The Ibar River bridge connects 40,000 mostly Serbs with the rest of Kosovo, a nation they don’t recognise. North Mitrovica’s Serb population is surrounded by nationalist symbols and exhortations to fight the rule of the Albanian dominated government. Photo: Mitchell Prothero

The Inside Story of Europe’s Weirdest Crypto Mining Boom

Crypto was meant to set the world free from the old worlds of centralised banks and strongman politics, but in a small and often neglected corner of Europe, a Bitcoin mining boom showed how historic forces are difficult to shake off.

MITROVICA, Kosovo – There are divided cities all over the world. Some are separated by walls, some by armed checkpoints but a lot are just separated by fear and mistrust.

In Mitrovica in the north of Kosovo, Europe’s newest country, the symbol and literal representation of division is a bridge. The optimistically named New Bridge that crosses the River Ibar separates less than 40,000 Serbs from the rest of Albanian Kosovo, and its government, law enforcement, courts, energy bills, and, most recently, licence plate requirements.


The day I cross New Bridge, a couple of bored-looking Italian cops in surgical masks ask if I’m a journalist but not for any ID. The Italian Carabinieri, and a smaller detachment of Polish military police aside also acting under a NATO mandate, have been the only semblance of law enforcement north of the river since early November, when the eight Serb members of parliament from North Kosovo quit in outrage over a demand from the government in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, for their cars to get new standardised licence plates. Local cops, prosecutors, and judges north of the river all quit too, and government offices shut immediately, leaving the land north of New Bridge in a weird, lawless grey-zone: People follow the obvious rules but there’s nobody around to make them. Sometimes the Carabinieri and Polish officers might walk around a bit, and they’d probably arrest someone for shooting at them. 

But “nobody is getting murdered, if there was a serial killer here I guess NATO would escort the Kosovar police in to arrest them,” said a Serb resident, who declined to be identified because everyone in Mitrovica knows each other and fear the local gangsters-turned-politicians that keep the place in line for Serbia’s rulers in Belgrade. 


“There’s no laws or government or real law enforcement, so we don’t pay our [utility] bills, who would pay governments in Belgrade or Pristina who don’t care about them? That’s why everyone started mining Bitcoin, no police and you don’t pay the electric bill.”

Asked if they had mined crypto themselves, the resident cheerfully ended the interview.

“Oh that’s not a good thing to talk about here, nice to meet you.”

Crypto mining is at its heart the creation of new coins, and has been described as running your car in neutral all day so it can solve crossword puzzles in exchange for an occasional coupon that’s mostly useful for buying heroin online. It requires three basic things: servers to solve complex mathematical problems, a way to keep those servers cool, and huge amounts of electricity. 

Electricity ends up being the most expensive cost. Unless, of course, you live in a deformed, often ignored statelet like North Kosovo, where the tradeoff for getting kicked between the mortal enemies of Kosovo’s Albanian majority and Serbia is the merest suggestion to make everyone pay electricity bills might cause a war. So the juice to run the servers is free, and driven by a speculative bubble, bitcoin mining became widespread across North Kosovo on both a large and small scale.

“In 2017, I’d started a business starting with one server, they were €500 each, so I quickly moved up to eight servers for about €5000,” a bitcoin miner from north of the river told us. 


“It’s very dangerous to have money in Mitrovica and everyone knows everything here, so call me ‘Constantine,’ it’s a good strong Serbian name.”

Constantine’s into Call of Duty, Donald Trump, mixed martial arts and thinks Albanians sold thousands of Serbian children into slavery during the NATO-led war in 1999 that broke Kosovo free of Serbia, founded Europe’s youngest country, and turned Mitrovica into a geopolitical football. He’s pretty sure organ trafficking was involved but doesn’t really care as he’s too busy gaming and can’t be bothered to particularly hate Albanians over it.

“People here are Serbs and want to stay Serbs but nobody cares about licence plates,” he said. “Nobody really cares about either government but it's dangerous to say that. What people care about are jobs, money and not having to pay the electricity bill.”

The licence plate situation is like a lot of things in Kosovo: rooted in history and both deceptively complicated and straightforward at the same time. Unlike Bosnia and Croatia, which existed as states under the old Yugoslavia, Kosovo was always administratively part of Serbia proper. And despite being overwhelmingly Albanian in population, the Serbs wouldn’t give it up until NATO violently intervened in 1999 and followed up with peacekeepers. 

Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and won recognition from the US, the UK and most of the EU, but not Russia, China, India, or a host of other countries. A vaguely-worded agreement signed by Pristina and Belgrade in 2013 was supposed to set a path to integrate the remaining Kosovar-Serbs. Between a disinterested EU, cynical exploitation for political gains by Belgrade, and Albanian politicians who need to get elected, it hasn’t gone great. The latest tensions hit after the government in Pristina said Serbs in Kosovo would need to give up old Serbian-issued licence plates for new Kosovar-issued plates. But for Serbs like Constantine living in Mitrovica north of the river, that would mean moving towards recognising the independence of Kosovo, something they, or Serbia, won’t do.


Constantine thinks the licence plate situation has become a proxy fight over North Kosovo’s fear they’ll eventually be held to account for those energy bills, which were previously uncollected for the same reason of not wanting to risk any violence. And that’s a big final bill because by 2020 the government regulators in Pristina tasked with keeping on everyone’s lights realised Bitcoin mining was an epidemic and everyone seemed to be making money, except the central government, which was helplessly subsidising the party. 

“By 2018 it became really good for us, my partner and I each were making more than €400 a month at first,” he said, including paying down the initial €5,000 investment. “But from 2019 to 2020, I made €8,000 profit. It was great, everyone was doing it. Taxi drivers would have one or two servers in a garage and make an extra €100-200 a month for doing almost nothing.”

Larger operations, according to police and political figures in Pristina who didn’t want to be identified for political or security reasons, started with experienced Albanians who’d used Kosovo’s historically low electric prices to do smaller scale mining. But free is always better than low prices to the small business owner and around 2018, these outfits began cutting deals with Serbs north of the river to rent garages, sheep farms, anything cheap and connected to the grid. 

“Criminal sides always work together and much the same happened with crypto,” said Dusan Radakovic, executive director of the Mitrovica NGO, Advocacy Centre for Democratic Culture. Radakovic is a Serb who also speaks Albanian and works between Mitrovica and Pristina. 


“In a lot of cases it was Albanians who had experience mining in [southern] Kosovo and moved operations up here because of the free electricity,’ he said. “[The Albanians] often initiated it but 80 percent of Serbs will work with them. It’s the police that don’t cooperate [across ethnic lines] so crypto became very big for some people.”

Radakovic said that he declined when a friend asked him to invest €5,000 to set up a server. “Now he’s a millionaire.”

“You started seeing amazing systems installed all over, in houses, garages, farms, apartments,” Radakovic recalled. 

These smaller systems might only produce a few hundred euros a month but for most residents of Mitrovica, where minimum wage is about €300 a month, it was good money with little apparent risk.

“Everyone was doing it so you didn’t even have to pay the police,” said Constantine. “They couldn’t bother everyone. People have no jobs here or low pay, everyone used mining to pay their bills.”

“Now it is a big secret if you still do it,” he said. “And people who used to do it are worried that eventually the government will come for the money everyone owes.” (A Kosovo government official told me collecting old bills was considered politically impossible and the government would happily settle for payment going forward.)

The operations started small, said Constantine, which makes sense considering Mitrovica’s comparatively tiny size: The official figures generously count about 40,000 people living in North Kosovo, with half of so in North Mitrovica, to 1.8 million Albanians and others in the south. But most Balkan population numbers fail to account for expat workers. Hundreds of thousands of Bosnians, Albanians and Serbs work across the EU and often only return for summer holiday visits. These workers heavily support the local economies but the result is that few places in the Balkans feel crowded with young people. I’d guess there are only 8,000 to 12,000 full-time residents of the city.  


“It started with about 20 people using their credit cards to order servers and a minimum you’d be making €300 a month then Serbs started coming in from Belgrade to do it,” Constantine said. “Serbia has a worse economy than Mitrovica, the pay [in Serbia] is lower and there’s bills for electricity and taxes. So €300 to €400 a month can have a big effect here.”

The servers started arriving on legal shipments from China during 2018 but Kosovo’s customs service took little note: First hundreds - later thousands - of computers specifically designed to mine Bitcoin and other crypto currencies were certainly unusual imports for Europe’s newest country, but taxes had been paid and there was nothing illegal about importing them, according to Adriatik Stavileci, a customs official. 

“It’s legal and we are always on a constant search for illegally imported goods and these servers always had their proper duties paid,” he said from a conference room on the outskirts of Pristina last month. “In most cases there was proper customs clearance, but some people tried to bring in spare parts to assemble as servers inside Kosovo [to avoid the taxes] but those were usually seized at the border once we realised what we were looking for.”

“It did take some time however, because people really didn’t have any idea what Bitcoin mining was or what was needed to operate them, so the government, police, customs were all very slow to recognise there could be a problem.”


More than 20,000 crypto mining servers were legally imported into Kosovo, roughly equal to one server per every 90 people living in the country. That was a lot of servers but the number became mind boggling when located – they were all around Mitrovica. Energy regulators noticed an alarming spike in electricity usage concentrated in the tiny northern part of the country controlled by Kosovo’s restive Serb minority above the Ibar River. By 2019, consumption of electricity in North Kosovo went from growing about 2 percent per year to more than 10 percent, annually. Mitrovica suddenly needed a lot more juice.

Kosovo’s beautiful mountains are thickly forested along jagged ridges full of coal. That coal fires increasingly elderly plants built by the long defunct Yugoslav state. But people in Kosovo are used to cheap and reliable electric power – many people heat their homes during the often tough winters with electricity, easily the least efficient home warming method. By winter 2021, the system was under strain, tariffs had been lifted by regulators, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić was tiptoeing around promises to not manipulate the key transmissions lines entering North Kosovo, part of a long campaign of agreeing to do things about Kosovo then slow-walking every aspect of their implementation. 

And the world energy markets – already stressed by much of Europe working from home over COVID – were about to get completely roiled by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Just the threat of conflict had driven energy prices higher and by January 2022, Kosovo not only saw electric shortages and rolling blackouts but was forced to a regional wholesale market that had jumped more than from about €60 to €1,000 per megawatt. 


The Bitcoin mining in North Kosovo had graduated from annoying to serious and Pristina sent the cops over the river to start taking servers. Hardly anyone was charged but some Serbs claim they’ve been unfairly targeted in the crackdown.

“80 percent of North Kosovo was doing it but 99 percent of the servers taken came from Serbs,” one Serbian resident told me, a claim a Pristina cop – who can’t be named in the media – felt was accurate but out of context.

“I don’t know the numbers exactly but of course it’s going to be Serbs mostly raided, they’re providing the land, the apartments, farms and garages for the server farms. Was it an Albanian guy’s idea? Sure, I don’t know, maybe the Albanians paid for the servers, but the servers were in Serb houses.”

“It’s not the police’s fault that Albanian and Serbian criminals are happy to work together,” said the cop. It’s a familiar refrain in the Balkans, honest, hardworking Albanian or Serb cops are profoundly limited in their ability to cooperate but the mafia doesn’t care – they’ll work with anyone. 

Either way, in February Russia invaded Ukraine and energy markets were hit even harder.

As the raids continued to collect servers, police began to note an overlap between large scale mining and organised crime, said multiple police officials on background. 

“We did one operation, identified massive electric consumption to the site and determined it was probably owned by organised crime, so we raided it for servers,” said Stavileci, the customs official. “It turned out to be a brand new cannabis farm. That got exciting, we had never seen cannabis farms in the north, this is usually to the south in Albania. But the mafia will always find opportunities.”


“The police didn’t know anything about crypto so they left us alone at first then when the energy crisis started they’d target everyone, even if you had paid them they didn’t care, so people started getting out of it,” said Constantine. “Then Bitcoin crashed.”

Turn a corner in North Mitrovica, and Serbian flags and nationalist and anti-NATO graffiti are everywhere, as are more politically specific posters denouncing the bureaucratic activism of the Pristina government. While the majority of Serbs in the north appear to absolutely support the government in Belgrade and deeply distrust the Albanians, the overall sense is stifling. 

“Start political opposition or criticism of Belgrade’s policies towards Kosovo and you’ll immediately lose your job,” said one local activist in Mitrovica, who was laid off five days after announcing a local political movement to negotiate Mitrovica’s concerns with Pristina and Belgrade. The government in Serbia basically controls Serbs in Mitrovica’s economic status via a series of subsidies and local rules. It’s a patronage operation and the patron expects total loyalty. 

This conundrum, both sides openly joke, leaves the residents of Mitrovica as “professional Serbs,” with little chance of improving their future without dramatic political change. 

People freely talk of the outrage of having to register their cars with the actual government – but many people I spoke with, quietly admitted they don’t actually care but fear the political or physical repercussions dissent brings. They don’t fear murder so much as shakedowns for Bitcoin earnings from the local gangsters, a torched car, losing a job, or suddenly having problems with access to healthcare.


“I was able to buy an apartment, refurbish my parent’s apartment, travel to Italy and the UK for holiday,” said Constantine about his crypto-mining heyday. “But I didn’t tell anyone, not even my parents know where I got the money, I didn’t even tell my parents I left the country, for [two trips to EU countries], and I didn’t post anything to social media. I didn’t want people to know I had enough money to go to [on holiday.].”

“In Mitrovica, if they know you have money it can be a problem,” he said. The “they” are the local politicians and mob bosses that everyone understands are the enforcers of Belgrade’s positions. And that connection to Belgrade can make a small-time gangster into a local warlord.

Serbian politician and Mitrovica native Oliver Ivanović had credibility as a Serb nationalist – he’d spent years in prison convicted of war crimes during the 1999 war – but ran in the 2017 local elections on a platform of political independence from Belgrade.

One local politician loyal to Vučić labelled Ivanović a "traitor" and anti-Serbian politician for running against Belgrade’s local political machine, and despite coming in second behind Vučić’s preferred candidate, Ivanović was assassinated outside his Mitrovica home by gunmen in January 2018, a rare political killing since the aftermath of the 1999 war. 

Ivanović might have been a convicted war criminal but he’d also served in Kosovo’s cabinet in Pristina and Kosovo cops set about to solve the murder, they say without any help from the local Serb police.


Six weeks after his murder, Balkan Insight, the regional investigative publication, dropped a scoop that would rattle the establishment in North Kosovo and Belgrade: Ivanović had given an interview before his death, directly accused Vučić’s local ally, Milan Radoičić, technically the local vice president at the time, of being the real power in North Kosovo who ruled the north with no tolerance of dissent. Ivanović then decided it was too dangerous to directly confront Radoičić and Vučić, and asked the reporters to keep that portion off the record for the time.

“The centre of power is not within the municipality building – because the municipality building belongs to this other, informal centre of power,” Ivanović said to the reporters.

He then added: “The president [Vučić] mentioned Milan Radoičić, which honestly speaking worries me; it worries me horribly that he takes him as an example of a person who is fighting for the protection of Serbs in Kosovo.”

Once he was killed, Balkan Insight decided to run Ivanovic’s comments about Radoičić, which caught the attention of the cops in Pristina trying to solve the murder.

“Radoičić was the immediate suspect of organising the assassination of Ivanović,” a police official told me under condition of total anonymity. “I stress the judicial system needs to do its work but there’s a warrant for Radoičić and prosecutors believe that if he’s apprehended, the case that he organised the killing through hooligans and football ultras from Belgrade and Mitrovica will be strong.”


Radoičić responded to the warrant by immediately crossing the border into Serbia, where Vučić has publically stated his belief that a patriotic Serb like Radoičić could never be involved in an unseemly political murder. It’s hard to see a path from his reported hideout in the Serbian city of Novi Sad to a Pristina courtroom so long as Vučić remains the power in Serbia. 

First named in a police report in 2013, after he and his partners were accused of stealing gravel for what prosecutors claimed was a corrupt road project, Radoičić openly refers to his friend and business partner Zvonko Veselinović, widely seen as the local mob boss, as his “Godfather,” despite being two years older. Radoičić and Veselinović own businesses from dump trucks, construction projects, oil tankers, gas stations, concrete and industrial glass. With its tiny size and political situation, Mitrovica seems to have a local monopoly problem and being in charge, while owning all the trucks, has been very lucrative for Radoičić. 


Veselinović meanwhile made a name for himself first as a guard on the bridge over the River Ibar protecting Mitrovica during the 1999 war, and reportedly moved into organised crime, and was arrested for heroin trafficking early in his crime career. 

Both Veselinović and Radoičić are notorious enough to have been targeted by the US Department of Treasury’s Office of Financial Asset Control, which “specially designed” both as criminals prohibiting interaction with the US financial system.

“The Veselinović OCG is engaged in a largescale bribery scheme with Kosovar and Serbian security officials who facilitate the group’s illicit trafficking of goods, money, narcotics, and weapons between Kosovo and Serbia,” said the OFAC designation. “The group has also conspired with various politicians in several quid pro quo agreements.”

“Additionally, Veselinović and his group were indicted for their alleged involvement in the murder of political party leader Oliver Ivanovic in January 2018,” added the Treasury Deparment.

It's no great mystery why nobody wants to openly talk about a few hundred euros a month in illegal Bitcoin mining, just as no Serb in the north can decide to change to a Kosovo licence plate without fearing the car bursting into fire or starting a new political party without losing their job. It’s too small to function with any independence but also too small for anyone to really care. Vučić faces only minimal political opposition in Serbia, and what criticism that comes his way doesn’t mention improving lives in North Kosovo. 

To its early adopters and investors, crypto was and still is a valuable tool for people living under authoritarian regimes, free from the control of central governments and their banks. But Mitrovica shows that old forces like strongman politics and the weight of history, can still stifle the life out of everything and anything.

“Vučić is an arsonist who loves to get paid by the EU to put out the fires that he starts,” said a NATO military intelligence official over a drink in a Pristina bar in late November. “Veselinović and Radoičić get the job done, it’s like a light switch Vučić can flick whenever he sees a chance to get something and they do it for him. Everyone knows, we have intercepts, we have witnesses, the Serbs don’t remotely try to hide it because they know there won’t be any real pressure from the European Union or Americans.”

“Nobody ever lost an election in France or Germany for failing to integrate the 25,000 people of North Kosovo into Kosovo proper,” they added. ‘Everyone’s got their own interests and issues. The Albanians are motivated to resolve the situation, despite their numerous problems, but Vučić would need a lot to give up that light switch.”

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