Transferring the business costs to others and keeping the profits for oneself – that is what the co-owner of United Group Dragan Šolak has used as a motto in expanding his business.
Freebooter-style incursions, unscrupulous plundering, and speculative business moves are the hallmarks of the business world that Šolak and his SBB have been part of for years, making astronomical profits from it and building on its foundations an empire that is United Group now. As a result, Šolak has become the richest Serbian tycoon by a long shot, with more to his name than Miodrag Kostić and Miroslav Mišković taken together. His wealth – as we reported last week – currently stands at around 1.22 billion euros.
Šolak's travesty of a busines model can be understood from many examples of evading the law and usurping the public property of the Republic of Serbia and the City of Belgrade. How it all worked in practice is best illustrated by the case of PU Belgrade Power Plants. According to this utility's claims, Šolak's SBB has for years been illegally using its manholes and heating supply lines to lay about 60km of optical fibre cables in Serbia's capital. Due to the brutal usurping of public property, Belgrade Power Plants has filed a lawsuit against SBB asking for €110 million in damages.
The comprehensive list of charges, containing the exact routes where SBB's usurping activities were discovered, clearly reveals that Belgrade Power Plants first notified SBB in February 2004 that the latter was using the underground heating supply line installations to illegally lay optical cables. Then, in April 2009, the utility issued an order banning any and all cable laying activities. Since SBB ignored all this and continued to use the publicly owned heating supply lines without proper authorization, Belgrade Power Plants and the City of Belgrade filed a lawsuit against it in August 2019.
"The defendant laid optical fibre cables into the plaintiff's heating supply line trenches without a valid basis, and has been using another party's property from 2002 until the day of filing the present lawsuit. The defendant is therefore obligated to pay RSD 1,177,400.00, i.e. €10 million, to the plaintiffs in damages for using another party's property. The plaintiff has information to the effect that the defendant placed identification labels containing the insignia of the state authorities and other legal entities on the optical fibre cables in order to create a misapprehension regarding the ownership of the optical fibre cables," the lawsuit reads.
Belgrade Power Plants and the City of Belgrade are forced to demand in the lawsuit in question that SBB remove the laid optical grid or pay €100 million to them instead. The legal proceedings stemming from this lawsuit are underway and have not been concluded with a final decision.
As soon as this case was uncovered and the city hall announced that a criminal complaint would be filed and court proceedings initiated to seek compensation for the damage incurred, United Group issued two official statements as the owner of SBB. In these statements, it attempted to rather unconvincingly deny the allegations which would be included in the complaint that we quote from only a month later.
Accusing the authorities of "mounting a sustained negative campaign against SBB" to seek revenge for TV N1's reporting, United Group confirmed that it uses PU Belgrade Power Plants' manholes and heating supply lines. However, this company also claimed that it had allowed the public utility company in question to use its own resources to control the heating system for nearly a decade and a half. United Group added that the business it had conducted "with the Belgrade Power Plants utility are governed by valid contracts."
Knowing well that the first official statement was an abject PR failure and a feeble attempt at damage control, the company quickly sent another statement to the media. In this statement, trying to prove that they did in fact have the relevant documentation, they made available to the public only page one of the Decision of the Ministry of Capital Investments from 2004, when Velimir Ilić led this ministry.
The Decision provided SBB with a general permission to build a telecommunication distribution network in Serbia, which fact in no way released the company from the obligation of obtaining the required urban planning-related permits at the local government level.
Moreover, United Group also offered to the public page one of the contract signed with PU Belgrade Power Plants in 2001 – three years before Minister Ilić's Decision granting them permission to install the infrastructure in the first place.
The contract allowed SBB (called Telefonija KDS at the time) to use the underground district heating routes within the Stari Grad municipality (an area covered by the Dunav Heating Plant). As only page one of the contract was made available to the public, the public could not establish who had signed the contract, or what the rights and obligations of the contracting parties were.
Threatening to sue and then falling silent
SBB announced it would file a lawsuit as well, specifying in an official statement that "the attempt to damage" the company "by abusing all the institutions of the state [...] will be the basis for multiple requests for damages," as well as that the local and international public would be informed, and that international arbitration would be requested. Two years went by, and nothing had come of SBB's announced lawsuits.
The company took up the same issue in a statement from 22 July 2019, warning the public that "for the first time in history" Serbia was seeing "preparations for the destruction of foreign-owned property by the state."
ILLEGALLY, USING EPIS UTILITY POLES
SBB steals electricity too
SBB uses the city water supply system and the public lighting poles in a similar fashion. It also mounts amplifiers onto the utility poles to illegally obtain electricity directly from the street lights. This has prompted The Electric Power Industry of Serbia (EPIS) to seek justice in court.
"The cable operator SBB has been illegally using the utility poles of the electricity distribution network owned by the distribution system operator EPIS Distribution (DSO) from 1 June 2019. As a result, after multiple communications sent to SBB, the DSO was forced to protect its rights in court, as well as to demand that fees be paid for the use of the utility poles and that the cable installations be removed from its network. The fee for using utility poles was set by the decision of the DSO Council back in June 2019, and it is the same for all cable operators concluding contracts with the DSO, including SBB," EPIS said in a written statement for Kurir.
According to EPIS, out of 65 cable operators which have mounted installations on the DSO utility poles, 62 operators have concluded contracts under the same terms, while a lawsuit has been filed to the court with jurisdiction over the matter against the operators which have not done so.
Kurir.rs/ Redakcija Kurira Foto: screenshot youtube N1