Dispatch

In Northern Kosovo, Tensions Threaten to Boil Over

The Kosovo government’s laws on ID cards and license plates have enraged ethnic Serbs and heightened tensions between the young nation’s fractured communities.

A woman passes a mural supporting the Russian Federation in Mitrovica, Kosovo.
A woman passes a mural supporting the Russian Federation in Mitrovica, Kosovo.
A woman passes a mural supporting Russia in Mitrovica, Kosovo, on Sept. 5. It reads, "Kosovo is Serbia; Crimea is Russia." Ayman Oghanna photos for Foreign Policy
By , a journalist, photographer, and broadcaster based in Athens.

MITROVICA, Kosovo—A Kalashnikov fires through the darkness. It’s a short staccato burst upward, north of a bridge that separates two embittered communities living in a fragile peace, more than 22 years after a brutal civil war.

The conflict ended following an unprecedented NATO military air campaign, international sanctions, and the threat of a ground invasion—all to stop the genocidal actions of Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic’s forces in Kosovo. By October 2000, in the face of growing opposition, Milosevic resigned from office. A brittle peace and nascent independent Kosovar state then took root in the Western Balkans.

Underlying issues, however, remain unresolved. Particularly in northern Kosovo’s city of Mitrovica, where a proud Serbian minority—surrounded by ethnic Kosovar Albanians—continues to maintain close ties to Belgrade and Moscow, occasionally participating in acts of violent defiance against the ethnic Albanian-led government in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital.

MITROVICA, Kosovo—A Kalashnikov fires through the darkness. It’s a short staccato burst upward, north of a bridge that separates two embittered communities living in a fragile peace, more than 22 years after a brutal civil war.

The conflict ended following an unprecedented NATO military air campaign, international sanctions, and the threat of a ground invasion—all to stop the genocidal actions of Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic’s forces in Kosovo. By October 2000, in the face of growing opposition, Milosevic resigned from office. A brittle peace and nascent independent Kosovar state then took root in the Western Balkans.

Underlying issues, however, remain unresolved. Particularly in northern Kosovo’s city of Mitrovica, where a proud Serbian minority—surrounded by ethnic Kosovar Albanians—continues to maintain close ties to Belgrade and Moscow, occasionally participating in acts of violent defiance against the ethnic Albanian-led government in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital.

Mitrovica is a city divided. It is separated by the Ibar river. Serbs live north and Albanians south, while waning Bosniak and other minority communities remain stuck in the middle. It is an area rich in natural resources but torn across ethnic, religious, and political lines that prevent them from being exploited. Its demographics also make it ripe for a proxy battle between great powers.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, things have gotten worse. Police actions from Kosovo’s special operations forces have increased, as have attacks on them—some involving hand grenades and automatic weapons. Politicians have used inflammatory rhetoric. And graffiti marks shabby streets with the symbol “Z” in support of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s so-called special military operation in Ukraine.

“Both sides are fucking us,” a local ethnic Serb police officer said, referring to Kosovo and Serbia, who in turn have allegiances to NATO and Moscow, during a visit to Mitrovica by Serbia’s prime minister, Ana Brnabic. As she left Belgrade, Brnabic’s convoy to Kosovo was joined by the Russian ambassador to Serbia, who was stopped at the border by Kosovo security forces and denied entry.

Brnabic’s appearance followed unrest that saw barricades erected and shots fired due to a dispute between Belgrade and Pristina over license plates, freedom of movement, and identification documents. Kosovo’s government insists that local Serbs must obtain Kosovo IDs and license plates—or they will use force to uphold the law. They will start impounding cars from April. These are obligations that the minority Serb population views as an oppressive assault on who they are.

Brnabic visits Mitrovica.
Brnabic visits Mitrovica.

Brnabic visits Mitrovica on Sept. 5.

They look like harmless abbreviations. Serbian plates read SRB, from Serbia; Kosovo’s, RKS. A small flag sometimes adorns the middle. However, the most common sight is white tape masking the letters, like a brown paper bag for a bottle of liquor on New York City streets—an unofficial shortcut to concealing a misdemeanor and avoiding trouble with the authorities.

Yet these abbreviations carry meaning. Particularly in a place where, not so long ago, mass graves were filled with the bodies of families forced to hold their infants and children in front of them before execution in an effort to save ammunition. Identity matters—and not only in Kosovo. In Israel and Palestine, Israelis and Palestinians possess different license plates, which prohibit movement and lead to greater scrutiny at checkpoints for Palestinians. In Iraq, national ID cards state the religion of the bearer, which sometimes leads to summary executions by militiamen, terrorist groups, and vigilantes.

“The fact that a spat over official documentation … sparked such tensions is a testament to the fragility of the situation.”

“If we lose this [the license plate], then there is no Serbia here anymore,” said Damjan Petrovic, a local Serb who had turned out to watch the prime minister’s visit. “We will lose our identity.”

One police officer’s house was burned after he changed plates to the required ones. “Traitor,” read a comment posted on a local Serbian Facebook group. “He needs to burn along with his children.”

At the time of writing, only 13 cars had changed their license plates. Their owners have paid the price, with three of them having their properties burned—and some their cars.

“We are more determined than ever that order and law extend to every corner of the Republic of Kosovo,” Xhelal Svecla, Kosovo’s interior minister, said in a Facebook post following one of the arson attacks.

“The fact that a spat over official documentation … sparked such tensions is a testament to the fragility of the situation,” said Petrit Selimi, Kosovo’s former foreign minister.

A poster in Mitrovica warns ethnic Serbs not to switch their documentation to that required by Kosovo’s government.
A poster in Mitrovica warns ethnic Serbs not to switch their documentation to that required by Kosovo’s government.

A poster in Mitrovica warns ethnic Serbs not to switch their documentation to that required by Kosovo’s government in Pristina on Sept. 5.

A mural supporting the Russian military on a wall in Mitrovica
A mural supporting the Russian military on a wall in Mitrovica

A mural depicting Serbian soldiers killed in the Battle of Koshare, fought between the Kosovo Liberation Army and Yugoslav forces in 1999, on a wall in Mitrovica on Sept. 5.

Graffiti in Mitrovica reads “NATO go home! This is Serbia!”
Graffiti in Mitrovica reads “NATO go home! This is Serbia!”

Graffiti in Mitrovica reads, “NATO go home! This is Serbia!” on Sept. 5.

“History in Kosovo didn’t start in 1999,” local activist Miodrag Milicevic said, referring to NATO’s intervention and the bombing of Belgrade. Milicevic is an ethnic Serb originally from Pristina. “I didn’t come here voluntarily,” he said. He now works with the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Aktiv, whose mission he describes as “strengthening civil society and facilitating progressive trends” within the community. It receives funding from various sources including the U.S. and British embassies.

The collapse of Yugoslavia, and the savage wars that followed, saw untold thousands killed and millions more displaced. In Kosovo, 8,661 ethnic Albanian civilians were killed or disappeared, as well as 1,797 Serbs and 447 Roma, Bosniaks, and other non-Albanians, according to the Humanitarian Law Center, an NGO documenting human rights abuses in the Balkans.

Civil war led to NATO’s intervention and a 78-day bombing campaign, striking targets inside Kosovo and Serbia. That act of intervention has left bitter memories among Serbs. “NATO go home!” reads the graffiti on the sidewalks of Mitrovica. Also visible is a swastika sandwiched between “US” and “EU.” Hatred of the United States still runs deep. On a visit to Mitrovica not long after the NATO intervention, I recall postcards being sold depicting a Serbian paramilitary soldier raping Mickey Mouse.

NATO’s intervention, however, earned the gratitude of ethnic Albanians. Pristina even bears streets named after Bill Clinton and Tony Blair—and numerous memorials to NATO forces.

“We are a geopolitical chessboard for the EU, Russia, [and] China.”

External powers from Brussels to Beijing each have their competing interests in Kosovo. “We are a geopolitical chessboard for the EU, Russia, [and] China,” said Igor Markovic, Milivec’s colleague at Aktiv.

A local activist who wishes to remain anonymous because they live in a high-risk area said there have been reports of Chinese-manufactured facial-recognition cameras being installed in northern Kosovo. Police have carried out operations taking down surveillance cameras in the past, which, they said, are tied to foreign governments.

Serbs in northern Kosovo have long seen Moscow as a protector. They share faith, ethnic roots, cultural ties, and disdain of U.S.-led hegemony. However, the Kosovo government has in the past occasionally declared staff of the Russian official representative office in Pristina “persona non grata,” removing their diplomatic immunity. The most recent case occurred in December 2021, when a Russian U.N. diplomat was expelled for “harmful activity,” according to Kosovo’s foreign minister. Two other Russian diplomats were kicked out that October.

During the same period, Russian-Serbian ties strengthened. And, last month, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Nikola Selakovic, then Serbia’s foreign minister, signed a document dubbed a “plan on consultations,” much to the chagrin of Brussels and the White House, prompting the U.S. ambassador to Serbia, Christopher Hill, to say, “The United States would like to hear some clarification of what this agreement or what this protocol really was.”

“To be frank, nobody should be signing anything with Russia right now,” Hill said.

The Serbia-Russia agreement was “a very clear sign about their intention to strengthen their ties,” said Peter Stano, the lead spokesperson for external affairs of the EU, who noted that the new Russian-Serbian consultation document had been signed just days after Moscow announced a mobilization for the war with Ukraine and began to stage sham referendums for the territory it had captured.

Yet with Russia at war, rhetoric, actions, and provocations have accelerated in Mitrovica. This summer, when Pristina announced its implementation of the license plate regulations, barricades were erected as air raid sirens sounded. Videos circulating on Kosovo media seemingly showed Serbian paramilitary groups handing out weapons. In recent months, a new group seemingly representing Serbs in Kosovo, called the Northern Brigade, has made its presence known in Mitrovica.

“Don’t worry!” their stencils read. “We are here!  Waiting!”

Graffiti in Mitrovica includes the symbol of the shadowy Northern Brigade.
Graffiti in Mitrovica includes the symbol of the shadowy Northern Brigade.

Graffiti in Mitrovica includes the symbol of the shadowy Northern Brigade and reads, “Don’t worry. We are here waiting,” on Sept. 5.

The Albanian newspaper Albanian Post reported that European intelligence officials said the Northern Brigade number around 300 well-armed paramilitaries, some of them foreign nationals.

Moscow has long been accused of having links to Serbian paramilitaries, and, when Russia invaded Ukraine, the first rally in support of Russia was held in Belgrade in March.

“Crimea is Russia; Kosovo is Serbia,” crowds chanted. The same slogan is emblazoned on the walls of Mitrovica.

“Serbia has cultivated for years, even decades, various groups operating in between the paramilitary world and organized crime, and even sports hooliganism. These seem to belong to that spectrum of troublemaker,” Selimi, Kosovo’s former foreign minister, said, referring to the Northern Brigade.

Concern also surrounds the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in Nis, Serbia, close to Mitrovica and the Kosovo border. “There are, of course, allegations that it is being used as a local spy center. … My feeling is that by demanding diplomatic status for its staff (so far denied by Serbia), Russia is playing a symbolic game with the West and simultaneously putting pressure on Belgrade,” said Srdjan Cvijic, a Serbian political scientist.

The U.S. and other Western governments have alleged that the center is a base for Russian espionage. The request by Russia for diplomatic immunity for its staff “betrays the real purpose of the center,” Selimi said. Recently, the Kosovo government reported that operatives form the center have been illegally crossing into northern Kosovo from Nis.

Emilija Redzepi, Kosovo's deputy prime minister for minority and human rights.
Emilija Redzepi, Kosovo's deputy prime minister for minority and human rights.

Emilija Redzepi, a deputy prime minister for Kosovo, in Mitrovica on Sept. 5.

Asked whether foreign agents were acting on Kosovo soil, Emilija Redzepi, a deputy prime minister for Kosovo, held her breath and waited before saying, “We must be very careful.”

NATO has increased troop numbers in Kosovo for what a NATO official described as “training activities to maintain their high level of readiness and contribute to the preservation of a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all the people in Kosovo.”

The deployment is said to be temporary; however, jobs are being advertised to hire Kosovars on military bases, including cooks, carpenters, and construction workers, which may indicate a longer-term commitment by NATO amid rising tensions. A NATO force would likely be accepted by Serbia, Cvijic said, because ethnic Serbs view Kosovo police, particularly special operations forces, with fear.

A war memorial for those killed in the civil war in Mitrovica
A war memorial for those killed in the civil war in Mitrovica

A war memorial for those killed in the civil war in Mitrovica on Sept. 5.

According to Labinot Hoxha, a former Kosovo diplomat now in Brussels, “Europe is facing a long, hard, cold, polluted winter” as it struggles to find alternative energy sources and the global economy faces another potential recession. This crisis could spell an opportunity for Kosovo, however, which has coal. The once-vast Obilic power complex, fueled with coal from mines around Mitrovica, supplied electrical power to Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, and what is now North Macedonia.

Redzepi has been speaking with several international companies about extracting and exporting Kosovo’s energy resources.

Kosovo’s story is not just one of Serbs and Albanians, but also Bosniaks, Croats, Gorani, Ashkali, and others. Speaking in a cafe in Mitrovica, leaders of the local Bosniak community said they felt trapped between Pristina and Belgrade.

“We’re between the fires, and we don’t know who will burn us,” said Nurmina Mulic, a civil activist.

Correction, Nov. 1, 2022: A previous version of this article included a photo caption that mistakenly identified Serbian soldiers who fought in the Battle of Koshare as Russian soldiers. It has been fixed.

Correction, Nov. 15, 2022: An earlier version of this article contained a quote from Igor Markovic that has been removed at his request. 

Ayman Oghanna is a journalist, photographer, and broadcaster based in Athens. Twitter: @AymanOghanna Instagram: @ayman_oghanna

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