Serbian president calls for peace on controversial visit to Kosovo
Belgrade accused of playing politics over murder of prominent Kosovo Serb
Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic, next to Serbian Orthodox bishop Teodosije, visits the Banjska Monastery in northern Mitrovica on Saturday. Photograph: Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images
Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic has delivered a conciliatory message on a controversial visit to Kosovo, amid criticism that Belgrade is making cynical and potentially dangerous political use of the murder of a leading Kosovo Serb politician.
Mr Vucic travelled around ethnic Serb areas of the former Belgrade-run region on Saturday and Sunday, and urged people there to remain calm and seek peaceful solutions to their disputes with the country’s Kosovar Albanian majority.
Tensions soared last Tuesday when Oliver Ivanovic, a moderate politician and strong critic of Mr Vucic, was shot dead outside his office in the Serb half of the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo.
Mr Vucic called it an act of terrorism, and his officials immediately withdrew from EU-brokered talks with their Kosovar counterparts on solving practical problems and building trust almost a decade after Kosovo declared independence.
“Our policy must be a policy of peace . . . It’s better to talk a thousand times than that a single shot be fired anywhere,” Mr Vucic told Kosovo Serbs.
“You, the people, don’t have another home except this one, and we don’t want you ever to leave it . . . Please let’s not use any weapons, let’s try to sort things out through politics and talk,” he added.
Mr Vucic’s mild tone contrasted with suggestions from some Belgrade officials and media that Kosovars were behind Mr Ivanovic’s murder and that authorities in the Kosovan capital of Pristina could not be trusted to investigate impartially.
As well as laying a wreath at the place where Mr Ivanovic was shot six times by an unknown gunman, Mr Vucic visited Orthodox Serb monasteries in Kosovo, which many Serbs consider to be the cradle of their nation and faith.
Kosovo will next month mark a decade since it declared independence from Belgrade, following a period of administration by a United Nations mission that came after a 1998-9 war between Serbian government forces and Kosovar rebels.
That conflict killed about 13,000 people and displaced about one million – the vast majority of them Kosovars, who make up more than 90 per cent of the country’s 1.8 million population.
About 115 countries, including Ireland, have recognised Kosovo’s sovereignty. Serbia refuses to accept it, however, and has received help from traditional ally Russia in barring Kosovo from some major international organisations.
Kosovo has declined Serbia’s request to participate in the investigation into the murder of Mr Ivanovic (64), who was seen as a moderate despite facing a retrial for alleged war crimes against Kosovars. He had said the case was politically motivated.
Mr Ivanovic, a karate expert who spoke Albanian, English and Italian as well as his native Serbian, was denounced as a traitor by politicians and media close to Mr Vucic, because he urged Kosovo’s Serbs to engage with its institutions rather than rely on Belgrade.
“The current ruling party labels opponents as traitors, agents of foreign powers, criminals. This is the daily routine in Serbia,” said Serbian opposition leader Sasa Jankovic.
“The atmosphere of conflict that has been created systematically cannot be separated from what has happened.”
Mr Jankovic told The Irish Times that Mr Ivanovic’s murder strengthened those in Serbia and Kosovo who pursue the “politics of conflict”.
“They believe in causing a conflict, then steering it and using it to achieve something . . . over time they need to more and more dangerous things, and I fear it could get out of control,” he said.
“Obviously, there are those who believe that killing a symbol of moderate politics . . . would help make ‘conflict’ the key word in our daily lives again, instead of discussing modernisation, rule of law, free media and all the things that make people’s lives normal and happy and prosperous.”