Set the Trojan Horse on Fire

As Serbian influence creeps back into Kosovo, protests have rocked the young nation -- and may bring its government to a grinding halt.


PRISTINA, Kosovo — This is the winter of discontent in Kosovo. The lingering euphoria over independence in 2008 has given way to frustration with economic stagnation and political squabbling. Unemployment sits at 45 percent, and an estimated 500,000 of Kosovo’s 1.8 million citizens — the vast majority of whom are ethnic Albanians — live on less than $2 a day. On Jan. 24 and Jan. 27, some 15,000 Kosovars took to the streets to protest corruption and poverty. But they also wanted to register their frustration with what they see as the outsized role Serbia still plays in the country more than 15 years after a war fought so that Kosovo could secede from its larger neighbor.

The protests were sparked by Aleksandar Jablanovic, an ethnic Serb minister in Kosovo’s government, who called members of an ethnic Albanian association of war victims “savages” after they blocked the path of ethnic Serb pilgrims who were trying to celebrate Orthodox Christmas. The area where the pilgrims were traveling saw some of the strongest fighting in the 1998-1999 Kosovo War, and thousands of people from the region remain missing. Adding fuel to the fire, Jablanovic later publicly questioned the well-documented record of war crimes committed by Serbian forces, saying he “didn’t know” whether they had occurred.

Shortly thereafter, Kosovo’s recently installed prime minister backtracked on a plan to nationalize Trepca, a mine rich in zinc, silver, and lead, in the face of opposition from Serbia, which also has a claim to Trepca because Belgrade managed it during Yugoslavia’s final years. The decision was seen as a blow to both the economic prospects and the national pride of Kosovo’s Albanians.

“We’re protesting against the general situation in the country, both economic and social, but also against the statements made by Jablanovic and for the protection of Trepca,” protester Latif Selmani, 48, a salesman, said at the Jan. 27 protest. “Shame on the government for allowing the honor of the war martyrs to be desecrated,” said Drita Berisha, a nurse. “We want the removal of Jablanovic!”

One hundred seventy people were injured on the second day of unrest as protesters threw rocks at the building housing the prime minister’s cabinet and the Foreign Ministry. Police responded with tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets. The scene reminded many of the massive protests of the 1980s and 1990s against the regime of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. The recent protests, which occupied the center of Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, represent the worst unrest since Kosovo declared independence seven years ago.

Kosovo is Europe’s greatest experiment in post-World War II state-building. After the war ended in 1999, the country was administered by the United Nations until a unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008. Then, the European Union deployed its most expensive mission to date on the continent — the EU Rule of Law Mission — to run Kosovo’s judicial system and oversee its rule of law. Until 2012, the tiny country remained supervised by an international diplomat. To date, it has been officially recognized by 110 countries, but tensions with Serbia, which argues vociferously that Kosovo remains within its sovereign borders, still run high.

In April 2013, Kosovo and Serbia signed an agreement, brokered by the European Union, that would finally put four northern municipalities, which seek unification with Serbia, under Pristina’s control. Recently, Serbia received, via another Brussels-brokered deal that falls under the 2013 agreement, a renewed role in running Kosovo. (Kosovo and Serbia are in ongoing negotiations with the EU about their relations, and talks on implementation of the 2013 agreement are set to resume on Feb. 9 after a 10-month hiatus.) Kosovo’s four northern municipalities, which are predominantly Serbian, participated in the country’s elections for the first time, sending representatives whose allegiance remains with Belgrade to the central government in Pristina — and thus effectively giving Serbia a voice in Kosovo’s administration.

The development has made the normalization of relations between the two countries — a key requirement for EU accession for both — highly unpopular in Kosovo. Pristina-based political analyst Leon Malazogu said Kosovars are losing hope of true independence. “As long as there is Brussels, and dialogue open, you can swallow it for a while, but … I don’t think Kosovo has done all this to go from being a province of Serbia to a colony.”

The agreement has also added fuel to the mission of Serbian List, a political party founded last year in Kosovo that refuses to recognize statehood. Supported by Belgrade and led by Jablanovic, the party won several municipal and national seats in elections last summer thanks to the ethnic Serb vote in Kosovo’s north; members also hold ministerial positions, including the role of deputy prime minister.

Serbian List’s presence in the government has spurred, in turn, a backlash all its own: Many ethnic Albanians are angry that they now have government ministers supportive of — and supported by — Belgrade, and they believe that Kosovo’s government is kowtowing to Serbia in EU talks. “People have started to realize that with this never-ending dialogue with Serbia, Kosovo is just becoming worse and worse,” said Visar Ymeri, a leader in the opposition party Vetevendosje (“Self-Determination”), the primary organizer of the recent protests.

Vetevendosje, considered a radical movement by many Western embassies because of its protest tactics, is against the Brussels-mediated dialogue and advocates closing the northern border with Serbia until Belgrade gives Kosovo full recognition. With echoes of Greece’s Syriza party, Vetevendosje has rejected the meddling of big Western powers in Kosovo, opposing independence with international oversight and raising concerns over murky business dealings with Western corporations. Despite having placed third in national elections last year, its opposition to dialogue with Serbia, which has yet to bear much fruit for ordinary Kosovars, has contributed to its rising popular approval. And as anger over Serbian List grows, Vetevendosje’s base has extended to older, more traditional voters. One of its key functionaries recently became mayor of Pristina.

“Serbian List is directly tied to the politics of [Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s] Serbian Progressive Party,” said Pristina-based political analyst Belul Beqaj. “It plays the role of the Trojan horse in the Kosovar political scene.”

Jablanovic’s “savages” remark gave an uncertain and scared population exactly what it feared — and expected — from the new party. If his remark was the spark, the announcement that Prime Minister Isa Mustafa was backtracking on a plan to nationalize the Trepca mine was the wind that stoked the fire.

Trepca is a rambling complex of 40 mines, including a few minor sites in Serbia; its deposits could be worth 10 billion euros, according to Kosovo’s Independent Commission for Mines and Minerals. The mine is also steeped in the history of Kosovo’s struggle for independence. Disputes over Trepca in 1989 resulted in 1,000 employees striking in pursuit of more autonomy for Kosovo, one of the first episodes of unrest as Yugoslavia began to unravel. “Yugoslavia started falling apart in those mines,” said Beqaj, emphasizing the sentimental connection both Serbs and Kosovars have with Trepca.

The mine has floundered in the postwar era due to ownership disputes between Kosovo and Serbia and a lack of investment. It is a source of tension because both Pristina and Belgrade lay claim to it. Trepca’s operational center is in the divided northern city of Mitrovica — Serbs live on one side of a bridge, Albanians on the other — and the mine remains one of the most potent symbols of Kosovo’s schisms. Nationalization, many of Kosovars believe, would symbolize Pristina’s power to counter Serbian economic and political influence.

Like the protests at Trepca in the 1980s, the unrest today “could serve as a catalyst for re-examination” of contemporary policies, Beqaj said.

Nenad Rasic, a Serb who recognizes Kosovo as his country and served in the last government as minister of labor and social welfare, said he worries that, because of the protests, ethnic relations will worsen and there may be a renewed flight of Serbs from the country. “For the first time, I am not optimistic for the maintenance of the Serb community in Kosovo,” he said. Malazogu, the Pristina-based political analyst, shares his concern. “We haven’t seen retribution. Thankfully, no Serb has been attacked,” he said. “But the climate will deteriorate.”

Vetevendosje delivered an ultimatum to Prime Minister Mustafa to dismiss Jablanovic by the afternoon of Tuesday, Feb. 3, or else a planned 48-hour protest would go ahead starting Wednesday. The minister was fired Tuesday, but he intimated that there would be trouble: “The Serbian List did not enter the government so it could consider the requests and stances of Vetevendosje,” said Jablanovic, vowing that his party would respond after a consultation with the Serbian prime minister, on Thursday. The party may decide to leave the governing coalition, which could handicap Mustafa’s ability to lead.

Ousting Jablanovic also didn’t quell the anger that Vetevendosje has harnessed. Following his dismissal, the party said that the protests, while momentarily postponed, will ultimately continue until Serbia relinquishes its claim to Trepca. “Serbia’s requests for Kosovo are never-ending,” said Ymeri. “There must be a stopping point. Otherwise, we are not going to be an independent country.”

Una Hajdari contributed reporting.

Photo credit: ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images

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