No Silver Lining as Balkans Lose Another Moderate Politician

In his last interview, published in the magazine Vreme in September 2017, Oliver Ivanović stated: "Let me be clear. The people (the Serbs in the northern Kosovo) are not afraid of the Albanians, but of the Serbs, the local strongmen and the criminals, who drive around in jeeps without car plates. Illegal drugs are being sold at every corner, every parent is afraid of this. This has also been the case before, but not to such an extent and these people have earlier not behaved as arrogant as nowadays. The police watches all this and does not react …" Ivanović was referring to the feeling of (in)security in northern Mitrovica in particular and the north of Kosovo in general. Only a few days prior to his assassination, he also said that he personally felt threatened. Several of his friends and colleagues had suggested him to leave Mitrovica at several occasions. He said he could not bow to the pressure.

From the perspective of general security and the openness of a particular society, it is telling that on the day of the assassination the local Serbs – with only a handful of exceptions, for example a well-known politician from Gračanica, Rada Trajković – did not speculate publicly, not even on social media, who is responsible for the killing. Rest assured that this, however, does not mean that they do not speculate in private conversations. Many Serbs from northern Kosovo are, however, not pointing fingers at the ‘usual suspects’ in Prishtina. The aim of this text is thus not to guess who killed one of the most moderate Kosovo Serb politicians, who spoke Albanian fluently and did not speak about the Albanians with anger, fear or resentment in his voice, but rather to illustrate the above-quoted Ivanović’s words and explain what these notions of general (in)security mean for everyday life of an average person from the north of Kosovo. The findings are based on contacts with local counterparts from the north of Kosovo, who spoke to the author of this blog in 2017.

“The institutions of the so-called state of Kosovo” are no longer an archenemy of Serbs

For the Kosovo Serbs, the beginning of the Dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia and the signature of the Brussels Agreement (2013) brought about a radical shift. If it was by then officially required from them to reject any kind of collaboration with the (what Belgrade called) “the institutions of the so-called state of Kosovo”, the new policy change at the governmental level in Serbia de facto called for a different approach of Kosovo Serbs vis-à-vis the authorities in Prishtina and the institutions of the Kosovo government. One should not forget that it was the then Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić who advised them not to boycott the Kosovo local elections in 2013.

On the contrary, ‘bojkotaši’ (“the boycotters”) and all those who have been against the normalization, as envisaged by the Brussels Agreement, soon became marginalized by their fellow Serbs and ‘the new kids in town’-(hall of Kosovska Mitrovica). A handful of local politicians in the north of Kosovo, who symbolized the Serbian resistance towards Prishtina, were gradually stripped of resources – and consequently political power (Marko Jakšić, Slaviša Ristić, a.o.). In practice, this meant that until a certain day the Serbs from the north of Kosovo were officially requested to stand up at the Ibar bridge dividing the two parts of Mitrovica and to protect ‘the Serbian nation from the Albanian invasion’ right there,  only  to be asked to fight for ‘the survival of the Serbs in Kosovo’ a few days later by  accepting reality and doing it ‘through’ the institutions of the state of Kosovo. Although this was not explicitly stated, it gradually became reality that a Serb in northern Kosovo face several difficulties, if he or she de facto did not recognize the institutions of the Kosovo government: first, for example, by taking part in the local Kosovo elections (as suggested by Vučić himself); second, by applying for identity cards of the Republic of Kosovo, as only with them it was possible to e.g. open a  business in Kosovo or to apply for a job. And so on.

With this, the society of the “northerners” (severnjaci), as they sometimes jokingly call themselves, became polarized even further. I remember vividly that during my first visit in northern Mitrovica in 2011, the locals – including those who have met me for the very first time – were, generally speaking, only rarely hesitant in expressing their political opinion, either on the main street or in a busy café. With the years passing - and the rise of authoritarianism and anti-democratic elements in Serbia -, things only deteriorated. During my last visit in early 2017, for example, people, including those whom I have known for years, did not dare to discuss certain things in open spaces. Only at their homes, or in the corners of silent cafes off the main street, they eventually shared their views.

If asked directly about some concrete things and who these people with an omnipotent control of northern Kosovo were, the locals usually say “they”, “him”, or “the structures” (I was struggling not to write the words in inverted commas with capital letters, given the almost divine and supposedly untouchable status they/him enjoy). The local Serbs prefered not to mention the name of the local strongman with close ties to the elites in Belgrade, although they were confident that no serious business – legal or illegal – was not OK-ayed by him.

Practical implications for a life of Nebojša

The name Nebojša is used deliberately in this text for a person from the north of Kosovo who “should not be afraid of” (literal translation of the name), but is not related to a specific person. However, we will see in the remainder of this text that Nebojša these days is everything but fearless. Our interlocutors believed that the media, with a few exceptions that can be counted by the fingers on one hand, avoided reporting about some crucial things linked to previously mentioned ‘businesses’ and ‘the people’. As one of the interviewees said, ‘the journalists prefer not to talk about certain events as an act of self-censorship in order not to evoke reactions of ‘the structures’.

The burning of cars during the night – in July 2017 this has happened to Oliver Ivanović, too – is not anymore a surprise to anyone. Only a few days prior to the incident with Ivanović’s car, the vehicle of Dragiša Milović, a former mayor of Leposavić, was burnt. And so were many others. The premises of local media Kossev.info, who sometimes criticize the local powerholders, were attacked; the car and the office of Marko Jakšić, who used to be one of the most influential politicians in northern Kosovo and is now a vocal critic of both Belgrade and their local extensions, the ruling coalition Srpska lista, were burnt down in two different attacks.

The locals started to accept this kind of (in)security as a part of their everyday reality. The most worrying element is that the majority of such cases never reached an epilogue; the perpetrators in the small town of Mitrovica, with a lot of cameras around at public buildings and elsewhere, are rarely found. Unsurprisingly, the local Kosovo police – although the majority of them in the north of Kosovo are Serbs – cannot be trusted. Not due to the eventual lack of professionalism, but because of, as our interlocutors believe, the local ‘structures’ controlling the north of Kosovo, which effectively prevents  state institutions to deal with serious cases. Or suggest them to stay away.

‘The structures’ allegedly control not only the police in the north of Kosovo, but also the current Serbian political nomenclature in Kosovo. According to our interlocutors, these ‘structures’ are controlled by a local businessman, who allegedly runs the most serious criminal activities in both Kosovo and Serbia, and in this regard also benefits from an excellent collaboration with Kosovo Albanian mafia. In this regards, Kosovo can jokingly still be considered as a part of Serbia, as our interviewees say, given the fact that all important public tenders in the north of Kosovo are won by the ‘structures’ who have close contacts with the elites from Belgrade.

And those who should have had the power and authority?

What is the role of the EU in these regards (do not forget that the EU, among others, launched EULEX, the most ambitious civilian mission so far, back in 2008)? Not much, except as the usual ‘strong condemnation of violence’. Though, the most worrying part of this puzzle is the fact that several people I had a chance to talk to (from EULEX, the EU Office in Kosovo and other international organizations) are relatively well-informed about this dire reality. Some of them even contributed to this research with providing their illustrations - off-the-record, of course. There is, however, not much that can be done, they claim, although they are co-responsible for the misfortunes of Kosovo, as international actors co-created them, or at least, if we are less critical, allowed for such development. There are too many things at stake for international organizations, their (lucrative) careers, and also the (supposed) stability of whole Kosovo (stabilitocracy), which goes at the expense of democratization, human rights and general feeling of security. And human lives, apparently.

To me, Ivanović seemed one of rare examples of the Kosovo Serb politicians, who did not have anger, resentment or fear in the voice, when talking about the Albanians and "the state of Kosovo" - not even after quite a few of rakija shots we have had on that sunny day in early March 2017. We met then for the last time in his Mitrovica apartment at Lole Ribara street, overlooking the plains of central Kosovo, as he was still under house arrest (EULEX verdict; officially, he was not allowed to have visits, but noone could have prevented his wife from receiving them …). Ivanović then said that "buena vista" from his apartment facing the direction of Prishtina symbolises his political opinion by arguing that the emotions of "his people" should be considered, though, but also that there is no other way but fighting for a better situation of his compatriots within an existing framework - no matter how fortunate or unfortunate it is for Kosovo Serbs. "There are some forces at work, who benefit tremendously from this power vacuum here in the north. And there are not many people around who dare to confront them." Since 16 January 2018, there is one soul less in this fight. Most probably one of the strongest. And no matter how apocalyptic this sounds, the morning of the assassination awoke  northern  Kosovo to the reality many people have been aware of, but were long too afraid to admit it really existed  - and in such a perverted form.

Rok Zupančič

Rok Zupančič is a Marie Curie post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Southeast European Studies, University of Graz. He earned his PhD at University of Ljubljana (Faculty of Social Sciences) on the topic on conflict prevention in Kosovo and the role of international organizations in the country. Before joining University of Graz, he worked as Assistant Professor at University of Ljubljana, teaching the courses on international and regional security (Security in international relations, Common security and defence policy, Security in Southeast Europe, Conflict studies, Theory of strategy). Between 2015 and 2016, he was a principal investigator of the University of Ljubljana in a... Read more about the author

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