UK firms lead the race to rebuild Kosovo

As relief agencies are still picking through the rubble and shrapnel left after the war in Kosovo UK law firms are at the forefront of attempts to rebuild the country.

Some have already begun to form links with regeneration groups. And others, which specialise in construction, are following their clients into the region.

Clifford Chance, however, is playing a leading role in rebuilding Kosovo's fragile political economy.

The firm's head of international law, Jeremy Carver, has already been involved in drafting initial regulations which fill the post-war vacuum, but he says he hopes to be a first point of contact when telecoms and banking projects arise.

Carver recently returned from Kosovo, where he was called in to advise International Rescue.

After working on a project to compile a centralised, Yellow Pages-style database of refugee contact details, Carver has also been successful in getting the green light for an internet project to provide information to the international community.

Carver and others involved in the project hope this will encourage foreign investment.

Rae Lindsay, a partner in Clifford Chance's international law group, says that, while her firm has been working closely with government agencies, rival firms are becoming involved in private construction work.

“My perception is that most other firms are dealing more with the private sector, acting on the reconstruction on a more practical level,” she says.

Law firms with previous experience in post-war reconstruction, and those with existing interests in the Balkans, are in the strongest position to compete with foreign firms.

The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) is pushing for UK firms to get involved in the rebuilding work and it is law firms advising companies such as Kvaerner, Tarmac Construction International, and Taylor Woodrow which are tipped to be next in.

Nicholson Graham & Jones, Cameron McKenna, Constant & Constant and Nabarro Nathanson attended a DTI regeneration task force conference on opportunities in Kosovo at the end of June.

Firms which have a reputation for shipping have strong regional connections.

Constant & Constant has been bolstering its shipping practice with new recruits and Stephenson Harwood, which has an office in Croatian capital Zagreb and one in the Greek port Piraeus, is also expected to called upon to advise when there is an upturn in commercial work in the region.

Norton Rose's Balkan practice group has also been involved in privatisations and projects in the region.

Nabarro Nathanson partner Giles Dixon says the construction of housing for 300,000 people will be the first concern.

“Without proper housing the winter is going to be harsh,” he says. “There is power, I believe, but the water system is in a mess, as are the roads. There is a lot of reconstruction needed.

“It's fairly early. The UN and others still need to assess what is needed and then to prioritise. The main issue is getting the funding,” says Dixon, who suggests the World Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development are likely sources.

City lawyers say firms with previous experience of rebuilding post-war regions may win work, but there is no guarantee.

Nabarro Nathanson was brought in to advise in Kuwait after the Gulf war. But Dixon says: “That was a very different situation. The American corps of engineers took most of the work on the reconstruction side. That was mainly because the Americans were leading the UN force to liberate Kuwait.”

Dixon says a City-based Kuwait group was set up after the Gulf war. Dixon, a member of the group, says: “It was designed to get business for British industry in 1991.

“We got a fair amount of work but not as much as we had hoped for.”

He says Nabarros has not yet been instructed on any reconstruction projects, but does not rule out future involvement.

“I think it will be more on the consultancy side,” he says.

Clifford Chance's Lindsay says it is a good way of getting a foot in the door.

“In Kuwait we were involved in recovery but also on claims procedure. These claims tend to give rise to longer term involvement in the area,” she says.

Law firms with experience in the charities sector have also acted in Kosovo-related business, but it is still too early to tell whether UK law firms will be the main advisers. Charity lawyers say work has come in on an ad hoc basis. This is because charities are often set up in the aftermath of disasters and conflicts.

At the same time, international charities like Oxfam and the Red Cross may need to retain additional lawyers for these events.

Nicholas Munday, partner in the political risk insurance group at Clifford Chance, says aid agencies, both charity and state-funded, will be the first to go in. But any further funding will depend on the stability of the region.

One of the major obstacles to further investment, going beyond state aid and charitable bequests, is the tenuous status of Kosovo under international law.

Carver says: “It's a highly contentious issue.

“Kosovo is now under the exclusive mandate of the UN, and the UN refers to it as a province, which was the last definition within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia's constitution.

“The Albanians find this grossly offensive, and say it is an autonomous republic.

“I refer to it as a country.”

While the debate rages over the question of Kosovo's identity, a second question has been raised by City lawyers interested in working on the financing of the rebuilding: “Who is the Kosovan government?”

The United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) is the immediate answer to this, but it is not a conventional government in the sense that it will be able to borrow money.

“One of the duties UNMIK has is to identify the contracting party,” says Carver. “This is one of the questions that hasn't been resolved yet.

“De facto and at law, UNMIK has full authority, but there has been no legal change to the status between Kosovo and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia,” says Carver.

But he is not put off by this. He admits: “I haven't addressed my mind to the problem of how does the World Bank lend funds, but I think it is possible.”

Clifford Chance's Munday advised the World Bank and Lloyd's on an innovative insurance scheme for companies looking to invest in Bosnia.

In June, the World Bank introduced a novel leveraged insurance facility for trade, specifically targeted at Bosnian investment.

But it will be some time before Kosovo recovers so that its government looks at involvement in elaborate investment schemes.

Munday warns that banks will be reluctant to lend to Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, who remains, at least on paper in control of Kosovo.

“The World Bank will be invited to assist. It has to decide whether this type of scheme is enough in Kosovo.

“It's probably far too soon but maybe in time. One doesn't feel that the government is yet ready,” suggests Munday.

Munday expects these schemes are becoming increasingly attractive to international organisations, as they move away from the traditional approach of throwing good money after bad.

“The World Bank and other organisations have realised if they create a climate, the project may have a longer life if it turns out to be commercially viable,” he says.

And in the longer term, Munday says, companies may want to invest in political risk insurance schemes, which are already available in other Balkan states.

“One of my clients has an income of $30m in political risks. It's what you would call a big niche.

“As a market within Lloyd's it's an important market. It's essential when going into a country thought to be politically unstable,” says Munday.

The legal uncertainty has not stopped the money flooding in from charitable and state sources.

Despite the UK's contribution of £800,000 dismissed as “humiliating” by Carver, money is flooding in from the US and other EU states.

The irony is that, despite the UK government's paltry support for the Kosovo economy, other countries will ensure that UK law firms stand to make a great deal of money.