Playacting the Cold War in Kosovo

The Balkans are center stage for new tensions between Russia and the West—but how real is the action?

Serbian children play in the playground of the condominium where they live, on Nov. 24, 2007 in Mitrovica, Kosovo.
Serbian children play in the playground of the condominium where they live, on Nov. 24, 2007 in Mitrovica, Kosovo. Marco di Lauro/Getty Images

MITROVICA, Kosovo—It is hard not to see the city of Mitrovica as the most revealing front of what some have called the “new Cold War” between Russia and the West. Like that new war, the city’s current impasse was born out of the implosion of communism and its failure to bridge itself to any new political or economic order. Mitrovica was once a war zone, but like the new Cold War, it is now a theater, festering with electoral stunts and international meddling and media intrigue. And like the new Cold War, the city offers a distraction—one so convenient for its various political actors that if it didn’t exist, they would have to make it up.

From Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, you reach Mitrovica by a rudimentary highway. White and black gravestones of those who fought for Kosovo’s independence flash by on both sides of the road. U.N. tents have been requisitioned as greenhouse tarps. You’ve entered Mitrovica when you’ve passed an area known as Trepca—a vast industrial complex of factories and 60 mine shafts that, at its height under Tito, was Yugoslavia’s largest industrial zone, employing some 23,000 Serbs and Albanians. Today, the mines are mostly shuttered. Unemployment in the surrounding regions has climbed somewhere north of 40 percent.

Mitrovica is itself a divided city. On the south bank of the Ibar River, the Albanians use euros. American flags line the streets. There is a KFC and a hulking mosque and a maze of relief organizations. On the north of the Ibar, which you reach by a bridge blockaded at both ends by dark blue Italian Carabinieri armored vehicles, signs shift to Cyrillic. The Serbs use dinars. The city becomes visibly more bedraggled. Shabby streets are packed with internet gambling joints bearing blacked-out windows. Russian flags hang from banners. Posters of Putin are plastered across apartment buildings. “Crimea is to Russia as Kosovo is to Serbia,” reads a great chalk sketch. Men in black jackets languish at the Gavrilo Princip cafe.

Early one Tuesday morning, I was awoken in Mitrovica by the clang of air raid sirens. “The Serbs have come to take Kosovo back!” I thought to myself. But the sirens were instead signaling that a police operation was at work north of the city, a few miles from the Serbian border. The sirens were signposting, in effect, the opposite of a Serb raid—that Pristina, which has never adequately controlled North Kosovo, was making a rare demonstration of its authority in its ethnic Serb enclave. At least 12 heavily armored vehicles, along with a handful of U.S. Army jeeps and U.N. vehicles, had been dispatched to root smugglers out of the village of Zubin Potok. Within two hours, 19 police officers had been arrested, including the town’s chief of police, as well as two U.N. workers, including a Russian who has since been released.

North Kosovo is not just a borderland; it is a gangland. It would be difficult to overestimate the pervasiveness of its black market into daily life. Smuggling is not merely another petty act of defiance against the perceived overreach and indefensibility of Albanian authority. It also props up the poorest swath of Europe’s poorest country, keeping all the staples—gas, dairy products, meat—cheap. North Kosovo’s roads are lined with gasoline stations selling fuel at a fraction of the price of the rest of Kosovo. Its tobacco peddlers hawk some of the cheapest cigarettes anywhere in Europe. Last week, driving near the town of Leposavic and the fabled Vracevo Monastery, my guide pointed out roads down which, over the course of the afternoon, 18-wheelers and white vans routinely rumbled. “We call these the alternative roads,” he said. At least five of them wound through the foothills of Mount Kopaonik, snaking in and out of Serbia in parallel to the legal road system. Almost everything North Kosovo consumed—from dish soap to entire herds of cattle—arrived on them, none of it taxed. Some police looked the other way. Others took a cut.

Pristina loses millions of dollars off this black market every year. Why does it tolerate it? It is not merely that the Albanian authorities in Pristina know that the smuggling is happening and are powerless to do anything about it. It’s no secret that their political elites are also taking a cut of the profits. North Kosovo—like Europe’s other borderland in Transnistria—is a disputed place but also a lucrative one, a barter zone for elites in both Pristina and Belgrade who make a show of despising one another but instead sluice the profits back and forth.

Why the raid, and why now? Driving toward the Serbian border, what was most clear was that the smugglers had known well in advance about the coming operation. They had had enough time to back themselves against the Serbian border and barricade the road plodding north with one obstacle after another. I passed a wall of tires that had been burnt to goo, leaving a stinging scent in the air. A small bus stop had been overturned and tossed into the street. There were stacked crates of Coca-Cola and Fanta, now smashed. Felled trees had been strewn across the road. The barricades got more imposing the closer one got to Serbia. The police operation had bulldozed through an orange truck, throwing it onto the opposite banks of the road. Around noon, a convoy of at least a dozen heavily armed blue trucks zipped past me in the opposite direction, on their way to Mitrovica. Out of one of them, some troops in blue fatigues brandished automatic weapons and grinned for the news crews.

Closer to the bleak brick village of Zubin Potok, evidence of a shootout that had left four police injured began to take shape. The back windows of two vehicles had been smashed. Above, a military helicopter strafed the mountain peaks, lofting occasionally out toward the Serbian border, where President Aleksandar Vucic currently claims to have readied his army in the event of further provocation. The Serbs of the town were clustered around mobile phones, trading video clips of the gunfight. “Do you know the story of the Serbian heart in Germany?” one responded when I asked him to describe the fight. “Forget the fight. A few years ago, an Albanian terrorist shot a Serb and sold his heart—his heart!—on the black market in Germany.” For most of the villagers, the raid amounted to little more than the typical Albanian inroad into their affairs.

But for others in Kosovo, it is clear that this was just another stunt put on for the international community. For too long Pristina has done nothing about the blatant phenomenon of smuggling. Last year, when it raised 100 percent tariffs on all goods imported from Serbia, the smuggling only surged—and still, nothing. But here was an attempt—a pinprick and mostly symbolic one—to show Berlin, Brussels, and Washington that Pristina was doing something about the infestation of smuggling. As for the Serbs, whether in Belgrade or Mitrovica, they had been given the chance to appear appalled and fire up their electorates at the unannounced incursion into their territory.

In the afternoon, on the way back from Zubin Potok, my taxi driver zipped off the main road onto one of the unauthorized roads. “My registration is invalid,” he said, shrugging. “But no police here to catch me.”

Alexander Clapp is a journalist living in Athens.

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