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Drugs, Gangs, and Ignorance Are Holding Kosovo Back

Last week, an elected official was gunned down outside his home in Northern Kosovo. The killing, which everyone is desperately trying to avoid calling an assassination, is the latest in a series of undesirable things to have happened within the country...

The view over North Mitrovica

Photos by Chloe Forsyth

Last Wednesday night, an elected official was gunned down outside his home in Kosovska Mitrovica, a city and municipality in northern Kosovo. The killing, which everyone is desperately trying to avoid calling an assassination, is the latest in a series of pretty undesirable things to have happened within the country's political landscape.

Kosovo is a place that has long been wracked by internal problems. It may have achieved independence in 2008 but it's yet to achieve legitimate political stability and organized crime is rife, making it a hub for human trafficking and heroin distribution. Its neighbor Serbia still refuses to recognize its sovereignty and tensions between those who still identify as Serbs and Kosovo's Albanian population have left it ethnically divided.

This is especially evident in the town of Mitrovica, which is divided in two by the Rivar Ibar. To the south resides an Albanian majority, while a Serbian majority calls the area north of the river home. In 2010, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) declared Mitrovica to be under the rule of Kosovo’s capital Pristina, a city with a predominantly Albanian population. This, of course, was no problem on the south bank, where the muezzin's call to prayer issues four times a day from Albanian mosques. However, north of the river it's a different story. It's the kind of place where, despite an ICJ ruling, cash machines still only dispense Serbian-issued dinars.

In fact, for the last 14 years, the authorities that control the four Serb-dominated municipalities in northern Kosovo have refused to acknowledge the Pristina-based government, content to sit back in a kind of limbo and leave their fate in the hands of the powers in Belgrade. So it's no surprise that the international commentariat got pretty worked up when, in April 2013, those powers signed an agreement effectively allowing the residents of those four municipalities to take part in the regional Kosovan elections, held last year on the 3rd of November.

The elections did not run smoothly. Nearly four months before they took place, they were ruled to be in violation of Serbian law by the North's interim assembly, although this ruling was rejected by both Belgrade and Pristina. As polling day drew closer, candidates were threatened, assaulted and killed by militant members of an election boycott movement. These Serbian nationalists share the interim assembly’s view that the elections are in violation of international law, but take it one step further and equate participation with outright treachery.

Of course, not everyone in the boycott brigade is going around killing people—more moderate elements have busied themselves tearing down the campaign posters of pro-integration candidates and erecting enormous billboards declaring: "Taking part in the separatist elections is the ruin of the state of Serbia!"

A "boycott" sign in Kosovska Mitrovica

By the afternoon of election day, videos had appeared on YouTube of Serb nationalists trashing ballot boxes in North Mitrovica, and turnout in the northern municipalities peaked at just 22 percent. However, the elections were seen as a success by integrationists either side of the Ibar, if only for the fact that they took place at all. In the months that followed, a calm fell over North Mitrovica. Tensions remained, but gone were the political shootings and nighttime bombings that had demolished entire apartments in the build-up to the voting.

That was until the 7th of January (Serbian Orthodox Christianity’s Christmas Day), when what is believed to have been a hand grenade was detonated in North Mitrovica's downtown area. Several shops and cars were damaged in the blast, but no one was injured. Four days later, mayor-elect of North Mitrovica, Krstimir Pantic, took to a podium to publicly refuse to take his oath of office. In front of a gang of journalists, assembled to witness what was supposed to be a historic moment—the first tangible sign that Kosovo's Serb-majority municipalities were ready to start cooperating with the rest of the country—Pantic was struck by the realization that, by taking the oath, he would be acknowledging Kosovo's legitimacy as a republic. This, he claimed, would be a violation of Serbia's constitution.

Last Wednesday night, ethnic Serb Dimitrije Janicijevic, the North Mitrovica pro-integration mayoral candidate who was shot outside his home died in hospital with ten pistol rounds lodged in his torso. That Saturday, fellow pro-integrationist candidate Adrijana Hodzic agreed to meet me near the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Mitrovica headquarters. Janicijevic’s funeral had taken place the day before and overshadowed every aspect of our conversation.

Hodzic told me that Janicijevic’s murder, which she described as "sad and somehow confusing," had come as a shock to Mitrovica’s Serbian community and left her fearing for the safety of herself and her family. I asked her if she saw a link between the bombing on Orthodox Christmas Day, Pantic’s refusal to take office and Wednesday night’s fatal shooting—perhaps one or all of these things had something to do with anti-integration Serbian nationalists.

However, she was reluctant to posit any clear link and declined to speculate on a possible motive. She would say that, whatever the intentions of Janicijevic’s assailants, there was no way their actions wouldn't have come to be seen as politically motivated. It will increase fear in an electorate that already has to contend with nationalist thugs loitering outside polling centers and candidates campaigning under the threat of car bombs and assault.

A poster of Adem Jashari in South Mitrovica. Jashari is a national hero to Albanian Kosovars, and was killed along with his family by a Serbian hit squad that included helicopters and artillery support.

Later in our conversation, Hodzic's assessment of the boycott movement made it tempting to join the dots between the events of recent weeks. She said that the anti-integration camp is split in two; there are those who merely fear a change to the status quo, and those who actively stand to profit from tensions being maintained. A divided Kosovo is a near absolute impediment to the rule of law in the northern municipalities. It makes sense, then, that it is those Kosovars operating outside the law who benefit most from its continued division.

An ex-pat consultant named Samuel, who is based in Pristina, told me last year that the lawlessness in the north is the reason that, for many years, the majority of heroin sold in Western Europe was controlled by Albanian gangs. The irony, he said, is that despite all the nationalist rhetoric used to maintain this gangster’s paradise, Serb, Albanian and Russian organized criminals all share a vested interest in a northern Kosovo going on without any kind of definitive rule—their anti-integration propaganda isn't necessarily pro-Serb, it's just promoting political turbulence, allowing them to continue operating without a functional government to intervene. The general consensus is that the Serb and Albanian mafias must have come to some kind of an arrangement, and there's a joke that the country’s most amicable discourse takes place between its mafias.

On the terrace of a café facing Pristina’s Grand Hotel, Ardi Shita—the Secretary General of the American Chamber of Commerce in Kosovo—gave me his analysis of the situation. Like the others, he feels organized crime is the greatest impediment to integration, saying that North Mitrovica’s residents had "for the last 15 years been unconsciously in the service of organized crime," but that progress is finally being made. Nowhere is this better evidenced than in the Mitrovica North Administrative Office (MNAO), which is headed up by Adrijana Hodzic. Founded in May 2012 to provide North Mitrovica with the basic public services that neither the Belgrade nor Pristina governments were capable of furnishing, the MNAO deliberately remains silent on political issues.

The MNAO is hugely popular, yet Hodzic, her staff and their clients have been subject to intimidation from the start. One of Hodzic’s deputies was shot twice in front of his colleagues. That this manifestly non-partisan institution is victim to such violent opposition illustrates the fear that motivates North Mitrovica’s anti-integration thugs. It is the fear of effective administration and rule of law, the absence of which allows organized crime to flourish.

Graffiti in South Mitrovica

According to Hodzic, the citizens of North Mitrovica have been betrayed by the international community. Last November they risked their safety to take part in elections that promised to bring stability to the town for the first time since the war. But, in light of the past two weeks’ events, it would seem this promised calm has failed to materialize.

Hodzic says the two organizations tasked with ensuring security and justice in the town—KFOR (the Nato-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo) and EULEX (the European Union’s Rule of Law mission)—have failed to hold up their ends of the bargain. With inadequate law and order provisions in the north, killings and violence (political or otherwise) are rarely prosecuted. "The danger is," Hodzic told me, "that if we don’t have results after this execution [of the elected official]—if we don’t catch the murderer—each incident that passes without punishment only encourages the next." Her choice of words was deliberate: "Every attack is a sort of execution; it’s like a classic Sicilian hit."

According to Samuel, one of the greatest issues with EULEX is its recruitment policy. In his opinion, the organization is predominantly staffed by impossible-to-fire eurocrats too incompetent to be tolerated in Brussels. The result is a mission filled with bitter, lazy, middle-aged men stuck in a country they despise (in some cases for as long as a decade) because there’s nowhere left in Europe willing to offer them the $130,000 a month they’re rumored to draw for their services. According to reports, they’re often to be found in the capital’s Irish bar, moaning about the locals and missing their wives. Whatever their exact salaries, Adrijana Hodzic said, "International security forces are too well paid not to investigate, name and punish the culprits."

There have, however, been some improvements to security provisions in Mitrovica in recent months. Last year, the Kosovo police force was responsible for the south side of the town—a handful of Italian carabinieri (national military police) kept watch over the town’s bridges and the north was left largely to its own devices.

When election violence bordered on riotous in North Mitrovica on November 3rd, EULEX asked KFOR to step in and secure the situation. Now, an armored personnel carrier (APC) and up to two dozen Portuguese soldiers carrying automatic weapons guard the Ibar River Bridge at all times. Portuguese KFOR jeeps and another APC regularly patrol both sides of the town.

Any increase in security has to be a positive for this fragile city, especially framed against the tensions that arose around Belgrade's agreement to include the four northern municipalities in Kosovo's legal system, but the heavy presence on the bridge seems like tokenism. The days of clashes between ethnic Serbs from the north and the South’s Albanians are largely done with; the tension that this show of force is clearly a response to has consisted almost entirely of internal violence in the Serb half of the city.

KFOR troops on top of their APC

The futility of the bridge guards’ task is evident in their demeanor. They spend their days bored and cold, smoking, taking photos of each other and popping into a nearby Italian restaurant for coffee. One night they were so bored they invited the photographer accompanying me and myself onto the roof of their APC. It seemed like the most fun they’d had in days. Even their commanding officer couldn’t muster the energy to get mad about two drunk 20-somethings larking around on top of his military hardware.

So what’s going to happen next? Pantic’s refusal to step into the mayor’s office will force the electorate—one that’s already grown sick of elections in the three months they’ve had them—back into the voting booth.

The next question is: Who will be brave enough to stand after the last fortnight’s violence (which may not have even ended yet)? Adrijana Hodzic won’t be running but remains dedicated to progress in the troubled town. "My motivation to be involved in this dangerous process is my kids," she said.

Ardi Shita spent part of the last two years working on both sides of the Ibar as a lecturer at Mitrovica’s International Business College, and his guess was that Oliver Ivanovic would take the mayor’s office next month. Ivanovic is a controversial figure, having had his start in politics in 1999 by giving karate lessons to the "bridge watchers," the Serbs who used to stand guard over the Ibar River Bridge. Shita’s feeling was that, while Ivanovic may not be the ideal candidate, anything has to be better than Pantic, whose universally criticized showboating displayed a kind of political immaturity Mitrovica cannot afford.

However, Ivanovic was detained by EULEX this morning, which could potentially hamper his mayoral hopes somewhat. The security agency is refraining from comment, but Albanian-language press in Kosovo is speculating that he might be being questioned over suspected involvement in the unsolved murders of 11 Albanians following the 1999 war. If their suspicions are proved correct and Ivanovic is charged, it will of course cast further uncertainty over this troubled municipality’s future.

And there have also been signs of tension south of the Ibar. A rare debate over religion has kicked off in Kosovo in recent weeks, with prominent Muslims and Christians both firing rhetorical shots over the parapet. Against this backdrop, a bust of Albanian saint Mother Teresa was toppled in South Mitrovica a couple of weeks ago.

This is a dangerous juncture for Mitrovica and something has to be done. As Shita bluntly put it: "Until someone comes up with a solution, people will die."

Follow Jack on Twitter: @jackoozell