The journey to Mitrovica, a large industrial town in northern Kosovo was one veiled in pollution, a persistent and big environmental problem which has plagued the country for many years now. The grass is brown along the motorway, and garbage litters the side of the highway. A thick haze of smog lingers over Pristina and the town of Mitrovica, a town where divisions between Kosovar Serbs and Albanians are strong, and tensions have been increasing throughout 2018.
From the 1860s going forward, Mitrovica was a key railway town during the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The railways, completed under contracts between the Ottoman government and Belgian Baron de Hirsch in 1874, were completed in 1874. This strengthened the town’s economic development, alongside Pristina and the town of Urosevac in the south. Mitrovica was part of the wider attempt of the empire to Westernise and modernise during a period of reform catalysed by internal rebellions and instability in the western part of the Ottoman’s vast territories during the 19th century. During this period of contested reform and heightened nationalism, small factories, small mills and motorised flour mills were built in the town as part of the wider industrial growth across the country. This all occurred in the final decades of the Ottoman rule in Kosovo province as the Western powers, Tsarist Russia and Serbia placed increased pressures on the empire to protect Christian minorities.
The spread of nationalism and infrequent revolts and civil war in Kosovo put serious internal pressures on government officials as demands for autonomy and the rising tide of Albanian nationalism grew stronger. Mitrovica was at the centre of Serbian, Bulgarian and Russian plans to negotiate a treaty after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 which was a blueprint for the enlargement of the Bulgarian state (to include parts of northern Albania) and Serbian attempts to absorb parts of northern Kosovo, including Mitrovica.
These demands were vetoed by the Western powers who balked at the idea of such a large enlargement of Bulgaria and Serbia which would encroach into both Albanian and Kosovar territories. Such a situation would have turned Serbia into an Adriatic power which would have been intolerable to the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Arriving in Mitrovica, the famous railways were abandoned but the town was very busy. Taxis and cars circled the roundabout which lay in-front of the Bay Rampasa Isa Bey Merkez Camii Mosque. The call to prayer washed over the town, which most paid little attention to as they headed for work. The population is young and teenagers from school were heading for lunch. Fast food stores dotted the city centre and coffee stores and local electronic shops were open for business. Pigeons flew up into the blue sky as a gleeful child dispersed them. To the left of the large cyan domed mosque was a statue of the Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army fighter, Shemsi Ahmeti who died at the age of thirty during the Kosovo War (1998-1999) on the 26th April, 1999. His plaque read “Hero of Kosovo”.
Commemorating fallen fighters of the KLA is a regular feature in the young country’s turbulent political landscape which still bears the scars of the war from twenty years ago. Since Kosovo gained its independence, integration into the European Union has been a painfully slow process, supported by the United Nations in Kosovo. Further into south Mitrovica, with the Albanian flag draped down a flag pole was the statue of Mehe Uka, another KLA fighter. Uka was a teacher, political prisoner turned guerrilla was cut down by a Serbian ambush in December, 1996 in Mitrovica. The Serbian army had designated the KLA as a terrorist organisation during the occupation of Kosovo in the 1990s, and 1996 was the key year in which the group starting targeting Serbian police and armed forces across the country.
Down along Agim Hajrizi, past the Financial Department of Kosvo on Isa Bolenti roundabout was an even larger monument dedicated to Isa Bolenti, the jet red and black flag blowing in the wind next to it. It was Isa Bolenti, a local warlord and Albanian nationalist who supported the League of Prizen, who led an attack on the Ottoman garrison of Mitrovica on 30th March, 1903 with a force of 2,000 Albanian fighters. More controversially during this attack, a Russian consul, Grigoriy Stepanovich Schterbina, accompanying the Ottoman forces defending the city was shot by an Ottoman Albanian and died of his wounds ten days later after being targeted. The murder was apparently an act of vengeance for the death of a family member, but it was also interesting to note that Bolenti had been opposed to the opening of the Russian consulate in Mitrovica, a response to alleged atrocities committed by Bolenti in 1901 during a wave of violence against ethnic Kosovar Serbs in the north. The Serbs in Belgrade began smuggling weapons to support those being targeted by massacre, blackmail and allegations of ethnic cleansing being conducted by Bolenti and to support their Serbian allies, Russia send Schterbina to Mitrovica as consul. Bolenti denied Schterbina entry until the former was recalled to Istanbul by the Ottoman government in 1902. However, Bolenti returned to Mitrovica, sealing Schterbina’s fate in 1903.
The rise in Serbian and Russian influence in the region, particularly Kosovo during the late 19th century was aggravating the Albanian population, and Kosovar Albanians who did not want to be subjugated by Moscow and Belgrade nor the Western powers. The Albanians were suspicious that the Serbians with Russian support were aiming to colonise Kosovo and assimilating Kosovo and part of Albania into their territories and sphere of influence. Autonomy would be replaced by colonisation and annexation. The pretext for intervening in the country lay in protecting the Kosovar Orthodox Serbians from Ottoman repression (often exaggerated by Serbian historians), which increased during the Crimean War and throughout the turbulent 19th century.
In the late 19th century, as Noel Malcom writes in Kosovo: A Short History, ‘this period of history was when relations between Christians and Muslims of Kosovo were deteriorating, the prime cause of this (being) the mass expulsion of Muslims from lands taken over by Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro in 1877-1878 during the Russo-Turkish War. The expulsion, or cleansing, sparked a disastrous refugee crisis across the region. In this context, the Russian and the Great Powers reshaping the region for imperial and geo-political objectives were deeply unpopular among Albanians. The 1903 murder of the Russian consul by an Ottoman Albanian soldier, was an extension of this resentment, a parallel now seen in the Syrian Civil War as Andrei Gennadyevich Karlov was gunned down in Turkey by Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, a off-duty policeman in Ankara in December, 2016. The political assassination was, The New York Times argued, motivated by the Russian bombings of Aleppo and its intervention in the Syrian Civil War from 2015 onwards.
Far from Aleppo, and Syria’s theatre of war, tensions in Mitrovica remain high. Less then a fortnight ago, four were arrested during a raid conducted by elite police officers including Sasa Djuric, Marko Rasic, and Dragisa Markovic and Nedeljko Spasojevic, two police officers, the former of whom had been working on the criminal investigation surrounding the murder of politician Oliver Ivanovic. Milan Radoicic, the vice-president of the main Kosovo Serb party, Srpska Lista (Serb List) and with alleged ties to the mafia was also targeted in a raid by the special police unit deployed in Mitrovica but managed to avoid arrest. “We can confirm that based on a court order, police have undertaken raids in Mitrovica North related to the continuation of investigations on the murder of O.I.” said the Kosovo police in a published statement on November 23rd.
The arrest of the four men brought many Serb civilians onto the streets amidst an extraordinary increase in tariffs introduced by Kosovo’s central government on 21st-22nd November which was slapped on goods coming from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Both countries, including Russia, do not recognise Kosovo as an independent country. Kosovar Serbs have held large and successive protests after the increases on import tariffs on goods from both countries. This followed local assemblies from the Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo making the decision to end all communication with Kosovo state institutions following the police operation. This included the dramatic resignation of Goran Rakic, the mayor of Mitrovica who cited the police operation, the tariffs, and human rights abuses against ethnic Serbs as his reason for standing down from office. Three other mayors in Leposavic, Zubin Potok, and Zvecan followed Rakic in protest.
In Mitrovica, what immediately caught my eye was the bridge. It was cordoned off by mental fences and blockaded by two KFOR military jeeps and a police car. KFOR officers stood on duty. Speaking to a German journalist from Leipzig reporting in Mitrovica, I asked him if the recent protests had turned sour. “No.” he replied, “but that is the Serbia over there” pointing over the Ibar River where the bridge stood. “That is where the Serbs in the city live on the north side.” After showing my identification card to a policemen, who was searching cars, I crossed the bridge segmenting the town, the river gently flowing beneath the bridge. The Ibar bridge, modern and wide, was looked after by the European Union Mission in Kosvo under the EU Funded Project for the Refurbishment of Mitrovica Bridge. The other side, like the south of the city where the majority of Albanians lived, was barricaded by a red and white concrete slab.
The Serbian flag welcomed me on the other side on the left-hand side of the bridge surrounded by falling autumn leaves and on the hilltop, St. Demetrius Church stood overlooking Kosovar Serbian Mitrovica. The main street of Mbreti Petri which led to the statue of Prince Lazar was deserted. It seemed northern Mitrovica was closed for business. Two woman in conversation sat beneath a Serbian flag - ten hung along the street to the roundabout - while two teenaged girls held hands, one crying. It was a ghost town, where was everyone on a Tuesday morning in the middle of a working day? I was quick to discover as with Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that I was no longer in Kosovo, as some Kosovar Albanians and Serbs defined it.
Pro-Serbian and ultranationalist grafitti and slogans, as I saw in Banja Luka in Bosnia, adorned the walls in the city centre as well as the lower parts of apartment blocks. The face of President Vucic, the president of Serbia, was on many posters taped to bus stops and the Serbian language, not Albanian were predominantly on shop windows. The police presence was high. The atmosphere, however was calm. The sun had emerged from the cloud, and the Serbian side, much like the Albanian south of Mitrovica was pleasant and not intimidating, but political tensions could be felt.
Geo-politically, loyalties predominantly lay with Vladimir Putin’s Russia in northern Mitrovica. One particular piece of graffiti art had the Russian and Serbian flag tide together in a knot. Beneath the red, whites and blues of the flags, lay the slogan ‘Kosovo is Serbia and Crimea is Russia.’ On the Serbian flag was Kosovo, and the Russian flag, Crimea which had recently been annexed in 2014 by the Russian army, an act which sparked the Ukrainian conflict in the east of the country. Since then, it made headlines again only weeks ago after the Russian Navy seized Ukrainian sailors and naval vessels in the Sea of Azov. The incident led to the Ukrainian government imposing martial law in ten of its twenty-six provinces.
Other tributes to Serbia, Russian and pro-Russian paramilitaries were daubed on the walls of the city centre. Suddenly, a group of people caught my eye. They were trickling down the extended street of Mbreti Petri. Walking by them the crowd grew larger and larger and eventually, I came upon two Romanian soldiers with the United Nations insignia what was happening. “A protest” the short soldier answered, her orange hair protruding from her U.N beret, “but it is ok, it is safe to go there.”
The crowd was at a stand-still and as I slid through the crowd, it grew larger. The road to Mbreti Petri which was the road out of northern Mitrovica was blocked by a line of men wearing orange safety jackets and police milled through the crowd and pointed me towards the Kosovo police station. On the slope towards Edi Apartmani, a three star hotel, paramilitary men arms folded with pistols holstered watched on. I decided not to go up this slope. Down Filip Vishnjiq, Goran Rakic, the former mayor who had just resigned, was making a speech to what appeared to be half of Mitrovica, a several thousand strong crowd.
"The Serbian people will continue to fight until the last day against the measures taken by Pristina, because the departure is not an option," Rakic said, "The Serbian people in Kosovo and Metohija once again address Pristina and the international community with one single request: anti-civilisation and discriminatory taxes of 100% on goods from central Serbia must be abolished immediately. Their introduction is a dangerous blow to peace and stability in the region , and the most direct threat to the survival of the Serbian people in Kosovo and Metohija.”
Serbian banners, and placards were on display and men, women and children stood listening to Rakic clapping and cheering. Once Rakic’s speech concluded, the march began from the police station to the city centre of the Serb-side of the Mitrovica. Various placards written in Serbian and English read “UNICEF Help!”, “We want peace, not war”, “Children are hungry.”, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” and anti-tax slogans directed at the 100% tax on Bosnian and Serbian goods dominated the placards carried by men and women. “Do not push us into ghettos’ cried another banner as the protestors marched in silence towards the Mitrovica bridge.
Leading the crowd forward were between fifteen and twenty men with t-shirts emblazoned with ‘Vandai Boys’ who followed close behind Rakic and his associates leading chanting and clapping. The Vandal Boys are an off-shoot of the ultras of the Serbian SuperLiga team, Partizan Belgrade, who nickname themselves Grabori or ‘The Gravediggers’. Some of the young men had their hoods up and all of them were dressed in black jackets and T-shirts bearing their brand ‘Vandai Boys’. An older man, dressed in a leather jacket and boots, led the group and they sat together outside a cafe afterwards, smoking cigarettes and chanting after the demonstration had dispersed, pumped on adrenaline and activism. Rukic disappeared down an alleyway with his clique and burly, hook-nosed bodyguard close by after his final speech. The Kosovo police looked on as tensions remained high, but the protest remained peaceful, organised and without incident. However the anger and frustrations of the Kosovar Serbs living in Mitrovica was growing, as the now successive protests are demonstrating and they are not backing down from the controversial tax introduced by Pristina down south.
Mitrovica’s recent protests have led to sharp rhetoric from Russia and the United States, particularly Moscow, the foreign ministry stating: "We consider this another provocation, the incursion of the Kosovar Albaninan special forces into the Serbian-populated part of Kosovska Mitrovica in the morning of November 23, the detention of four local residents. Pristina's course for ethnic cleansing and unleashing a trade war in the Balkans is apparent, in line with the Kosovo 'government' decision on November 22 to impose 100% tariffs on Serbian goods, including food, medicine, printed products, and so on."
The following week, after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s meeting with president Hashim Thaci, Spokesperson Heather Nauert of the U.S State Department said “The Secretary reaffirmed steadfast U.S. support for a sovereign, independent Kosovo, fully integrated into the international community.” She went on, “He urged Kosovo authorities to rescind the tariffs placed on imports from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to work with Serbia to avoid provocations and deescalate tensions. Normalising relations between Kosovo and Serbia is the only way to clear the path to both countries’ future integration into the Western community of nations.”
As storm clouds gather over the Balkans and a looming political contest between the West and Russia comes closer, all of a sudden life, as Rukic’s column of protesters left, returned to normal in the northern half of Mitrovica. People went for lunch and grabbed coffee or stood together discussing the demonstration. Walking back over the Ibar bridge, Kosovo gradually became Kosovar Albanian again, and in the winter cold, a huge Albanian flag attached to an apartment building blew gently in the wind. Speaking to Mismona, originally from Gjakova in south-west Kosovo, an Albanian mother of two boys, twelve and ten, who spoke excellent German, and lived with her husband in Mitrovica, she told me of the tensions.
“It is not nice.” Mismona said reflecting on the split in Mitrovica, “There is no cinema anymore for example, the town has declined since the divisions emerged. The city used be one of the most developed in Kosovo. Unfortunately, memories for many are too fresh from the war. Before the conflict, we were united. It will take many generations for the scars to heal.” The political fault-line of Mitrovica and the current tensions of the divided town, are one the international community cannot ignore, and indeed the wider question of potential land-swaps between Kosovo and Serbia, something which Kosovar Albanians are strongly opposed to as demonstrated by a huge protest in Pristina in September, 2018.
The legacy of the Kosovo War is ever present in the country. The faces of missing people attached to a fence outside the main Parliament building epitomise this and over 1,648 people are still missing, buried in mass-graves across Kosovo (although some say the number could be higher). Some in Kosovo described the war in 1998-1999 as a genocide against Albanian Kosovars while others have described former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic’s campaign as ethnic cleansing. The harrowing legacy of mass-rape against women in Kosovo is encapsulated by the Heroinat monument which is dedicated to the women who were raped and suffered during the war at the hands of Serbian forces and those women who fought the JNA and its accompanying paramilitary and police forces. The gratitude towards the West is expressed in art, an abundance of British, American and French flags and restaurants, and also - most famously - by the statue of Bill Clinton who initiated the controversial NATO bombings in Kosovo. The intervention was a decision which remains a source of fierce debate and a deep wound nursed by Belgrade. Nonetheless, Kosovars take fierce pride in demonstrating their independence, and the NEWBORN sign, situated in the centre of Pristina, the typographic sculpture erected on 17th February, 2008 (the year Kosovo became a state) epitomises this. This year, the sculpture had been changed to NEW1ORN to symbolise a decade since Kosovo gained its independence.
I asked Zlatan, my tour guide in Pristina, about the land swap and the political tensions surrounding it and whether or not it would go ahead. “There are multiple reasons why it shouldn’t happen,” he said “Firstly the north of Kosovo going to Serbia will cripple the country as it is the most wealthy area of the country with the mining economy, secondly it has no political support from the Parliament or the people. Finally, it is a Pandora’s box. If they do a land-swap, it will create a precedent for other border changes. Albanians in Macedonia will want to secede and join Albania or Kosovo, Republic Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina will want to join Serbia, Bosnian Croats will want to join Croatia, Montenegro may want to rejoin Serbia. Attempts to adjust the borders leads to violence in the Balkans.”
Mitrovica is a microcosm of the political tensions between Kosovar Serbs and Albanians and it could be the international crisis the West and the Trump administration least expect to challenge an EU in crisis and challenges facing NATO in containing Russian ambitions in South Eastern Europe in the near future. The draconian tax imposed by Pristina and the protests they have catalysed could be the first major step towards such a crisis.