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Why the Serbian Minority in Kosovo Feels Threatened

The autumn sun is shining brightly on the forest path, along which some two dozen men, armed with assault rifles, are carefully climbing over roots. A barking pack of feral dogs is hot on their heels, but the men are only interested in what might be hidden in the bushes.

One week has passed since heavily armed Serbian militia fighters attacked a Kosovo-Albanian police patrol here in Kosovo, in the nearby village of Banjska. One officer was killed in the attack, another wounded. The Serbian assailants, around 30 men, barricaded themselves in the monastery that keeps watch over the village, the bent-up entrance gates testifying to the violence. In the end, three Serbian men were also dead, and four others arrested. The rest of the unit escaped.DER SPIEGEL 41/2023

It briefly looked as though war might once again erupt in Kosovo. The attack on the police patrol has intensified a crisis in a region that has never been short on crises. In 1998, following the wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia, Kosovo also plunged into violence. Back then, it was still part of Serbia. The Albanian minority in Kosovo had suffered discrimination at the hands of the Serbs for years, and as the violence escalated, massacres took place – ultimately leading NATO to intervene on behalf of the Kosovo Albanians. In 2008, Kosovo formally declared independence from Belgrade, but Serbia has never recognized the country, and neither has China or Russia, not to mention five European Union member states.

Ethnic Albanians make up around 95 percent of the population in Kosovo, with the Serbian minority primarily living in the north, not far from the border to Serbia.

For the last 24 years, the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) has been keeping peace in the region, but last week’s incident shows just how fragile the situation currently is. First, Kosovo demanded that the West implement sanctions against Serbia. Then, the Serbian military marched up to the Kosovo border. Initially, the government in Belgrade denied the presence of the troops before finally announcing that some of them would be withdrawn.

Close Ties to the Serbian President

Concerns of a renewed source of conflict in Europe, however, remain. And on this Tuesday morning, special forces – under the protection of KFOR troops – are searching through the Kosovo forest for traces of the attack. They stomp through the underbrush, poke into the embankment and even flip over rocks in the stream in their quest for clues. In the Kosovo capital of Pristina, government officials are certain that the attackers were “Serbian terrorists” under the leadership of a man named Milan Radoičić. They were armed with heavy weaponry produced in Serbia.

Radoičić is thought to have close ties to Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. He was vice president of the Serb List political party, which is considered a source of Serbian influence in Kosovo. The United States had imposed sanctions on him in the past, and he also confessed to being behind the attack. This week, he was arrested in Serbia, but then released for the time being. The government in Kosovo claims that instructions for the attack came directly from Belgrade.

For the people in northern Kosovo, in the divided city of Mitrovica, the crisis is swelling by the day, right outside their front doors.

The city has become a symbol. The Ibar River splits Mitrovica into a northern half and a southern half, Serbs spending dinars on one side, Kosovo Albanians spending euros on the other. On both sides, people gather in stylish cafés, children play on the streets, façades slowly crumble and power cables hang from the poles. Very few people can be seen walking across the EU-financed bridge, which is currently once again closed to automobile traffic.

It is 7:30 p.m. when Aleksandar Arsenijević walks into a bar called Akvarijus. Artworks, prints and installations are hung on the walls and there are ashtrays on the tables. He sits down with a group engaged in animated discussion and lights a cigarette. The 31-year-old, a former chemistry teacher, has become a spokesman for the Serbian minority in Kosovo, having founded an initiative called Serbian Survival. It is this minority that Serbian President Vučić is allegedly interested in protecting.

The Radicalization of Serbs in Kosovo

Arsenijević is a big man, his suitcoat stretched across his broad shoulders. As he speaks, he smokes one cigarette after the next. He grew up in Mitrovica and was just seven years old when the war began – and he hasn’t forgotten what bombs sound like when they rain down. Arsenijević doesn’t believe that the Serbian army will attack for as long as international peacekeepers are stationed in the country. But he is concerned that the attack on the police patrol last week will not remain a one-off.

“I warned that something like that could happen,” Arsenijević says.

Many here know the men who were involved in the assault on the Kosovo Albanian police officers, or at least they know the ones who were killed. Arsenijević says that Serbs in Kosovo are becoming radicalized, and not without reason.

In November 2022, Serbs living in Kosovo walked out of the city halls, courts and all state institutions in the country. The move came at the request of Serbian President Vučić in response to a dispute over car license plates. Whereas Kosovo President Albin Kurti is eager to demonstrate that Serbia no longer has a say inside his country, Vučić has transformed himself into an advocate for the Serbian minority. But now, there is no longer anybody representing Serbian interests in public offices, in city parliaments or on the police force. Activist Arsenijević is seeking to fill the vacuum.

“The Serbian community has no trust in the institutions,” he says. Kosovo’s constitution may include strong protections for multiethnic regions, he claims, but those protections have never been implemented. “Institutions are required to make documents available in Albanian and Serbian,” says Arsenijević, but they almost never do. Furthermore, he says, public officials are almost never able to speak Serbian, or refuse to. When he has an official appointment in Kosovo, says Arsenijević, it’s like having an appointment in Germany. “I feel like a foreigner in my own country.”

The biggest problem, says Arsenijević, is to be found in the police force. In 2021, the government of Kosovo stationed special units in the northern part of the country. Trained for anti-terror operations, they are made up exclusively of Kosovo Albanians, despite the fact that the country’s constitution requires the police force in multiethnic regions to reflect the composition of the population. In Mitrovica, the special units began taking on more and more duties normally performed by the regular police force, say residents – things like conducting traffic stops or putting an end to overly loud parties late at night.

Members of a special unit of the Kosovo police force patrol in the aftermath of the shooting incident. Foto: Ognen Teofilovski / REUTERS

Arsenijević isn’t the only one who is critical of the government in the Kosovo capital of Pristina. Following riots in May, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell demanded that the Kosovo government suspend all special police operations. In June, the EU imposed sanctions against Kosovo, in part because the government had not complied with Borrell’s demand. In addition, Prime Minister Kurti has refused to live up to an agreement according to which Serbian municipalities are to be given partial autonomy. The EU responded by canceling all high-level meetings with Kosovo government representatives and temporarily suspended economic aid for Kosovo. In addition, Brussels has threatened the suspension of the Stabilization and Association Agreement, which paves the way for Kosovo’s possible future accession to the EU.

But the flames of the conflict have also been fanned by Serbian populist Vučić, who has complained of “ethnic cleansing,” “pogroms” and “expulsions” in the north of Kosovo. People in North Mitrovica wave aside questions about such excesses, but many do say they are afraid of men who bear weapons of war and speak a language they don’t understand. And on top of that, stories of violence are circulating through the city.

“This Is Kosovo!”

Stories like that told by Miodrag Milićević. For over 20 years, Milićević worked for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and is now the head of a local NGO. He tells his story while sitting in his office.

Last autumn, he says, he was on his way to the Bosnian city of Sarajevo for a conference when a column of police vehicles passed him. A few kilometers later, the cars stopped him, and three men got out. They spoke Albanian, he says, and he responded in Serbian. They started screaming at him, says Milićević, forcing him up against his car and searching through his pockets for weapons. Because he had a Serbian ID, he says, they yelled at him “This is Kosovo!” before punching him in the stomach. And it isn’t the only such story making the rounds.

Finally, the men let him go. He went to the hospital to have his injuries documented and called a press conference the next day. He says he only just spoke with his lawyer. “I told him: We are going to push ahead in this case, no matter what happens. I want to know who those idiots were.”

Another story recounts police officers at a checkpoint north of Mitrovica allegedly firing on a moving car. The police claim the car had been attempting to circumvent the checkpoint, but have so far refused to release video footage of the incident publicly.

The Kosovo police, for their part, deny most such incidents – effectively turning them into rumors that are shared among the population of North Mitrovica and, with populist support from Belgrade, slowly transformed into fear.

For Arsenijević and many of his neighbors, last week’s attack hardly came as a surprise. People feel as though they are at the mercy of the two leaders, Kurti in Kosovo and Vučić in Serbia. If people no longer have a way to vent their displeasure, says one woman, then violence is all that remains. Arsenijević condemns the Serbian militia attack in Banjska. “I mourn the loss of all four lives,” he says, adding that the entire incident could have been avoided had the warnings been listened to.

A Sign of Protection

Fear of further escalation is one thing that everyone in Mitrovica can agree on. Aferdita Syla, a Kosovo Albanian who lives in the southern part of the city, heads up an association that has been recognized by international organizations due to the goal it strives for: bridging the ethnic divide. But staff members who live in the northern part of the city have stopped coming to the office in South Mitrovica since the incident out of fear of being attacked themselves. She understands that the special police units are frightening to the Serbs, Syla says. But in the south, they have a different view of the heavily armed forces – they see them as a sign of protection. Barricades in the northern part of the city have repeatedly gone up in flames in recent years, and Kosovo Albanians in the south are afraid that their neighbors’ fury might one day be directed at them.

Kosovo Albanian Aferdita Syla is seeking to bridge the ethnic divide in Mitrovica. Foto: Milos Slavkovic / DER SPIEGEL

The walls of buildings in North Mitrovica are covered with all kinds of telling graffiti, such as “NATO Go Home!” or the Russian symbol of its war in Ukraine: “Z.” Another shows two intertwined flags, the Russian and the Serbian, along with the message: “Kosovo is Serbia and the Crimea is Russia.”

In recent years, Serbian President Vučić has attempted a delicate balancing act by seeking close relations with both the European Union and with Russia, his country’s traditional ally. He has delivered weapons to Ukraine, but continues to stoke unrest in the Balkans, supporting Serbian separatists in Bosnia in addition to Kosovo. But by massing his troops on the border to Kosovo, he now finds himself on the defensive internationally. Heads of government in Albania and Croatia have called on the EU to impose punitive measures on Belgrade, and Kosovo portrays Vučić as a kind of mini-Putin who is planning to annex the north.

The walls of North Mitrovica are covered in anti-Western graffiti, including the “Z,” Russia’s symbol of its war in Ukraine. Foto: Armend Nimani / AFP

In Mitrovica, Serbian activist Arsenijević is concerned about one thing above all following last week’s attack: He believes that the Kosovo Albanian police presence will be expanded. And more police translates to more pressure, and more anger with Pristina. And the distinct possibility of more unrest.

Arsenijević says he is currently talking with many different people. “If the war could be brought to an end, this can too. I am trying to convince people of that. There is an opportunity to lead normal lives,” he says.

Source : Spigiel