Blame, hate and license plates in a divided Kosovo town

NORTH MITROVICA, Kosovo – Hoping to ease the bad blood flowing along the river that divides their city in northern Kosovo, Serb and Albanian artists have teamed up to paint fun murals about the abuse of graffiti on the concrete pillars of the bridge itself.

The vulgar insults against the Albanians in the north, on the banks of the Serb, and the slurs against the Serbs in the south, mostly on the Albanian side have disappeared under the vibrant flowers and artwork. .

The happy molt lasted only a few weeks. The bridge, guarded round-the-clock by police officers from Italy, is now once again tainted with ethnic slurs on both banks of the Ibar River, a testament to the unique identity politics. Harm is raging in Kosovo and it’s increasing outbreak of violence in recent months.

During a visit to the Mitrovica bridge last week, Milan Dozhen, an ethnic Serb activist who helped organize the fresco project, looked desperate at his craft.

Serb and Albanian artists “have to hang out and make friends across the river.” But, he said, “we didn’t change the big picture.” Many people in Mitrovica, whether Serbs north of the river or Albanians to the south, “will always hate and blame each other,” added Dozhen.

Kosovo, liberated from Serbian control by a NATO bombing campaign in 1999, has been relatively peaceful for more than two decades. The violent ethnic hatred that displaced hundreds of thousands of Albanians when Serbia ruled Kosovo, and subsequently subjected many Serbs to revenge attacks following the 1999 NATO bombings, largely precipitate.

Ethnic Albanians can walk across the bridge into North Mitrovica and ethnic Serbs can cross the other road without being beaten, although very few do. Ordinary people, when they come into contact between the clans, mostly get along with each other.

But potential tensions, stemming from disputes over the status of Kosovo, which declared an independent state in 2008 but which Serbia insists remains part of its territory, are emerging, especially in the north.

In North Mitrovica, a bleak Serb-controlled enclave ravaged by power cuts, organized crime and poignant omens of the future, Serbian flags dangle from lampposts and paintings shouting wall challenges Kosovo’s right to exist as a separate state. “No surrender!” they swear.

The hospitals, schools and many pharmacies in the city are funded and controlled by the government in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. All shops use the Serbian dinar while the rest of Kosovo uses the euro. North Mitrovica receives electricity from Kosovo but has not paid its bills for many years.

Kosovo runs the city’s police force and courts, even in the north, though Serbian-sponsored shadow self-defense groups still play a threatening, if mostly hidden, role. Sidewalks around the northern part of the city are taped with a message from one of these groups, the Northern Brigade: “Don’t worry. We are here and waiting.”

Albin Kurti, the prime minister of Kosovo, complained: “They want a state within a state, whom many in the North despise as an Albanian nationalist trying to eliminate the Serb minority. of his country. “Their support is dwindling but they are radicalizing,” Mr Kurti added in an interview, citing a recent rise in tensions in late July that led to protests and shootings.

The immediate cause was a complicated controversy over license plates, which began when Mr Kurti’s government in Pristina, the capital of a country most Serbs say does not exist, ordered that all All vehicles must have the number plate of the Republic of Kosovo and remove the number plate issued by Serbia. .

The rules were originally slated to go into effect on August 1, but were postponed a month after ethnic Serbs, some ethnic minorities armed with weapons, set up barricades and whistled sirens. air strikes and began firing warning shots along Kosovo’s northern border with Serbia.

To avoid a repeat of that on September 1, the new start date of the order, the authorities in Pristina had residents with Serbian number plates re-register their cars two months before the police seized them. do not obey.

Milan Radojevic, the ethnic Serb mayor of North Mitrovica, has his own government funded by the Serbian government in Belgrade despite being part of Kosovo and is run separately from the rest of the city across the river, for know, “We want to avoid trouble but we need to protect our way of life and identity”.

He added that giving up car license plates issued by Serbia means giving up on that and that “no Serb accepts Kosovo as an independent country”. His own car, which bears the Kosovo license plate, comes with his job, he added, so does not show any willingness to give up Serbia.

A 2013 agreement between Kosovo and Serbia promised the Serb-majority municipalities a measure of autonomy through the creation of an unspecified governing body covering North Mitrovica and nine principal towns. other of the Serbs.

But allowing it, said Mr Kurti, the prime minister, “would destroy our country” by copying the example of Bosnia, where an ethnic Serb self-governing region, Republika Srpska, crippled the government center. “They wanted to turn us into a state of failure,” he said.

The armed armistice on the border at the end of July, though brief, years of work shattered to promote peaceful coexistence.

“It is really, really serious,” said Miodrag Milicevic, executive director of Aktiv, a Mitrovica organization that encourages ethnic Serbs to engage with Kosovo. “People are just starting to live a normal life, or pretend to live a normal life.”

Mr. Kurti dismissed the entire license plate outrage as unwarranted by politicians in Belgrade and the Serb enclave in Kosovo to rally support from their nationalist base. He added that the vast majority of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo already have an identity card issued by his government, so why make a fuss about car license plates?

At a recent meeting with Aleksandar Vucic, the president of Serbia, Mr. Kurti told him: “This is crazy. We are leaders. We were supposed to discuss the big issues, not the license plate issue.”

The two leaders, under pressure from the European Union and the United States to rein in tensions, settled a lengthy dispute over identification last month but made no progress on license plates.

According to Milos Milovanovic, program director of the New Society Initiative, a research group based in Mitrovica, making that seemingly intractable problem becomes difficult to solve, according to Milos Milovanovic, program director of Mitrovica. The New Social Initiative, a research group based in Mitrovica, is an “issue of identity” that has remained unresolved since NATO broke Serbia’s grip on Kosovo in 1999. Conflict is still fresh because conflict never really ends,” he added.

Igor Simic, deputy head of Srpska Lista, the dominant political force in the north, which received orders from Belgrade, accused Mr Kurti of playing with fire by trying to force ethnic Serbs to accept his country.

“We are living here and we are not giving up. We are not Kosovo Serbs but Serbs. We are what we are and don’t want to be something else. It’s simple. I’m not ready to change my identity,” Simic said in an interview.

Even ethnically moderate Serbs who criticize the party controlled by Mr Simic in Belgrade have voiced outrage at what they see as Pristina’s stealthy actions to force them to identify themselves as Kosovans and essentially recognition of Kosovo as a state by affixing new number plates on their vehicles.

Marko Jaksic, a former city councilor in North Mitrovica who gave up politics after the 2018 assassination of the main opposition leader of the Serb community, who works in the south of the city, has an identity card. Kosovo and said he got along very well with his Albanian colleagues. . But he still resented being forced to publicly declare allegiance to Kosovo as a state.

“No one sees the ID in your pocket, but everyone sees what you have in the car. The last link we have to Serbia is our license plates,” he said. The aim, he added, was to “make us leave”, like Serbia forcing the Albanians to fly in the 1990s.

But unlike then, when Serbia had a monopoly on the violence allowed through police and military control in Kosovo, the whole community today doesn’t have full control over guns, powerful guns. most in the hands of soldiers from the United States and other countries. NATO countries participate in an international peacekeeping force known as KFOR.

On the way out of Mitrovica to the border where the clash took place in late July, a small group of American soldiers stood guard this week next to two armored Humvees, a reminder to both ethnic Serbs and Albanians. where there is ultimate power.

Tatjana Lazarevic, director of KoSSev, an independent news media outlet often in conflict with the political elite controlled by Mitrovica in Belgrade, said the tension has rekindled unpleasant memories of the 1990s.” Barriers, rhetoric, tantrums. I’ve seen it all in 30 years. Nothing has really changed here,” she said.

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