Kosovo — This is the winter of discontent in Kosovo. The lingering euphoria
over independence in 2008 has given way to frustration with economic stagnation
and political squabbling. Unemployment sits at 45 percent, and an estimated
500,000 of Kosovo’s 1.8 million citizens — the vast majority of whom are ethnic
Albanians — live on less than $2 a day. On Jan. 24 and Jan. 27, some 15,000
Kosovars took to the streets to protest corruption and poverty. But they also
wanted to register their frustration with what they see as the outsized role
Serbia still plays in the country more than 15 years after a war fought so that
Kosovo could secede from its larger neighbor.
protests were sparked by Aleksandar Jablanovic, an ethnic Serb minister in
Kosovo’s government, who called members of an ethnic Albanian association of
war victims “savages” after they blocked the path of ethnic Serb pilgrims who
were trying to celebrate Orthodox Christmas. The area where the pilgrims were
traveling saw some of the strongest fighting in the 1998-1999 Kosovo War, and
thousands of people from the region remain missing. Adding fuel to the fire,
Jablanovic later publicly questioned the well-documented record of war crimes
committed by Serbian forces, saying he “didn’t know” whether they had occurred.
thereafter, Kosovo’s recently installed prime minister backtracked on a plan to
nationalize Trepca, a mine rich in zinc, silver, and lead, in the face of
opposition from Serbia, which also has a claim to Trepca because Belgrade
managed it during Yugoslavia’s final years. The decision was seen as a blow to
both the economic prospects and the national pride of Kosovo’s Albanians.
protesting against the general situation in the country, both economic and
social, but also against the statements made by Jablanovic and for the
protection of Trepca,” protester Latif Selmani, 48, a salesman, said at the
Jan. 27 protest. “Shame on the government for allowing the honor of the war
martyrs to be desecrated,” said Drita Berisha, a nurse. “We want the removal of
hundred seventy people were injured on the second day of unrest as protesters
threw rocks at the building housing the prime minister’s cabinet and the
Foreign Ministry. Police responded with tear gas, water cannons, and rubber
bullets. The scene reminded many of the massive protests of the 1980s and 1990s
against the regime of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. The recent
protests, which occupied the center of Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, represent
the worst unrest since Kosovo declared independence seven years ago.
is Europe’s greatest experiment in post-World War II state-building. After the
war ended in 1999, the country was administered by the United Nations until a
unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008. Then, the European
Union deployed its most expensive mission to date on the continent — the EU
Rule of Law Mission — to run Kosovo’s judicial system and oversee its rule of
law. Until 2012, the tiny country remained supervised by an international
diplomat. To date, it has been officially recognized by 110 countries, but
tensions with Serbia, which argues vociferously that Kosovo remains within its
sovereign borders, still run high.
April 2013, Kosovo and Serbia signed an agreement, brokered by the European
Union, that would finally put four northern municipalities, which seek
unification with Serbia, under Pristina’s control. Recently, Serbia received,
via another Brussels-brokered deal that falls under the 2013 agreement, a
renewed role in running Kosovo. (Kosovo and Serbia are in ongoing negotiations
with the EU about their relations, and talks on implementation of the 2013
agreement are set to resume on Feb. 9 after a 10-month hiatus.) Kosovo’s four
northern municipalities, which are predominantly Serbian, participated in the
country’s elections for the first time, sending representatives whose
allegiance remains with Belgrade to the central government in Pristina — and
thus effectively giving Serbia a voice in Kosovo’s administration.
development has made the normalization of relations between the two countries —
a key requirement for EU accession for both — highly unpopular in Kosovo.
Pristina-based political analyst Leon Malazogu said Kosovars are losing hope of
true independence. “As long as there is Brussels, and dialogue open, you can
swallow it for a while, but … I don’t think Kosovo has done all this to go from
being a province of Serbia to a colony.”
agreement has also added fuel to the mission of Serbian List, a political party
founded last year in Kosovo that refuses to recognize statehood. Supported by
Belgrade and led by Jablanovic, the party won several municipal and national
seats in elections last summer thanks to the ethnic Serb vote in Kosovo’s
north; members also hold ministerial positions, including the role of deputy
List’s presence in the government has spurred, in turn, a backlash all its own:
Many ethnic Albanians are angry that they now have government ministers
supportive of — and supported by — Belgrade, and they believe that Kosovo’s
government is kowtowing to Serbia in EU talks. “People have started to realize
that with this never-ending dialogue with Serbia, Kosovo is just becoming worse
and worse,” said Visar Ymeri, a leader in the opposition party Vetevendosje
(“Self-Determination”), the primary organizer of the recent protests.
considered a radical movement by many Western embassies because of its protest
tactics, is against the Brussels-mediated dialogue and advocates closing the
northern border with Serbia until Belgrade gives Kosovo full recognition. With
echoes of Greece’s Syriza party, Vetevendosje has rejected the meddling of big
Western powers in Kosovo, opposing independence with international oversight
and raising concerns over murky business dealings with Western corporations.
Despite having placed third in national elections last year, its opposition to
dialogue with Serbia, which has yet to bear much fruit for ordinary Kosovars,
has contributed to its rising popular approval. And as anger over Serbian List
grows, Vetevendosje’s base has extended to older, more traditional voters. One
of its key functionaries recently became mayor of Pristina.
List is directly tied to the politics of [Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar
Vucic’s] Serbian Progressive Party,” said Pristina-based political analyst
Belul Beqaj. “It plays the role of the Trojan horse in the Kosovar political
“savages” remark gave an uncertain and scared population exactly what it feared
— and expected — from the new party. If his remark was the spark, the
announcement that Prime Minister Isa Mustafa was backtracking on a plan to
nationalize the Trepca mine was the wind that stoked the fire.
is a rambling complex of 40 mines, including a few minor sites in Serbia; its
deposits could be worth 10 billion euros, according to Kosovo’s Independent
Commission for Mines and Minerals. The mine is also steeped in the history of
Kosovo’s struggle for independence. Disputes over Trepca in 1989 resulted in
1,000 employees striking in pursuit of more autonomy for Kosovo, one of the
first episodes of unrest as Yugoslavia began to unravel. “Yugoslavia started
falling apart in those mines,” said Beqaj, emphasizing the sentimental
connection both Serbs and Kosovars have with Trepca.
mine has floundered in the postwar era due to ownership disputes between Kosovo
and Serbia and a lack of investment. It is a source of tension because both
Pristina and Belgrade lay claim to it. Trepca’s operational center is in the
divided northern city of Mitrovica — Serbs live on one side of a bridge,
Albanians on the other — and the mine remains one of the most potent symbols of
Kosovo’s schisms. Nationalization, many of Kosovars believe, would symbolize
Pristina’s power to counter Serbian economic and political influence.
the protests at Trepca in the 1980s, the unrest today “could serve as a
catalyst for re-examination” of contemporary policies, Beqaj said.
Rasic, a Serb who recognizes Kosovo as his country and served in the last
government as minister of labor and social welfare, said he worries that,
because of the protests, ethnic relations will worsen and there may be a
renewed flight of Serbs from the country. “For the first time, I am not
optimistic for the maintenance of the Serb community in Kosovo,” he said.
Malazogu, the Pristina-based political analyst, shares his concern. “We haven’t
seen retribution. Thankfully, no Serb has been attacked,” he said. “But the
climate will deteriorate.”
delivered an ultimatum to Prime Minister Mustafa to dismiss Jablanovic by the
afternoon of Tuesday, Feb. 3, or else a planned 48-hour protest would go ahead
starting Wednesday. The minister was fired Tuesday, but he intimated that there
would be trouble: “The Serbian List did not enter the government so it could
consider the requests and stances of Vetevendosje,” said Jablanovic, vowing
that his party would respond after a consultation with the Serbian prime
minister, on Thursday. The party may decide to leave the governing coalition,
which could handicap Mustafa’s ability to lead.
Jablanovic also didn’t quell the anger that Vetevendosje has harnessed.
Following his dismissal, the party said that the protests, while momentarily
postponed, will ultimately continue until Serbia relinquishes its claim to
Trepca. “Serbia’s requests for Kosovo are never-ending,” said Ymeri. “There
must be a stopping point. Otherwise, we are not going to be an independent
Hajdari contributed reporting.