The ghost of Kosovo’s ethnic confrontation is revived in the city of Mitrovica |  International

The ghost of Kosovo’s ethnic confrontation is revived in the city of Mitrovica | International

There is an electoral office burned and with broken windows for more than three weeks in the northern part of the Kosovar city of Mitrovica. The old ghosts that spread death in the Balkans during the nineties seem concentrated in the building, struggling to escape. A few floors above the office, Kosovar Serb police officer Dajan Pantic, 56, is arrested at his home. The Kosovo authorities, mostly belonging to the ethnic Albanian group, accuse him of attacking the electoral headquarters on December 6. A few meters away, several vehicles belonging to NATO forces, with 4,000 members deployed in Kosovo, guard a bridge that connects the two almost irreconcilable parts of the city: the majority Albanian south with the Kosovar Serb north.

Within an hour of Pantic’s arrest on December 10, hundreds of Kosovar Serbs erected barricades in the northern part of Mitrovica. International diplomacy had to be used very thoroughly to get them to agree to unblock the roads. And they only cleared them after three weeks, once Pantic was granted house arrest. But all the factors that led to the attack on the office and the arrest of the policeman are still latent in a country of 1.8 million inhabitants, with a 10% Serb minority, the majority in the northern region.

Italian members of the NATO force deployed in Kosovo guard the access to the Kosovar city of Mitrovica on Wednesday, January 11, in whose northern area Serbian flags fly.
Italian members of the NATO force deployed in Kosovo guard the access to the Kosovar city of Mitrovica on Wednesday, January 11, in whose northern area Serbian flags fly.

Predag ​​Pantic, 27, the son of the detained policeman, says his father had nothing to do with the attack on the office, who was just walking around the area minutes after going down to get the bread. He adds that the father was detained four days later at a routine border control, when he was returning from buying medicine and food in Serbia. He complains that Pantic was held incommunicado for 15 days, without receiving calls or visits. “My father has heart problems and it was only after five days that we managed to pass him the medicines. He was seated in a chair for the first two days and handcuffed for the first week. After two days they gave him a mattress, ”he explains.

Too many open wounds

Kosovo declared its independence unilaterally in 2008, but Serbia does not recognize it, nor do Spain and four other countries of the European Union. The city of Mitrovica reflects all the tensions in the country. 78,000 people live on the southern shore and 25,000 on the north, according to estimates by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In the south, Albanian is spoken, people pay in euros, mosques predominate, and car license plates are Kosovar. In the north, Serbian is spoken, the Catholic Orthodox religion is practiced, the currency is the Serbian dinar, the streets are adorned with Serbian flags and there are graffiti supporting Russia.

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This situation has persisted since the country declared its independence. So why have relations become tense now? What has been the trigger? Nenad Rasic, the ethnic Serb minister for Communities and Return in the Pristina government, believes that the problem has been going on since 2013. That year, Rasic recalls, the EU forced an agreement between the then Serbian prime minister, Ivica Dacic, and his Kosovar counterpart, Hashim Thaçi, to grant autonomous status to northern Kosovo, without Kosovar Serbs having any representation.

For his part, Marko Jaksic, a 39-year-old ethnic Serb activist and former member of the Kosovar Parliament, believes that the origin of the tensions dates back to March, when the Kosovar Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, wanted to implement a law to withdraw all Kosovo Serb license plates. “He did it right after the start of the Ukrainian war [que comenzó el 24 de febrero]. Because he knew that the Russians, who always supported Serbia, would be busy with Ukraine and not deal with Kosovo.

Marko Jaksic, Kosovo Serb activist, on Wednesday, January 11, in the central square of North Mitrovica.
Marko Jaksic, Kosovo Serb activist, on Wednesday, January 11, in the central square of North Mitrovica.BOJAN SLAVKOVIC

Tension escalated until November 21, when the Pristina government began imposing fines on cars with Serbian license plates. “As a consequence,” summed up the EU’s senior foreign representative, Josep Borrell, “the Kosovo Serbs have withdrawn from the institutions in northern Kosovo.” “That means that around 600 police officers have left their uniforms. Judges and local Administration staff have also resigned, ”he added. The four mayors of the municipalities in northern Kosovo with a Serb majority also resigned: the half of Mitrovica that they inhabit, Leposavic, Zvecan and Zubin Potok.

Kurti’s government then called local elections for December 18 with the aim of replacing the authorities who resigned, belonging to the Serbian List party. This formation boycotted the scrutiny. The electoral office was attacked. And Kurti, under pressure from the EU, agreed to postpone the elections until April.

The activist Jaksic explains that the deep reason why the north of the country does not want to participate in these elections promoted by the Kurti government is the “constant discrimination” suffered by the Kosovo Serbs. “We need a solution: autonomy, spin-off, whatever. But if they [las autoridades albanokosovares] organize an election where the Serbs do not participate, then we Serbs will be ruled by Albanians”.

Jaksic maintains that most of the Serbs who left Kosovo after the 1998-1999 war know that their houses are occupied by Albanians. “But when the Serbs claim them before the Pristina court, to prove their property, they are accused of war crimes and arrested. That has happened about 20 times. But this is how a message is conveyed to other Serbs, so they don’t reclaim their houses.”

The activist adds: “In 1999, Spain, along with other countries, bombed us because we did not respect the rights of the Albanians. But now, the victims have become aggressors. And on top of that, Kurti calls us ‘little Russians’, but we support Ukraine”.

—Why is there, then, graffiti in the northern part of Mitrovica supporting Putin’s Russia?

—Graffiti isn’t exactly painted by the most intellectual people. And they don’t represent the majority of Serbs here.

—What do you think about the Serbian flags that fly in the streets?

—They are like the flags of Albania in Kosovo. Kosovo celebrates the national day of Albania, another country, on November 28. My Serbian flag is in the heart. I don’t need to show it.

“Here I don’t pay taxes, water, or electricity”

On the street, things are simpler and at the same time more complex. There is an area of ​​northern Mitrovica full of shops owned by ethnic Albanians. They barely speak Serbian, but almost all of their customers are. Some did not want to talk to this newspaper about the conflict last Wednesday. But Nehat Jusufi, a 43-year-old furniture store owner, had no hesitation in explaining why he feels so comfortable in the city: “In North Mitrovica I don’t pay taxes, water, or electricity. Because the Serbs do not want to pay taxes to Kosovo. I have been here for 15 years and everyone treats me well and invites me to drink in their houses when I bring them the furniture. Normal people on both sides don’t want problems.”

Alice, the assumed name of a young Kosovar Serb living in London who wants to hide her identity, traveled to northern Kosovo this January to celebrate Orthodox Christmas with her family. “Now,” she explains, “there are a lot of people who are disenchanted. The Serbs here feel that Belgrade no longer protects them and that they are being left out.” The woman says that Kosovo’s politics is not inclusive, and that all non-Albanians feel discriminated against in Kosovo. “Minorities,” she says, “don’t even have access to information or documents in their mother tongue.”

The emigrant believes that coexistence between the two ethnic groups in Kosovo is possible, but she also thinks that “it takes a long time to educate about the differences and the beauty of diversity.” For now, she plans to spend her life in London. “The authorities in Pristina are getting many young people, not only Serbs, but also Albanians and other minorities, to leave our land. Because there are no opportunities.”

Mural in the Serb-majority area of ​​Mitrovica with the message
Mural in the Serb-majority area of ​​Mitrovica with the message ‘Kosovo is Serbia, Crimea is Russia’.bojan slavkovic

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