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ŠOLAK'S BUSINESS MACHINATIONS: He started from pirated CDs and made profits from sanctions, and planned to pinch PGP's offices
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KURIR'S EXCLUSIVE INVESTIGATION: LARGE-SCALE THEFT IN SOUTHEAST EUROPE UNDER THE GUISE OF DEMOCRACY AND FIGHT FOR MEDIA FREEDOM

ŠOLAK'S BUSINESS MACHINATIONS: He started from pirated CDs and made profits from sanctions, and planned to pinch PGP's offices

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The business rise of United Group's owner started in the 1990s – an ideal period for him to demonstrate for the first time a proclivity towards cutting corners around laws, but also brutally trampling on them. He has adhered to this principle until the present day.

Similar to an avalanche starting from a small snowball, the greatest theft in Southeast Europe, perpetrated under the guise of democracy and the fight for media freedom, rose out of a perfectly modest, shady, and targeted deal of Dragan Šolak – the founder and owner of the SBB cable network and the umbrella company United Group. The business rise of this tycoon from Kragujevac started in the 1990s – an ideal period for Šolak to demonstrate for the first time a proclivity towards cutting corners around laws, but also brutally trampling on them. He has retained this manner of doing things until the present day, when – owing to enormous personal wealth and the business lobby that he runs – he has become a person with an unslakable ambition to sink everything in sight that is business- and politics-related.

A nose for piracy

Šolak's father Njegoš was the dean of the Faculty of Economics in Kragujevac in the 1990s (1990-1993). According to the account of a family acquaintance, on top of providing his son Dragan with the startup capital needed to start a business, Šolak senior was behind both developing the concept for his son's first companies and establishing them.

According to his acquaintances, Dragan Šolak started out in business as a student at the School of Electrical Engineering in Belgrade, but he eventually dropped out of university. His first job was at Vans – a well-known production company at the time – and this opened the door into the world of trading CDs and DVDs, which were popular then. The circumstances surrounding this business were quite specific back in the day, as the copyrights granted to authors of creative works did not have adequate legal protections during the time of the sanctions imposed on the Balkans. Realizing what business opportunities were opening up in this area, Šolak moved to Slovenia, where he started the company Taped Pictures (T. Pics) with his wife Gordana. The company was involved in the sale of CDs and DVDs, as well as importing and distributing creative works from the federal units of the former Yugoslavia.

Sued multiple times

Sources from creative industries at the time have revealed to the Belgrade media outlets that in addition to sales, Taped Pictures was also involved in releasing films on CDs and DVDs, violating in this way the sanctions by importing films from Serbia. Due to the disputes over author rights, multiple lawsuits were filed to Slovenian courts against the company owned by the Šolaks, and it went into bankruptcy in 1998. At the time, Šolak became friends with the then general manager of the record label PGP RTS, Aleksandar Backović. The new friend makes it possible for Šolak to base his company at the PGP offices in Miklošičeva Cesta Street in Ljubljana, owned by PGP RTB since the 1980s. At a time when FR Yugoslavia was under sanctions, PGP granted to Šolak's company various rights to release and distribute films and music from its Slovenia and Croatia catalogue. Using the sanctions, as well as the specificities of his business arrangement with PGP and the unresolved property ownership issues between the federal units of the former Yugoslavia, Šolak managed to register as the owner of PGP's Ljubljana offices through a lawyer, with the intention of retaining ownership of it indefinitely. As a result of this machination, in an attempt to retrieve the contested property, PGP pursued a lawsuit against Šolak over a number of years.

Aleksandar Backović has confirmed for Kurir that Taped Pictures ran the PGP RTS representative office in Ljubljana.

"After the Dayton Agreement and the lifting of sanctions, we first broke into the regional market by opening a PGP RTS representative office in Ljubljana. In addition to the PGP management, the representative office opening ceremony, which took place in the Ljubljana city centre, was attended by Veljko Knežević, the then ambassador of FR Yugoslavia in Zagreb. The office was run by Taped Pictures. Due to the succession issues between the federal units of the former Yugoslavia, there was a dispute over the ownership of the PGP offices. To the best of my knowledge, they remained in RTS's ownership," the former PGP RTS general manager said in a statement.

Sued multiple times

Sources from creative industries at the time have revealed to the Belgrade media outlets that in addition to sales, Taped Pictures was also involved in releasing films on CDs and DVDs, violating in this way the sanctions by importing films from Serbia. Due to the disputes over author rights, multiple lawsuits were filed to Slovenian courts against the company owned by the Šolaks, and it went into bankruptcy in 1998. At the time, Šolak became friends with the then general manager of the record label PGP RTS, Aleksandar Backović. The new friend makes it possible for Šolak to base his company at the PGP offices in Miklošičeva Cesta Street in Ljubljana, owned by PGP RTB since the 1980s. At a time when FR Yugoslavia was under sanctions, PGP granted to Šolak's company various rights to release and distribute films and music from its Slovenia and Croatia catalogue. Using the sanctions, as well as the specificities of his business arrangement with PGP and the unresolved property ownership issues between the federal units of the former Yugoslavia, Šolak managed to register as the owner of PGP's Ljubljana offices through a lawyer, with the intention of retaining ownership of it indefinitely. As a result of this machination, in an attempt to retrieve the contested property, PGP pursued a lawsuit against Šolak over a number of years.

Aleksandar Backović has confirmed for Kurir that Taped Pictures ran the PGP RTS representative office in Ljubljana.

"After the Dayton Agreement and the lifting of sanctions, we first broke into the regional market by opening a PGP RTS representative office in Ljubljana. In addition to the PGP management, the representative office opening ceremony, which took place in the Ljubljana city centre, was attended by Veljko Knežević, the then ambassador of FR Yugoslavia in Zagreb. The office was run by Taped Pictures. Due to the succession issues between the federal units of the former Yugoslavia, there was a dispute over the ownership of the PGP offices. To the best of my knowledge, they remained in RTS's ownership," the former PGP RTS general manager said in a statement.

Political ties

In the same year, Šolak returned to Serbia and started the company Kablovski Distributivni Sistem (Cable Distribution System; KDS) – SBB's predecessor – with his brother-in-law Radosavljević and another partner. As according to the regulations at the time they could not register independently for the activity of distributing television content, Šolak and Radosavljević were provided with 25 percent of the capital by the Kragujevac City Hall, through Radio Television Kragujevac (RTK), a local television station. It was then that KDS started to introduce cable television within the Kragujevac City bounds. Soon after, it was getting hired in public tenders for jobs in parts of Belgrade, Mladenovac, and a few more cities across Serbia. This meant that KDS had bitten off more than it could chew, so Šolak had to secure funds from external sources for the next phase of his business. Injecting multimillion incentives from various speculative funds into Šolak's businesses would turn him into an increasingly unscrupulous regional player, which we will write about in the upcoming parts of this serial.

Business with the state

Getting a whiff of quick and easy profits

According to the account of people with knowledge of the political situation in Kragujevac at the time, after 2000 Šolak was close to the leadership of the local Democratic Party committee – first and foremost Vlatko Rajković and Predrag Petaković, who was the director of RTK. The state stepping in was crucial for Šolak to achieve what he had set out to do, and to move his business into television distribution – an activity where he had gotten a whiff of quick and easy profits. Rajković and Petaković did not wish to talk about this business.

"I wouldn't have anything of interest to say. I've been out of it all for a long time – I was the director of RTK 20 years ago, and I'm retired now," Petaković said briefly.

A clear message

Kurir will not stop investigating

Despite all the pressures from Šolak and Dragan Đilas's business and political lobby, Kurir will continue its investigation into this duo's shady business deals and schemes. It is nonetheless telling that the pressures and attacks against Kurir are mounted just before the publication of each instalment of the investigation into Šolak and the people around him.

A former partner disappointed with Šolak

'A very bad experience, but I don't want to talk about it'

Šolak's one-time business partner and brother-in-law, Dušan Radosavljević, does not like to remember their joint business adventure. When we asked him about how KDS had been founded in Kragujevac, Radosavljević briefly said: "I have long since left that line of work and that story, and I don't see why I should talk about it. For me it was a very bad experience, and I really don't want to talk about it."

Kurir team

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