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Kosovo Assassination Leaves Fear, Silence In Its Wake

People take part in a mourning procession for Oliver Ivanovic in Mitrovica on January 17.
People take part in a mourning procession for Oliver Ivanovic in Mitrovica on January 17.

Mitrovica has been gripped by shock and fear since the killing of a moderate Serbian politician in that northern Kosovo municipality with an ethnic Serbian majority.

Few residents have been willing to speak to journalists, but one of the questions that residents are said to be asking privately is: If they could kill him, what's in store for us?

Mitrovica is a divided city, a front line in the extended standoff between Belgrade and Pristina. Hardly a month goes by without an incident there, despite the presence of EU and NATO forces.

Its people grapple with the constant threat of violence. But damage is more often material -- a hand grenade strikes fear but doesn't injure, or a vehicle is set on fire. Oliver Ivanovic, an ethnic Serb politician fluent in Albanian before he was gunned down outside his office, was Mitrovica's highest-profile casualty in a long time.

Vucic's 'Kosovo Moment'

The president of neighboring Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, was quick to pay a visit to Mitrovica in a move that critics suggested echoed too closely a visit by then-Yugoslav communist leader Slobodan Milosevic in 1987, with animosities high at that time, too.

Zagreb-based commentator Dejan Jovic went so far as to tweet that Vucic "had his Kosovo moment," recalling Milosevic's words on that day, 30 years ago, when the Serbian strongman reassured ethnic Serbs in Kosovo that "no one should dare to beat you again." It was a performance that many say set the tone for a decade of war and destruction fueled by nationalism throughout the Balkans.

On his visit to Mitrovica this weekend, Vucic lay flowers at the spot where Ivanovic was shot. He also met with Kosovar Serb representatives in the village of Laplje Selo, near Pristina*.

But Vucic's tone was far more restrained and conciliatory, and he appeared to demonstrate a desire to listen. Unlike the riotous crowds and nationalist slogans that greeted an ascendant Milosevic in 1987, Vucic was presented with a litany of common grievances -- including concerns over rising unemployment, lawlessness, crime, and general insecurity.

He did not initially meet with any opposition Kosovar politicians, although a meeting has now been scheduled with one of them, Momcilo Trajkovic, who had addressed an open letter to Vucic. He will reportedly have a chance to speak to Vucic in person on January 23.

Indeed, Mitrovica's problems are seemingly broader than the dispute between Serbian and Albanian speakers. Rok Zupancic, from the Center for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, sees the city's general lawlessness as the main issue. To underscore his point, Zupancic quotes from Ivanovic in an interview not long before the latter's death:

"Let me be clear. The people [Serbs in northern Kosovo] are not afraid of the Albanians but of the Serbs, the local strongmen and the criminals, who drive around in jeeps without license plates. Illegal drugs are being sold at every corner, which is every parent's fear. This is nothing new, but the scale of the problem is greater than ever, along with the arrogance of these people. The police see what is going on but do nothing...."

More broadly, and potentially far-reaching for the region's future, EU-sponsored talks between Belgrade and Pristina that had been bogged down for some time were quickly postponed again following Ivanovic's shooting -- a development that might suit hard-liners just fine.

Ivanovic was a moderate, and as such had been marginalized on the larger political stage; but he also clearly had many friends and bitter enemies on both sides of Kosovo's ethnic divide.

Among Ivanovic's friends was Nenad Canak, the leader of the opposition League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina (LSV). Canak has already raised the question of who stood to profit from the breakdown in internationally mediated talks and rising tensions in northern Kosovo.

"I won't even start with the old rule that when there's a contract killing, it's usually the killer who first offers their condolences," Canak said.

Who Profits?

Canak then cast a suspicious eye toward Moscow, without providing any evidence of a connection. But he speculated that Russia might seize an "opportunity to act as the peacemaker, bringing order and calm" in return for "the international community...turn[ing] a blind eye to Crimea and the Donbas and accept[ing] the usurpation of parts of the territory of a neighboring country, which Russia supports."

Canak also pointed to evidence of what he sees as Russia's "serious investment" in the wider Balkan region, including reports of a 5-year-old center in the southern Serbian city of Nis that some have alleged is being used for spying. (Moscow denies the allegation.)

Meanwhile, Vuk Draskovic, the president of the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement in Serbia, said he saw Ivanovic's murder as an act of political terrorism reminiscent of the modus operandi of Milosevic's secret services from the 1990s. The shots fired at Ivanovic in Mitrovica were "[also] aimed at the Brussels agreement, the internal dialogue on Kosovo's future, the stability of the region as a whole, and Serbia's European path," Draskovic said.

He added, "Oliver Ivanovic was a voice of reason, a respected leader of Kosovo Serbs, committed to dialogue with Albanians and to promoting the rule of law in a place where such an attitude earned him many enemies."

Draskovic can at least say that he knows of what he speaks, having himself been a target of an attempted political assassination in the Milosevic years. Like many others in Serbia and beyond, Draskovic wants those responsible for Ivanovic's death to be brought to justice as swiftly as possible, and for that to happen, cooperation between Serbian and Kosovo authorities is indispensable.

*CORRECTION: This story has been amended to correct the translation and location of the village of Laplje Selo.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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