers in Ripanj, yet another firm that used to be part of the former Minel Holdings, was announced. Večernje novosti of 12 August 2008 reported that ‘five buyers responded to the tender for the sale of the former Minel Holding: ABS Minel Transformer in Mladenovac, the Italian Transformer Electro-Service, the Latvian AS Latvo, a consortium made up of Trans-Enterprise in Niš and the Russian Samarskij Transformer, and a consortium of the Russian firms OAO Novaja Era and Aurora Management.”

Somewhat earlier, the director of ABS Holdings for Serbia, Zoran Radosavljević, told the daily Biznis of 4 June 2008: “We are interested in the sale of 65.19 per cent of the Minel Transformer capital.”

As the financier of the then ruling party (DSS), one of its high officials, a prominent state official, a close friend of Vojislav Koštunica, and the firm’s owner, Nenad Popović took part not only in the privatisation and purchase of former state-owned firms. His ABS Holdings company participated also in some highly profitable ventures linked to the Serbian electrical energy sector.

Thus, for example, the paper Pregled reported that ABS Minel Electrical Equipment and Plant had announced an agreement with the firm Thermal Plants and Mining Kostolac for the delivery and installation of a 450-metre cable distributor worth 86 million dinars. The same ABS firm signed an agreement also with Electrical Distribution Jugoistok for the reconstruction – and additional construction – of the Jastrebac transformer, worth 500,000 euros.

Politika of 19 August 2006 wrote next that “ABS Minel Electrical Equipment and Plant had signed an agreement with the firm Plants and Mining Kostolac, worth 99 million dinars, for replacement of the complete installation in six light-voltage fields of 110 kilovolts”. On 8 June 2007, Glas javnosti wrote that the Serbian Electricity Board had signed an agreement with ABS Minel Electrical Equipment, worth 3.8 million euros, for the delivery of a system for the electrical supply of the excavators deployed in removal of land waste at Drmno in Kostolac.

On that occasion the general director of the Serbian Electricity Enterprise, Vladimir Đorđević (a cadre of the DSS, which during the government’s two terms held the management of this public company as a result of coalition agreements), stated that the company would invest more than three billion euros over the next few years in the production of coal and electricity.

Nine months later, the manager of ABS Holdings in Serbia, Zoran Radosavljević, said (Danas, 6 March 2008) that “ABS will take part during 2008 in the building of the transmission line Niš-Leskovac worth 2 million euros, in the building of the transformer at Kostolac worth over 3.5 million euros, that it will revitalise the hydroelectric plant at Ovčar Banja, which is an investment worth 2 million euros, and the hydroelectric plant in Bajina Bašta for 1.5 million euros.” On 4 June 2008, moreover, Radosavljević announced in the paper Biznis ABS Holdings participation in the tender for building the coal-fired electrical plant Kolubara B.

Straddling two stools, in business and politics in Serbia and Russia, has made it possible for Nenad Popović to participate also in the development of strong political and business ties with Russia.

Popović said in a recent interview that “one of the most important results of his many years of doing business in Russia is a good relationship with that country’s officials, who frequently stress that the relationship between Serbia and Russia has never been so good.”

The Serbian media report that Russian deputy prime minister Sergey Ivanov, and the president of the Russian Duma Boris Gryzlov, are frequent guests at the opening of ABS plants in Russia, and on 9 March 2008 Blic reported that “the energy agreement between Serbia and Russia was facilitated also by the contacts of Nenad Popović, the owner of ABS holding and the head of the economic teams for Kosovo, and of Borislav Milošević, brother of the former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević”.

Nenad Popović was a member of the official Serbian delegation to the last June meeting of the Economic Forum in St. Petersburg. As his company informs us, Popović stated that “the summit provided an excellent opportunity for Serbian businessmen and state officials to establish new partnerships, that Russian businessmen showed great interest in coming to Serbia, and that his company will very soon involve its Russian partners in certain Serbian projects”.

At that same summit, the head of the Serbian delegation, Božidar Đelić, talked to the representatives of Gasprom about an energy agreement between Serbia and Russia.

Zoran Radosavljević, the head of ABS Holdings in Serbia, told Biznis that his company supported the entry of Russian firms into Serbia, “because we believe that this would greatly aid our country’s economic development”.

It is thought in the energy community that Nenad Popović and his ABS Holdings were also ‘involved’ in signing the protocol on cooperation between the Serbian Electricity Enterprise (EPS) and the Russian company Inter Rao, a powerful state firm concerned with foreign trade, which owns hydroelectric plants with a total capacity of 10,000 megawatts. According to some experts, the protocol signals Russia’s entry by the back door into EPS building projects, despite the fact that it is formally expected that the strategic partner in the building of new power plants would be decided by tender.

For several years now Nenad Popović has been cited in public-opinion polls as a highly influential person in Serbia. His influence rests on his economic power, as well as his political and state functions.

Thus Glas javnosti reported on 29 March 2008 that “Nenad Popović, head of the government’s economic team for the Serbian south, did not wish to comment on the news that the Serbian media had recently declared him to be Serbia’s richest politician. The media estimate his property at 200 million euros, and report that he owns the company ABS Holdings and five firms belonging to Minel Holding, and that he is co-owner of the furniture factory Lagardo in Bujanovac and also owns real estate in Moscow and Belgrade.”

A few days ago he wrote that “no one individual has the right to ruin Serbia’s national and state interests, for the sake of personal gain and the interests of the oil lobby” It is difficult to disagree with him on this. But the statement does not go together with what Nenad Popović was and is: owner of companies, financier of the DSS, a man close to former prime minister Vojislav Koštunica, head of the economic team at the Kosovo Coordination Centre, head of the coordination team for the Serbian south, a ‘bridge’ between Russian and Serbian economies, a participant in preparation and implementation of the energy agreement between Russia and Serbia, president of the DSS Economic Council, and president of the Partizan football team. It all adds up to a picture of what is popularly known as the tycoonisation of Serbia.

Translated by Bosnian Institute

Peščanik.net, 24.08.2008.