Murder and mafia power shake Serbs in divided Kosovo

EU calls politician’s killing a ‘wake-up call’ 10 years after Kosovo’s independence

Flowers and candles mark the place in Mitrovica, Kosovo, where moderate Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic was shot dead outside his office in January. Photograph: Dan McLaughlin

Flowers and candles mark the place in Mitrovica, Kosovo, where moderate Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic was shot dead outside his office in January. Photograph: Dan McLaughlin

 

Police keep watch now outside the office of Oliver Ivanovic, where a small shrine of flowers and candles marks the place the Kosovo-Serb politician was shot dead in January in the city of Mitrovica.

When they arrived on the scene early on January 16th, they were unable to save a leading advocate of co-operation and tolerance in Kosovo, whose death exposed deep divisions in a country preparing to mark a decade of independence.

The six bullets that killed Ivanovic had an impact far beyond Mitrovica, prompting Serbian officials to halt the resumption of EU-brokered talks in Brussels with their Kosovan counterparts, and fuelling fresh recrimination between Belgrade and a mostly ethnic Albanian nation that broke from its rule in a 1998-1999 war.

Dr Dragisa Milovic in the main hospital in Mitrovica, northern Kosovo: was there when his political ally, Oliver Ivanovic, was brought in with fatal gunshot wounds in January. Photograph: Dan McLaughlin
Dr Dragisa Milovic in the main hospital in Mitrovica, northern Kosovo: was there when his political ally, Oliver Ivanovic, was brought in with fatal gunshot wounds in January. Photograph: Dan McLaughlin

For many people in mostly Serb northern Kosovo, however, concern for Serbia and Kosovo’s EU accession hopes was far outweighed by the growing fear that law and order in their poor and isolated region has been usurped by mafia rule.

“They control everything,” said Dragisa Milovic, a doctor at Mitrovica’s main hospital and a former ally of Ivanovic, quoting a Kosovo Serb ex-deputy who described how criminal gangs in the north “decide between life and death”.

“They decide who will be mayor, who will be the directors of Serbian firms here, who will be employed by those firms . . . They control the flow of money in the north and so they have all the power, and they have some of the police in their hands too. Oliver let everyone know about that.”

Milovic was at the hospital on the morning Ivanovic was brought in.

“Even if we had started operating the moment he was shot, we couldn’t have saved him,” Milovic said.

Belgrade created a party here that it wants to operate by remote control, that only thinks in one way

“He was hit six times in a 10cm -square area of the chest. They say only a professional could have grouped the bullets so close together.”

Investigators have not revealed whether they have any suspects in the case, but they believe the killer shot Ivanovic (64) and escaped in a car that was found burned out several kilometres from Mitrovica.

Accusations traded

As the EU and US called for calm, nationalist politicians and media in Kosovo and Serbia traded accusations over the murder, and Belgrade criticised the government in Pristina for rejecting its calls for a joint investigation.

A decade after Kosovo declared independence – a move recognised by 115 countries but not Serbia, Russia, China or five EU member states – Belgrade still funds major services in northern Kosovo and dominates its political scene.

Serbian List is the main political force in the region, and has close ties to Serbia’s ruling party and its president, Aleksandar Vucic, who has backed talks with Kosovo while refusing to accept the sovereignty of the 1.8-million-strong state.

Oliver Ivanovic: shot in front of his office in Mitrovica, Kosovo in January. Photograph: Andrej Cukic/EPA
Oliver Ivanovic: shot in front of his office in Mitrovica, Kosovo in January. Photograph: Andrej Cukic/EPA

Despite facing war crimes allegations that he called politically motivated, Ivanovic was a moderate who urged Serbs to defend their interests by participating in Kosovo’s elections and institutions.

Along with his criticism of corruption, it was a stance that often put him at odds with Serbian List, and saw him branded a “traitor” by pro-Vucic media in Serbia.

“I didn’t always agree with Oliver, but we don’t all have to think like Serbian List – this isn’t North Korea, ” Milovic said in his office at Mitrovica’s hospital.

“Belgrade created a party here that it wants to operate by remote control, that only thinks in one way. That’s the reason we wanted to change things, so there would be a plurality of opinions here.”

Having boycotted previous Kosovo ballots, Milovic chose to run alongside Ivanovic in local elections last October.

What happened was really very, very emblematic for the situation in the north, where unfortunately rule of law is still not the reality

“I wanted to show we were not scared and that we could genuinely change the places where we live, even if we have to do it through elections organised by Pristina. Belgrade had years to change things here and didn’t do it,” Milovic said.

Political murders

“Last July my car was set on fire and a few days later two men threatened my daughter. Obviously they wanted to send me a message – don’t run in elections with Oliver. I said: ‘What will they do next – kill us?’ And that’s what happened to Oliver.”

“In the last couple of years, something like 20 cars have been set on fire here and there have been other political murders. None has been solved,” said Milovic, who believes the interests of organised crime and Serbian List “overlap” in northern Kosovo.

Igor Simic, a Serbian List deputy, said such accusations usually come 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.”

“If I knew who [the mafia] were I would report them, as a responsible person and someone living there as a citizen. I know it is in some people’s interests to show that northern Kosovo is the worst place to live.”

Graffiti in the mostly Serb half of the city of Mitrovica in Kosovo, saying: “Kosovo is Serbia, Crimea is Russia”. Photograph: Dan McLaughlin
Graffiti in the mostly Serb half of the city of Mitrovica in Kosovo, saying: “Kosovo is Serbia, Crimea is Russia”. Photograph: Dan McLaughlin

Many Serbs feel they are being forced out of Kosovo, but the EU says it must integrate its minorities and strengthen law and order if it is to join the bloc.

Nataliya Apostolova, the EU special representative for Kosovo, described the murder of Ivanovic as “a wake-up call”.

“What happened was really very, very emblematic for the situation in the north, where unfortunately rule of law is still not the reality.”

In the small office where she worked for 12 years with Ivanovic, Silvana Arsovic cannot talk about him without crying.

“I feel numb,” she said, recalling the January morning she heard a sound like a firecracker going off in the street, and rushed outside to find Ivanovic lying crumpled on the pavement.

Sitting beside her, Ivanovic’s political ally Dusan Milunovic is angry.

“We don’t trust anyone,” he said.

“Literally anything can happen here. A criminal group has intimidated not only the citizens but the police, and it tells them who to arrest,” he added.

“When they were needed here no one could find them,” Milunovic said of the police patrol car parked outside.

“People here are completely lost after this. Even those who didn’t know Ivanovic didn’t believe that this could happen.”

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