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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
Graffiti in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, that roughly translates as "IT'S ABOUT THE NAME," a reference to the dispute over the use of the word Macedonia, which has dogged both countries for decades. (file photo)

It will not happen tomorrow, but a cloud hanging over neighbors Greece and Macedonia for more than two decades might soon be lifted.

Delegations from the two states, headed by their respective negotiators, Adamantios Vassilakis and Vasko Naumovski, are due to meet with UN mediator Matthew Nimetz in New York on January 17 to resume talks over Macedonia's official name, frozen since 2014.

Greece has objected to Macedonia's use of that name -- also a region of northern Greece -- since the former Yugoslav republic's declaration of independence in 1991. Unlike some, Macedonia did not have to fight a war to secure its statehood; but it has been engaged in a diplomatic struggle to keep its name for 26 years.

As a constituent part of Yugoslavia, it had been known as the "Socialist Republic of Macedonia," but its bid to simply drop the Socialist designation and become the sovereign "Republic of Macedonia" was repeatedly thwarted by EU member Greece.

At the forthcoming meeting, Nimetz is expected once again to present the parties with a list of names that have been under discussion before, with only minor changes.

So no one is expected to pull a rabbit out of a hat.

But the meeting could be a major step in the right direction.

'Positive Momentum'

Driving from Thessaloniki toward the Macedonian border, one will not come across any road signs for the state of Macedonia. There is a sign indicating an international border crossing, and the direction of the Macedonian capital, Skopje, is indicated.

Nimetz is nevertheless optimistic about resolving the dispute. He told Greek state television this week that there was "positive momentum" in both countries: "I think the people in both countries are maybe ready to hear some solutions that are consistent with national interests but also have some element of compromise that would resolve the problem."

So far Greece would only countenance referring to its neighbor by the acronym FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). The country was admitted to the United Nations under that name in 1993, and that designation is used by the EU among others. (Others, including the United States, China, and Russia, routinely use the name Republic of Macedonia in communications with Skopje.)

A compromise solution could involve substituting a new qualifier, such as "Upper," "Northern" or "New Macedonia."

But for many Greeks, even this might be unacceptable. According to a recent poll, more than two-thirds of Greeks are opposed to any mention of "Macedonia," and there are rallies planned in Athens and northern Greece in the weeks ahead.

Reportedly in order to avoid tensions, the Greek prime minister has called on the influential Orthodox Church to refrain from commenting on the Macedonian question.

Clash Of Identities

In Macedonia itself, opinion is divided.

An informal poll conducted by RFE/RL's Balkan Service on January 11 on the streets of Skopje found that many people would like to see the issue resolved one way or another. Yet others are firmly against any concessions, convinced that Macedonia has the right to its own choice of name.

Behind the dispute over the name is a deeper clash of identities. Among other things, there is a tug-of-war over the figure of Alexander the Great -- claimed by Macedonians as an important part of their national identity. The Greeks, meanwhile, argue that their own ancient heritage is being hijacked by their Slavic-speaking neighbors.

"The hardest part of the bargain is that we have to renounce our mythology in order to allow Greek nationalism to incorporate the newly created Greek-Macedonian identity into Ancient Greek mythology," Denko Maleski a professor at the Skopje University Law School, told RFE/RL.

A monument depicting Alexander the Great in the Macedonian capital, Skopje. (file photo)
A monument depicting Alexander the Great in the Macedonian capital, Skopje. (file photo)

However, Maleski, who was Macedonia's first foreign minister following independence, is optimistic.

"A solution to the name issue is both possible [and desirable], as it would improve [Macedonia's] chances of getting NATO membership," Maleski added.

Indeed, the day before the New York meeting, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was due to visit Skopje in what was being seen as a clear show of support for Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic integration, including NATO membership.

Ismet Ramadani, head of the Macedonian Euro Atlantic Council and adviser to Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, spoke of "a decisive week" ahead and a "historical moment."

But he also cautioned that optimism and good intentions alone were not enough, telling regional news agency IBNA that "there must be concrete results in reaching an acceptable compromises [sic] on the name dispute."

Having just emerged from a prolonged internal political crisis, the new Macedonian government may be keen to resolve a longstanding dispute with its neighbor -- particularly as it may smooth the way to EU and NATO membership.

'Historic Chance'

Greece, too, has an interest in shoring up regional stability.

According to Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov, both sides are obliged to seize the "historic chance" following a turbulent few months in the wider Balkan region.

"I think the public can be very happy that now someone is raising the name issue as it indicates that the country's stability has returned," said Skopje professor Toni Deskoski.

The focus on EU and NATO integration, and better relations among neighbors, appear to contrast with the policy of the previous Macedonian government. The government has shown a willingness to compromise, for instance by agreeing to become a NATO member as "FYROM" rather than Macedonia -- even if this is unpopular at home.

But political analyst Albert Musliu suggests that this flexibility could strengthen Macedonia's hand in future negotiations.

"We had to change the narrative while resolving the name issue, because we cannot box with Greece while negotiating, and I think that is exactly the strategy of the new government," Musliu said. "Let's not forget that Greece is a full member of NATO, and it's a voice we depend on for gaining membership in European institutions. I believe that the strategy now is improving and softening the relations with our neighbors, especially Greece, but it is for our partners to also help for Athens to understand Macedonia's position."

For most Macedonians, nomen est omen. But there appears to be a recognition on someone's part that short-term compromises on the name issue may benefit their country over the long term.

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

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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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