An Assassination Could Be Just What Kosovo Needed

A tragic death could spark a lasting peace in the Balkans’ most restive region.

A relative mourns on the coffin of late Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic, during his funeral ceremony at the cemetery Novo Groblje in Belgrade on Jan. 18. (Oliver Bunic/AFP/Getty Images)
A relative mourns on the coffin of late Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic, during his funeral ceremony at the cemetery Novo Groblje in Belgrade on Jan. 18. (Oliver Bunic/AFP/Getty Images)

In March 2003, a sniper enlisted by a powerful criminal gang shot dead Serbia’s young reformist prime minister, Zoran Djindjic. In an instant, the promise of a clean break — for Serbia and for the region — from the Slobodan Milosevic era was dashed. Djindjic’s successors returned Serbia to the self-pitying past, most notably on the emotive issue of Kosovo.

Last week, Oliver Ivanovic, a longtime leader in the Serb community of Kosovo, was also assassinated, most likely by the powerful criminal elements that thrive in the country’s lawless north. This tragedy, by contrast, could be the spark for a lasting peace in Kosovo.

The journey begins in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, which stubbornly maintains the illusion that it can still extract territory from its breakaway former province. That illusion over Kosovo — where the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia began some 30 years ago — holds Serbia and the region hostage. The illusion opens doors for Russia to entice Serbia from the hard work needed to join the European Union. And that illusion over Kosovo ultimately led to Ivanovic’s assassination.

The truth is that Serbia hasn’t truly ruled the territory since 1999, when a two-and-a-half-month NATO air campaign chased Serb forces out of Kosovo. In their absence, vengeful Albanians wreaked havoc on the minority Serb inhabitants. Many fled across the Ibar River in the north of Kosovo, where Serbs form the majority. Under the leadership of Ivanovic, a former karate champion, a motley crew of Serb vigilantes — the bridge watchers — drew the line against further Albanian encroachment at the town of Mitrovica. Serbs and Albanians glared at each other across the bridge and periodically clashed violently on the north side of town, where a smattering of Albanians found themselves in the vulnerable minority.

Rather than take control over security as they were mandated to do, NATO and the United Nations continued to allow Serb vigilantes to rule the vital crossing and, increasingly, life in northern Mitrovica. Intelligent, articulate in English, and, rare for a Kosovo Serb, fluent in Albanian, Ivanovic became a favorite interlocutor of the international community, particularly when trouble erupted. He engaged in serial, internationally brokered parleys with Albanians for interethnic cooperation and, while faithful to the Serb cause, never shrank from dialogue.

While the bridge watchers stood their ground, Belgrade established the real “order” in all four of Kosovo’s northern municipalities through opaque payments to administrators and deployment of undercover Serb police. As control hardened, so did defiance and flagrant nationalism. The resistance to Albanian authority had a strategic aim — to preserve the chance of the north’s secession from independent Kosovo.

The ubiquitous graffito scrawled in Cyrillic around the north — “Kosovo is Serbia” — concealed the sad fact that northern Kosovo was actually an illicit satrapy where criminals thrived. With the Serbs rejecting the writ of Pristina, and with Serbia’s means of control largely covert, shadowy criminal structures became the real power. Corruption, drugs, and vice are now the region’s currency.

Ivanovic threw himself into politics but largely avoided the taint of crime, including war crimes. Observers were shocked when in 2014 the European rule of law mission, EULEX, charged him with ordering the murder of Albanians as the leader of the bridge watchers. He successfully appealed his conviction and was released last spring. Ivanovic re-entered politics, taking direct aim at the criminal element that continued to flourish. In an interview with a leading Serbian daily last September, he suggested outright collusion between police and criminals: “Fear is pervasive in Mitrovica, not of Albanians anymore but of Serbs, local criminals who ride around in SUVs without license plates. Drugs are sold on every corner. And the police only watch. It is obvious that they are afraid of the perpetrators or the perpetrators are part of the security structures themselves.”

A political maverick, Ivanovic became a target. His car was burned twice. In 2013, his political party headquarters were set on fire. When Ivanovic ran for mayor of Mitrovica that year, an assailant entered his apartment and attacked his wife. When Ivanovic again ran for mayor last fall, he was pelted with political attacks. His political opponents, aligned with Serbia’s strongman, President Aleksandar Vucic suggested he was a quisling for the Albanians. His party colleagues were threatened. Some, lacking Ivanovic’s courage, dropped out of the local elections, which Ivanovic and his party lost. Ivanovic sought periodic respite from the threats and pressure in Belgrade.

It was no coincidence that Ivanovic’s assailant shot him in front of his party offices in Mitrovica. While the identity and ethnicity of Ivanovic’s assassin are not known, Vucic himself acknowledged the possibility that the killer is Serb. Nenad Canak, the leader of a Serbian opposition party, has speculated that Russia orchestrated the killing, with the use of a Serb triggerman, in order to continue its campaign to destabilize the region. The allegation is plausible given the evidence of Russian involvement in an attempted coup in Montenegro in 2016.

Vucic has demanded that Serbia be allowed to openly participate in the investigation of Ivanovic’s killing. Whether or not that happens, the odds are high that Belgrade will soon learn on its own who pulled the trigger on Ivanovic. Like much of the region, Serbia retains a communist-era internal security apparatus, unshackled by legal niceties, that it can activate when it needs to, even in the remote north of Kosovo. The question is whether Serbia will grasp the wider truth — that its illusions about Kosovo leave the ethnically Serb north in the hands of hit men.

To his credit, Vucic last July dared to open the Kosovo issue in Serbia, imploring the country to “stop burying its head in the sand” on Kosovo and start an “internal dialogue” toward a solution that will be “permanent … and bring benefit to the region.” Unfortunately, Vucic’s announcement was followed by no efforts to actually open such a conversation or to offer any vision of what such a solution would look like. Instead, Belgrade insists on a union of municipalities that the Albanians fear is simply a precursor to outright secession. In other words, all evidence is that the hope to salvage a territorial settlement continues to tantalize Serbia.

Albanians are partners in the illusion. Refusing to contemplate that Albanians could have committed crimes against Serbs, Albanian parties continue to oppose the newly established special war crimes chamber. What’s more, the largest single party in Kosovo’s parliament, Vetevendosje (“Self-Determination”), loudly advocates union with Albania. This illusory solution would immediately provoke the Serb north to secede. If the Albanians managed to block this, Serbia would demand compensation with the secession of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Republika Srpska, a step that would reopen the conflict there. Even in the unlikely event that Belgrade and Pristina could agree on the terms, territorial division of Kosovo would also immediately reopen territorial questions in Macedonia, whose ethnic Albanians would also demand the right of union with Albania. South Serbia and Montenegro would also be the subject of territorial questions, as minorities there clamored for autonomy or outright secession. The division of Kosovo would automatically excite separatist tendencies among both Serbs and Croats in Bosnia.

The murder of Ivanovic is an opportunity to finally shatter the seductive, dangerous illusion of territorial separation. But Vucic and his counterpart, Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, will not be able to forge a compromise on their own. Nor will the EU, which the Albanians don’t trust and the Serbs don’t respect. The EU’s incremental dialogue is sputtering and, in any event, offers no serious vision for the north. The truth is that the challenge of the north — the crux of the dispute over Kosovo — can only be resolved in the frame of a comprehensive settlement.

And only the United States has the clout to bring Brussels, Belgrade, and Pristina around to such a deal — one that allows Kosovo to join the U.N. and other international organizations while permitting Serbia to move forward toward joining the EU. Particularly given the Russian menace, Washington can no longer afford to subcontract the Kosovo issue to the Europeans. The assassination of Zoran Djindjic took Serbia and the region backward. With American leadership, and a sense of urgency in Europe, the region need not suffer the same fate after this tragedy.

Edward P. Joseph teaches conflict management at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.  He served on the ground for a dozen years in the Balkans, including with the US Army, and as Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo.