When will Vojvodina become independent?

Ten years of Kosovo: "We don't know which side we belong to"

Jovan hides his chin in the collar of his jacket, he's so cold. "Independence? Oh, I don't care," says the 17-year-old student. Here in Northern Mitrovica, in the north of Kosovo, which is mostly populated by Serbs, nothing is heard of the celebrations of the tenth anniversary of Europe's youngest state. Instead of the blue and yellow Kosovar national flags that are displayed throughout the country, the flags of the State of Serbia hang here.

People here feel confused, they don't know what the future will bring. That's why the present is somehow irrelevant. There are plastic bags lying on the green spaces, and posters hang half-torn from the walls of houses. There is construction going on, but the houses are growing side by side in a pretty random manner. Only the Serbian flags shine properly in red, blue and white on both sides of König-Petar-I.-Straße. After all, today is Serbia's national holiday.

But there is no party mood here. "We don't feel safe since Oliver Ivanović was shot," says Jovan frankly - his eyes wander up and down the street. The Kosovar Serb politician Ivanović had the trust of many citizens here. He said what he thought: for example, that criminal gangs control northern Kosovo. He had opposed not only the smuggler gangs and the mafiosi, but also the politics of Belgrade. On January 16, he was shot dead with six machine gun salvos from an open car on the street in front of his office.

In front of the red house of his party, pink plastic flowers and frozen white lilies lie in a concrete flower pot. The light from the yellow beeswax candles can withstand the cold for only seconds. A woman tries to protect the flame anyway. A Roma family meanwhile sorts the cardboard boxes from the garbage can and puts them on the mini tractor. A policeman guards the house, on which a poster with Ivanović can still be seen. Two police officers were arrested on short notice for allegedly inadequate supervision on the day Ivanović was murdered. So far, however, there are no relevant traces.

There is no place in the Balkans - probably in the whole of Europe - with such a high density of security personnel as Mitrovica. On every street corner there are men in blue suits - the badges with the words "Kosovo Police" and the yellow outline of the country on their upper arms are the only thing that reminds us that this piece of land belongs to Kosovo.

Otherwise you pay with dinars here, not with euros like in the rest of Kosovo. Both are possible in an emergency. It's just a world between two states - half integrated into one, controlled by the other. The local representative of President Aleksandar Vučić is Mayor Goran Rakić, who looks down on posters in every corner - probably so that nobody gets the idea to question his authority. But that has nothing to do with trust. Since Vučić granted the "Brussels Agreement" in 2013 to integrate northern Kosovo into the state as a whole, the Serbian list of Rakić has been enforced here as the ruling force. Since then, the Serbian "parallel structures", such as the vigilante group, have been dissolved, and the courts now belong to the state of Kosovo, as does the police.

"All of these decisions were made from above, the local Serbs here were not involved at all," says Miodrag Milićević from the NGO Aktiv about the tough change in politics in Belgrade. "A lot has changed since then," he says. At the beginning everyone was totally shocked, but then people slowly accepted the new situation. Until 2013 the line from Belgrade was still to encapsulate the north. Belgrade supported the Serbs in Mitrovica in their resistance to Prishtina. Nine years after the war, when the Serbian authorities left the country, Kosovo declared itself independent with the help of the West. In practice, Belgrade only had more influence in the north and in a few enclaves.

Since 2011 there has been a dialogue moderated by the EU: commercial law issues, border management, the exchange of documents and other points of conflict have been resolved. The community amalgamation promised for the Serbian communities in 2013 has still not been introduced by the Kosovar side. "The Serbian community has been integrated into the state to a certain extent," says Milićević, "but there is a lot that doesn't work."

Legal gray areas

So the Kosovo Serbs with the Serbian number plates from North Mitrovica could not move freely throughout Kosovo. Many would therefore get Belgrade number plates, others have Kosovar number plates, many here in Mitrovica don't have any. Nobody is prosecuting the owners of the cars parked on the sidewalks. Because the Serbian courts have withdrawn here, but the open cases are not heard anywhere in Serbia, legal gray areas have arisen. "A friend of mine wants to get married again, but he cannot get his divorce certificate because the authorities are gone," says Milićević of the everyday worries of the people in Northern Mitrovica. "We are still in the air and do not know which side we belong to."

In the years of chaos around the war in 1999, the people here were politically abused and instrumentalized. Now they feel abandoned. The reflection on the nation also has something lost here. One café is named after Gavrilo Princip, who for many is a freedom fighter. The sad-looking murderer of Franz Ferdinand advertises with a wine glass in his hand.

A grim white eagle can be seen on graffiti, with black demonstrators in front of it. Down by the Ibar, the river that separates the Serbian-populated north from the Albanian-populated south of the city, a sign indicates that the EU is renovating the bridge.

But the EU has an extremely bad standing in the north. Only ten percent of the people are in favor of joining. In the south it is 83 percent. On this side of the bridge, Kosovar flags hang on the masts. There are also huge concrete letters on the square: # Kosova10 in blue and yellow refer to the tenth birthday of the state. A girl pokes her head through the zero at the end of the monument. The mood is far more relaxed here.

The people in the north are much more stressed. The local mafia gangs thrive on the money that comes in through smuggling and the lack of efficient statehood like in a biotope. In the meantime, the Serbian and Kosovar authorities are at least trying to solve the murder of Ivanović together. Former US Vice President Joe Biden had urged Serbian President Vučić and Kosovar President Hashim Thaçi to cooperate and calm the situation. Vučić and Thaçi already talk to each other on the phone on a regular basis.

Widespread pessimism

But how insecure people feel here in the north can be seen from the survey data from the NGO Aktiv from the previous year. Only seven percent of those questioned rated the current political situation in Kosovo as good. Some Serbs from the north report interethnic incidents, and there are always brawls. "Despite the large police presence, however, hardly any crimes are solved," says Milićević, who urgently calls for police reform. Over 90 percent believe that developments are not going in the right direction, while one in two believes that Serbs in Kosovo will be worse off in three years than they are today.

Every second respondent does not feel free to express their political views publicly. People complain about organized crime - only 15 percent support the 2013 agreement between Serbia and Kosovo.

Bureaucratic hurdles

Milićević also complains that the proposed recruitment of Serbs and other minorities is not being adequately implemented in Kosovar institutions. Although Serbian is the official language in Kosovo, official texts are translated from Albanian very badly. He also knows how to report absurdities. For example, the Kosovar authorities stopped importing Serbian books for some time - the books were then brought into the country "illegally" via smuggling routes.

In the Balkans in particular, the state of a society can be measured fairly well by how it deals with minorities. The Kosovar authorities make it particularly difficult for Serbs from the north to get identity cards. "They ask for five documents instead of one," says Milićević.

"We don't ask for much. The Kosovar authorities only have to implement the planned laws, that would improve our lives massively," says the man who pats his fellow citizens on the back in Café Luna. Many just wanted to get out of here. Almost every second respondent does not see himself in Kosovo in the next five years. "The agreement with Serbia will be implemented and the dialogue between Belgrade and Prishtina will be ended," Milićević predicts. "But the whole thing happens without the people. They go abroad." (Adelheid Wölfl from Nordmitrovica, February 16, 2018)