Kosovo privatization boss quits over transparency concerns

PRISTINA Thu May 16, 2013 11:11am EDT

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PRISTINA (Reuters) - The head of Kosovo's AKP privatization agency resigned on Thursday amid mounting international concern about a lack of transparency in the sale of state assets in the corruption-ridden young Balkan country.

Blerim Rexha quit after a board member of the agency representing the United States stepped down on Monday, signaling increased dissatisfaction among Kosovo's Western economic patrons at the extent of political influence over ostensibly independent state agencies.

AKP has for years been accused by Kosovo opposition leaders, the diplomatic community and non-governmental organizations of selling state property on the cheap to buyers with political connections.

"I apologize to the members of the assembly and Kosovo citizenry that in this short time I have not been able to implement their recommendations to increase transparency and change the privatization model," Rexha said in a statement.

He has not been directly accused of any wrongdoing.

But Bernadette Roberts, the U.S. AKP board member who quit, said in a resignation letter leaked to local media that she had misgivings about how Kosovo officials were disposing of assets.

Several foreign representatives are on the AKP board of the AKP as part of the West's ongoing supervision of Kosovo's first years as an independent state.

Rexha's predecessor, Dino Asanaj, died while in office last year - he was found dead at his home with 11 stab wounds. An autopsy ruled that he killed himself.

The privatization process in Kosovo, a former province of Serbia which declared independence in 2008 after almost a decade as a ward of the United Nations, has been plagued by accusations of corruption and political meddling.

Kosovo has sold some 70 percent of fully state-owned companies for 630 million euros ($810.31 million). But most of the proceeds are frozen pending creditor claims arising from hazy ownership structures stemming from the 1990s collapse of socialist Yugoslavia and Kosovo's split from Serbia.

Rexha was deputy energy and mining minister in a previous government and a senior official in Prime Minister Hashim Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo before taking charge of privatization.

In a statement sent to Reuters, the U.S. Embassy in Pristina urged the Kosovo government to appoint professionals and increase transparency in selling off valuable state assets.

"It is imperative that the government engage competent, ethical individuals to conduct a fair and transparent privatization process which benefits Kosovo as a whole rather than individual interests," it said.

Corruption, political interference and instability have stifled Kosovo's efforts to attract foreign investors and expand its small economy.

($1 = 0.7775 euros)

(Editing by Matt Robinson and Mark Heinrich)

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