Kosovo’s murky politics cloud hunt for Serb politician’s killers

Eight months after Oliver Ivanovic was shot dead, many people suspect a cover-up

Ripped poster of  Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Mitrovica. Photograph: Armend Nimani

Ripped poster of Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Mitrovica. Photograph: Armend Nimani

 

The face of a man turning to smile over his shoulder, as if leaving friends with a last joke as he walks away, now looks out from graffitied walls around Mitrovica in northern Kosovo.

His name is spelled out in stencil letters at the bottom of the simple, spray-paint portrait: “Oliver”.

The image captures something of the spirit of Oliver Ivanovic – his optimism and energy, and his grin as he downed another coffee and rushed off to his next meeting, switching languages as he chatted to fellow Serbs, Kosovar Albanians and foreign diplomats and journalists.

All that ended on January 16th, when Ivanovic was shot dead outside his political party’s office in the Serb half of Mitrovica, across the Ibar river from the mostly Kosovar south.

His murder shocked this city and now, amid unease over how Kosovo and Serbia may finally come to terms, people here fear the rule of law is dying alongside the moderate politics that he espoused.

Six bullets struck Ivanovic (64) from close range and he died in hospital later that morning. The hitmen are thought to have fired from a car that was found burned out a few kilometres away.

The governments in Pristina and Belgrade – which still lays claim to Kosovo a decade after it declared independence – launched separate investigations and EU officials called for the swift capture of the killers.

Eight months on, however, no arrests have been made or suspects named.

“I don’t believe we’ll ever find out who killed Oliver,” says Miroslav Ivanovic, brother of the murdered politician.

“Not because they can’t do it, but because they don’t have the will to do it. There will always be other interests trying to shut it down.”

After 37 years as a judge, Ivanovic knows how this country works, and he shares a commonly held view that political, business and criminal circles are co-operating across the ethnic divide to carve up power and profits in Kosovo.

This picture is most stark in Mitrovica, a flashpoint for ethnic and criminal violence since a 1998-1999 war between Serbian troops and Kosovar separatists.

Parallel structures

Belgrade retained influence in the north of postwar Kosovo by funding a police force and other “parallel structures”, but most have been phased out under a deal brokered by the EU in 2013.

As Pristina has extended its writ into the north, Belgrade has preserved its foothold through local politicians and businessmen loyal to Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic.

Funeral ceremony for Oliver Ivanovic in Belgrade on January 18, 2018. His murder raised tensions in the volatile region. Photograph: Oliver Bunic/AFP/Getty
Funeral ceremony for Oliver Ivanovic in Belgrade on January 18, 2018. His murder raised tensions in the volatile region. Photograph: Oliver Bunic/AFP/Getty

Serbian List is the dominant Serb political party in Kosovo, running all of its mostly Serb municipalities and holding the 10 seats that are reserved for the Serb minority in parliament in Pristina.

The party does Vucic’s bidding and claims to be the only true defender of Kosovo Serb interests, portraying rivals as traitors who collude with the country’s 95 per cent ethnic Albanian majority.

This crude message dominated the run-up to last year’s local elections, when Ivanovic’s car was torched, he was savaged by pro-Vucic media and one of his televised debates went off-air when a cable was mysteriously cut.

“There were lots of real threats to him in the last six months of his life,” says Marko Jaksic, a Mitrovica councillor and erstwhile ally of Ivanovic.

“But he never showed us he was afraid. When the pressure was on his party, he told us not to be scared. He was an optimist and tried to protect us.”

Whoever murdered one of Kosovo’s most popular and high-profile Serb politicians – so far, with complete impunity – showed people here that anyone can be a target, that state authority is still weak in the north and that this is no place for the compromise and reconciliation that he advocated.

“Finding out who killed Oliver would prove to Serbs and Albanians that someone is interested in providing a normal life for people in Kosovo,” says Miroslav Ivanovic. “But unfortunately, they are not doing that.”

In an interview with the Balkan Insight news service last October, Oliver Ivanovic talked of how northern Kosovo was not really run by elected officials but from shadowy “informal centres of power”.

He said a key figure in this system was Milan Radoicic, whose business interests reportedly span haulage, debt collection and a swanky Mitrovica restaurant, and whom Vucic has praised for “safeguarding Serbia in Kosovo”.

Figure of authority

Radoicic became a deputy leader of Serbian List this summer, but clearly he was already a figure of authority, having been photographed meeting Kosovo’s prime minister Ramush Haradinaj in a Pristina restaurant last year.

“When I started to meet him he already existed in their circles, politically,” Haradinaj told The Irish Times in a recent interview.

Oliver Ivanovic: Eight months after his murder, no arrests have been made or suspects named. Photograph: Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty
Oliver Ivanovic: Eight months after his murder, no arrests have been made or suspects named. Photograph: Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty

“If I met the mayor of [north] Mitrovica, he would tell me ‘Excuse me, I have to consult.’ With whom? ‘With Radoicic.’ If I met an MP he would say I have to consult, if I met a minister . . . So I said, let me meet myself with the man who decides for all of you.”

Many see Radoicic as the de facto leader of Serbian List, and at a July meeting in Haradinaj’s office he sat beside the premier ahead of his party boss, Goran Rakic.

“We need interlocutors on the other side for everything,” said Haradinaj, a former rebel commander whose government depends on Serbian List for a majority in parliament.

“Serbian List is in a way the decision-maker there, so we need to talk to them for many decisions, about courts in the north, customs, police and more,” he added. “We don’t decide with whom to meet. They have decided . . . that this is an influential man.”

There is no indication that Radoicic or his allies are connected to Ivanovic’s murder, but his role as a powerbroker raises questions about how political deals are done in Kosovo.

Igor Simic, another deputy leader of Serbian List, declined to answer questions for this article.

In February, however, he brushed off suggestions that organised crime was flourishing in Mitrovica, saying such talk usually came from “Albanians who . . . want to present northern Kosovo as a place without law and where the law can only come from Pristina and the Kosovo authorities.”

Kosovo as fiefdom

Yet local Serb critics say the party treats northern Kosovo like a fiefdom, doling out jobs to loyal supporters and ruling without transparency or accountability, which leaves ordinary Serbs feeling powerless to influence anything from local issues to the future of Pristina-Belgrade ties.

Vucic and Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaci suggested recently that a land swap could help their states establish normal relations, despite fears that reunifying northern Kosovo with Serbia could prompt Serbs living further south to abandon their homes.

Serbian List mayors signed a joint letter last month lauding Vucic and warning anyone who blocked his efforts that they would “go to their apartments and villas to ask them why they did it to the Serb people”.

One such critic is Sava Janjic, the outspoken abbot of Decani, a 700-year-old Serbian Orthodox monastery in western Kosovo.

“Anyone with different opinion about the ethnic-territorial partition of Kosovo is targeted in a similar way like late Oliver Ivanovic was threatened and attacked,” he tweeted amid a barrage of abuse from pro-Vucic media last month.

Intentionally or not, Ivanovic’s killers eliminated a man around whom Serb opponents of partition could surely have united.

“People are more afraid since Oliver was killed, and more people are leaving,” says Jaksic.

“People here don’t like Vucic but they vote for him. They do have a choice, but they want to have a quiet life and a job.”

A Mitrovica street will soon be named after Ivanovic, but not the central Sutejska street where he was killed, as requested by his family, friends and more than 1,500 supporters. Serbian List councillors blocked that proposal, and voted instead to put his name on a rundown road in another part of town.

For Miroslav, that shows that his brother’s enemies still want to marginalise him and devalue what he stood for.

“People are very afraid. This is proof that if you think differently to certain people, you can end up like Oliver,” he says.

“Oliver was murdered in the centre of the city, in broad daylight, with lots of people and security cameras around. It seems someone doesn’t want to find out who did it.”

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