analysis 30 Jan 15

Wave of Fury Pushes Kosovo to the Edge

Anger over a minister’s remark and the backpedalling over Trecpa have combined to cause a perfect storm for the embattled government of Isa Mustafa.

Valerie Hopkins


The small protest over that incident gained broader support after objections from Belgrade caused the Prime Minister, Isa Mustafa, to either abort or postpone plans to nationalize the Trepca mine. Photo by Atdhe Mulla

Kosovo Albanians have endured constitutional crises, energy price hikes, crippling unemployment and some of the highest levels of corruption in Europe. Ultimately, however, it was the damage done to their collective dignity that brought thousands of people onto the streets of Pristina, in protests unseen in scale and violence since before Kosovo declared independence in 2008.

The fuse was lit early in January, when Aleksandar Jablanovic, a Serbian minister in the government, referred to an Albanian war victims group as “savages,” after they blocked Serbs from making an Orthodox Christmas pilgrimage to a church.

The small protest over that incident gained broader support after objections from Belgrade caused the Prime Minister, Isa Mustafa, to either abort or postpone plans to nationalize the Trepca mine. Kosovars had seen in the plan one of the few hopes of pulling Kosovo out of its economic doldrums.

The unrest has put pressure on the government, in power for only 45 days, has heightened the tension between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs and threatens to undo the slow but steady progress that Kosovo and its former ruler, Serbia, have made since 2011.

“The insults by Jablanovic and the pressure over Trepca has given me an impression that we have returned to pre-war times,” a protester Naser Mehmeti, said at a rally on January 24 that drew thousands.

Police estimated the crowd at 7,000 while Vetevendosje put the number at 30,000. Whatever the real number, Kosovo has not seen a protest of this size in years.

A subsequent protest on January 27, although estimated to be smaller in scale, resulted in the worst violence that Kosovo has experienced since it declared independence seven years ago. What began as a peaceful rally outside parliament spiralled into an ugly confrontation between riot police, who used rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons, and protesters, hurling cement, stones and debris.

What began as a peaceful rally outside parliament spiralled into an ugly confrontation between riot police, who used rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons, and protesters, hurling cement, stones and debris.Photo by Atdhe Mulla

The University Clinical Center, the largest hospital in Pristina, reported treating 170 people from the protests, including 107 police officers, 53 protesters and 10 others. Both sides have blamed each other for the violence.

Government officials, including Mustafa, condemned the protests and accused opposition leaders of using them to try to seize power. “Protests should not be used to achieve ambitions for power, because power is gained only through a free vote by the citizens of Kosovo, not by force and through violence,” Mustafa said.

Mustafa refused to address the protesters’ demands that Jablanovic, Minister for Communities and Return, resign and the government unilaterally assume control over the Trepca mine. The complex employed more than 20,000 people during Yugoslavia’s heyday and accounts for 75 per cent of its mineral wealth with massive resources of zinc, silver and lead that mine managers estimate could be worth up to 10 billion euros.

The mine’s operational centre is in the divided town of Mitrovica. Sections are split between Albanians in the south and Serbs in the north. But it has plants across Kosovo and some of its facilities are located in Serbia.

The mine has been operating at minimal production under the ownership of a trust, the Privatization Agency of Kosovo, KPA, created by the United Nations when the war in Kosovo ended in 1999. The agency became a government institution when Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but has repeatedly postponed a lasting solution because of disputes over ownership. Serbia claims that it owns 75 per cent of the company.

Mustafa’s announcement on January 16 that he would nationalize Trepca and save it from potential bankruptcy and liquidation was hailed by Kosovo Albanians but immediately condemned in Belgrade.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said it would complicate ongoing talks between Kosovo and Serbia, moderated by the European Union, potentially jeopardizing progress on a key deal forged in April 2013. Focusing on the future status of Kosovo’s Serbian community, the agreement aims to reintegrate the predominantly Serbian north of Kosovo into the rest of the country.

After Vucic’s sharp warning, Mustafa and the Kosovo parliament backtracked and gave the KPA another three years to grapple with the question of the mine’s ownership.

Serbian leaders say they will not relinquish Serbia’s claims to Trepca and want the issue discussed in Brussels. “Anyone who thinks that Serbia, under any kind of pressure, will give up the fight for Trepca, for its property, for the real Serbian people in Kosovo, is fostering illusions,” Marko Djuric, Serbia’s Minister for Kosovo, told the Serbian public broadcaster RTS.

The story of Trepca and of protests over Trepca is entwined with Kosovo’s recent past, and with a wider dispute over how much power Serbia should wield in Kosovo. In 1989, as Serbia moved to scrap Kosovo’s autonomy within Yugoslavia, more than 1,000 miners went on hunger strike inside Trepca, calling for self-determination.

“The miner’s strike was the key moment in Kosovar history, which determined the goals of the majority of Kosovo’s population and provided a dynamic ‘push’ against the hegemonist Serbian politics of the time,” Behlul Beqaj, a longtime political analyst in Kosovo, recalled. “Today’s protest could serve as a catalyst for re-examination of the policies of the time.”

The focus of the EU-brokered agreement between Serbia and Kosovo on April 19, 2013, was the future of the Kosovo Serb community, especially those living in four municipalities north of the river Ibar, who are in the process of being integrated into Kosovo’s own governmental structures. In the absence of official data, it is believed about 40 per cent of the 100,000 or so Serbs in Kosovo live north of the river and 60 per cent to the south.

The Gradjanska Iniciativa “Srpska” (Serbian List), which Jablanovic leads, came to prominence in the June 2014 elections, the first national elections in Kosovo in which the four mainly Serbian, northern municipalities took part. Supported by Belgrade, the party won nine of the 120 seats in parliament.

The story of Trepca and of protests over Trepca is entwined with Kosovo’s recent past, and with a wider dispute over how much power Serbia should wield in Kosovo.Photo by Atdhe Mulla

After six months of watching the mainstream parties argue over which would form the government, the Serbian List received two ministries and the post of deputy prime minister. The inherent contradiction in this is that the party’s patron, Serbia, still does not recognize the independence of Kosovo and maintains that Kosovo is still a province of Serbia.

After the elections, Jablanovic told BIRN that his hometown of Leposavic in northern Kosovo “will never be part of Kosovo”.

When Serbian Prime Minister Vucic visited Kosovo the week, following the “savages” row, Jablanovic, Kosovo’s Deputy Prime Minister, Branimir Stojanovic and the Minister of Local Government, Ljubomir Maric, stood beside him in public appearances.

Public anger remains that a government minister, whose salary is paid by Kosovo taxpayers, could appear to insult Albanian victims of war crimes and then issue only a lukewarm apology, telling Kosovo’s public broadcaster that he “didn’t know” whether the Serbian police and military had committed war crimes in the 1990s in Gjakova.

Beqaj, the analyst, said anger over the minister’s language and over the fate of the mine was understandable. “The ‘hate speech’ displayed by the Serbian minister was not dealt with adequately. The government, on the other hand, toyed with the Trepca issue – not having in mind the sentimental value it has in the country.”

He also pointed to deeper issues of disappointment with the lack of progress Kosovo has made in the 15 years since the war ended.

Meanwhile, responsibility for Serbia’s apparent ability to veto decisions in Kosovo has fallen onto the shoulders of Prime Minister Mustafa, even though he was in opposition when the Kosovo-Serbia agreements were being made.

The controversy has galvanized the weak opposition, consisting of Levizja Vetevendosje (Self-Determination Movement), Ramush Haradinaj’s Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK, and Fatmir Limaj’s NISMA. It has allowed them capitalize on resentment over Kosovo’s former subjection to Serbia and over concern that the government will make more compromises to Serbs and to Serbia.

Under the 2013 Brussels agreement, majority-Serb municipalities in Kosovo are to form their own association. But the details about its structure and the autonomy it will enjoy have yet to be ironed out. Kosovars worry that if the body gains substantial autonomy it could become as obstructionist as Republika Srpska, the mainly Serb entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“The International community needs to get the message that Kosovo’s red line is far shallower than it thinks,” Leon Malazogu, director of Democracy for Development, a Prishtina-based think tank, said. “It’s not an open pit that you dig into as deep as you need in order to accommodate Serbia,” he added. “They can make a big mistake.”

The Serbian List, and by proxy Belgrade, has effectively gained a stranglehold over Mustafa’s government, he noted. Without its support, his government would fall, and it would most likely withdraw its support if Jablanovic were ousted.

“He is powerless to remove Jablanovic. Removing him means that the government would fall,” Malazogu explained. “Vucic stands right behind Jablanovic. He cannot be removed.”

This leaves Mustafa caught between a rock and a hard place. “If Serbia has veto powers over Kosovo, this is the biggest threat we’ve identified. … It is too much for Kosovars to swallow,” Malazogu continued.

Meanwhile, data shows that ongoing dialogue in Brussels, or, rather, the lack of implementation of most of the agreements reached so far, seems to have had the effect of keeping Kosovo Serbs close to Belgrade rather than bringing them closer to Pristina.

“The ‘improvisations’ that the [Kosovo-Serbia] dialogue is trying to provide have only served to distance people from any need to join forces in solving common problems,” Beqaj observed.

A report of the European Service for External Action in July 2013 showed that the number of Serbs who identified themselves as citizens of Kosovo fell that year, from 33 per cent in 2012 to only 15 per cent in 2013.

Meanwhile, more protests are planned. Vetevendosje on Thursday that the next protest will be held February 4. Photo by Atdhe Mulla

At the protest on January 24, Qamil Dili said he has nothing against Serbs sitting in the Kosovo government but the Serbian List had seriously provoked Albanians.

“In the past there were Serbs in the government but they did not insult us the way the current ones do,” he said. “Some of them even spoke in Albanian,” he remarked.

One was Nenad Rasic, the labour and welfare minister in the previous government, who advocates Serbs accepting Kosovo’s institutions and is concerned by what he perceives is the way Srpska Lista puts Belgrade’s interests over those of local residents.

The rhetoric coming from Belgrade could damage the lives of ordinary Kosovo Serbs, he fears. “We have to accept that Albanians are the majority,” he said. The Serbian List “doesn’t have opinions or policies, they just implement the ideas that Belgrade has,” he added.

“This will create more obstacles, especially in cooperation and communication between Serbs and Albanians … the progress that has been made is being broken down by the arrogance of Belgrade, he continued.

Rasic blamed Kosovo Albanian politicians for having “helped to incorporate Belgrade into Kosovo institutions”.

However, Rasic said this situation could not last, as Belgrade steadily withdraws support from the institutions and employees it has funded in northern Kosovo since 1998-99.

“We simply need to wait for people to be fired from their Serbian-supported jobs and then they’ll soon realize there is no other government than Kosovo,” he predicted.

Meanwhile, more protests are planned. Vetevendosje on Thursday that the next protest will be held February 4, with more to come until Jablanovic is fired and Trepca turned into a public enterprise.

“It is time to change Kosovo now or lose it forever,” Vetevendosje MP Visar Ymeri said. “These protests did not come about just because of economic hardship, but because people are losing hope that this country will become a proper country.”

With reporting from Una Hajdari and Nektar Zogjani.


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