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Serbs Of Southern Kosovo See Belgrade Helping Northerners And Ask: But Who Will Take Care Of Us?

Ethnic Serbs hold a picket on the steps of an office for Serb self-government in the southern Kosovar village of Verboc earlier this month.
Ethnic Serbs hold a picket on the steps of an office for Serb self-government in the southern Kosovar village of Verboc earlier this month.

VITI/VITIJA, Kosovo -- Nearly every day for nine months, a few desperate residents of Verboc, or Vrbovac in Serbo-Croatian, have picketed on the steps of an office for Serb self-government here in southeastern Kosovo to demand jobs. For themselves. For a spouse. Or for their grown children.

Their ranks have thinned from around 40 when their protest began.

But the half-dozen or so holdouts in front of the Temporary Municipal Authority in the district hub of Viti, or Vitija in Serbo-Croatian, have persisted despite alleged threats, name-calling, and other pressure that some of them privately blame on ideologically driven fellow Serbs who oppose cooperation with Kosovo's authorities in almost any form and who are cozier with Belgrade.

Like those co-ethnics, the Verboc protesters regard Serbia as their homeland despite Kosovo's declaration of independence 14 years ago and its recognition by more than 100 countries -- Serbia not among them.

However, they are also about 75 kilometers from areas near the northern border with Serbia that are most heavily populated with ethnic Serbs, who otherwise compose just 1-2 percent of Kosovo's population of around 2 million people.

And last week produced another grievance when Belgrade pledged financial support for Serbs who quit their jobs rather than enforce a new mandate requiring Kosovar license plates on vehicles.

'Parallel System'

The Office for Kosovo and Metohija, the Serbian government office that oversees a "parallel system" of political and social benefits for Kosovo's minority Serbs, said on November 17 that it was signing contracts to pay the 3,500 outgoing police officers, judges, and other public servants in four Kosovar municipalities.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic had already pinned a medal on a police commander and other officers leading the mass resignations in North Mitrovica and said that "taking care" of the deserters would cost Serbian taxpayers up to 60 million euros ($61.8 million).

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic presents a medal to a policemen from the north of Kosovo who refused to implement a decision by Pristina's government on the reregistration of car-license plates.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic presents a medal to a policemen from the north of Kosovo who refused to implement a decision by Pristina's government on the reregistration of car-license plates.

"It's easy to be a patriot with full pockets," says Verboc picketer Biljana Marinkovic, in an allusion to credible reports that many Serb politicians in northern Kosovo are paid domestic salaries and are also paid by Serbian institutions.

"Being a patriot without any income, that's patriotism to me, not with 2,000 euros a month while other people can't even survive for a month," Marinkovic said.

'Nobody Sees Or Hears Us'

Marinkovic's husband earns around 300 euros a month working for the municipality of Kllokot, Klokot in Serbo-Croatian, one of six majority-Serb regions south of the Ibar River that many regard as a cutoff between mostly Serb areas in the north and the rest of Kosovo.

Internationally and in the eyes of locals like Marinkovic, the southern areas get far less attention than the four border regions where most of this month's resignations occurred.

Biljana Marinkovic
Biljana Marinkovic

She says ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo are being rewarded for quitting Kosovo's institutions while everyone is ignoring the Verboc protesters' "calls and prayers," even though they have addressed the Serbian government's Office for Kosovo and Metohija and the Serbian president's office.

"How is it that now nobody sees us or hears us?" Marinkovic asks.

Tensions near the Kosovar-Serbian border have skyrocketed this year over Pristina's efforts to derail Belgrade's undermining of Kosovar sovereignty and Serbs' willingness to follow suit, sometimes through roadblocks and other civil unrest in northern Kosovo.

The standoff over license-plate registration is a result of Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti's stated strategy of "reciprocal measures" to punish Serbia for its continued refusal to recognize Kosovo's independence and authority, including by rejecting Kosovar documentation.

Last-ditch talks this week between Kurti and Vucic organized by EU officials failed to persuade Pristina to abandon its imposition of fines to intransigent Serbs still refusing to reregister their cars with Kosovar authorities.

Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti (left) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (composite file photo)
Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti (left) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (composite file photo)

But Kurti announced a 48-hour moratorium late on November 21 on the rollout of fines of up to 150 euros to punish motorists with old Serbian license plates.

At the same time, Vucic announced that Serbian authorities would suspend their issuance of Serbian plates to vehicles from Kosovo.

The Kosovar and Serbian chief negotiators, Besnik Bislimi and Petar Petkovic, were expected to meet on November 23 to try to break the impasse.

Most ethnic Serbs south of the Ibar River stopped using Serbian license plates a decade ago.

Now some of them are wondering if they're not being punished for adapting to a difficult situation as best they can. As they see Belgrade handing out medals and salaries to their ethnic counterparts in the north who quit to protest the license-plate regime, it looks to them like the squeaky wheel is getting the oil.

'They Make Us Look Like A Bad Example'

To make matters worse, they say, they're being accused by other Serbs of behaving like "mercenaries" by complying with Kosovar laws and regulations.

"They make us look like a bad example, like the opposition, like we work for a foreign intelligence service, [like] mercenaries," says 28-year-old Ranko Moskic, who has been protesting in Viti.

The father of a 5-year-old daughter, he currently receives child benefit and other social payments that amount to around 180 euros a month.

Ranko Moskic
Ranko Moskic

"If we were working for an intelligence service, we wouldn't be here [protesting]. We have no other way but to be here," Moskic says.

He says he "came out to claim my rights with my people" but has received no additional assistance. Asked who has used language like "mercenaries" or foreign agents, Moskic mentions the head of Serbia's parallel system in Viti, Srdjan Nikolic.

Other protesters echo his concern that they are being shut out at least in part because of how they are perceived by people like Nikolic.

Nikolic declined to respond to requests by RFE/RL's Balkan Service for comment for this article.

The parallel system is mostly administered by the Serbian government's Office for Kosovo and Metohija, a coordination body with broad authorities that include defending Serbs' rights and maintaining deep ties to political and nonprofit groups in Kosovo.

The Temporary Municipal Authorities are municipalities financed from the budget of Serbia, and Kosovo views them as illegal.

Meanwhile, an Association of Serb Municipalities also plays a key role in the parallel system and in relations between Serbs in Kosovo and Belgrade. Planned with headquarters in North Mitrovica, the association was agreed in principle in EU-mediated talks nearly a decade ago and laid out in the 2013 Brussels Agreement that aimed eventually to normalize relations between Serbia and its former province. However, it has never been legally established by Kosovar legislation as Pristina haggles over its powers despite prodding from Brussels.

Many of the parallel systems' most senior figures are also leaders of the powerful Srpska Lista (Serbian List), Kosovo's dominant Serb party which enjoys the support of President Vucic's ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).

Critics say it is stacked with ideologues staunchly opposed to Kosovar independence, and many Serbs complain that supporters of Srpska List enjoy added privileges.

Rade Djuric
Rade Djuric

Both of Verboc picketer Rade Djuric's adult sons have left Kosovo, he says.

"There's no employment for my son here," Djuric says, underscoring the despair that has created a decades-long demographic crisis in Kosovo and the Balkans as young people seek opportunity abroad.

He blames the local government, and he hints at clientelism dividing Serbs between the haves and the have-nots based on their political views.

"He finished school and has no job, while in some families three or four family members are employed in education, health care, here in the municipality."

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondents Sandra Cvetkovic and Bujar Terstena