Serbia and Kosovo: A Death in Mitrovica

The Killing: On the morning of 16 January Oliver Ivanovic, a prominent Kosovo Serb political leader, was shot six times as he left the offices in Mitrovica of the Freedom Democracy Justice (SDP) civic organisation that he headed  by a gunman in a passing car.  Oliver Ivanovic was taken to hospital but declared dead shortly afterwards. Following the shooting the police moved in force into the Mitrovica area and closed border crossing points between Kosovo and Serbia. The car apparently used by the assassins was subsequently found, burnt-out, in the nearby town of Zvecan. On 17 January Oliver Ivanovic’s body was laid out at the offices of the SDP in north Mitrovica, where hundreds of local residents came to pay their respects. His body was then transferred under police escort to Belgrade. On 18 January Oliver Ivanovic was buried in the Avenue of Distinguished Citizens at Belgrade’s New Cemetery.  The funeral service was presided over by Bishop Teodosije of Raska-Prizren and attended by political leaders from across Serbia’s political spectrum. The public figures at the funeral included Ana Brnabic, the Serbian Prime Minister, Tomislav Nikolic, the former President of Serbia, and Crown Prince Alexander Karadjordjevic. On 20 January Aleksandar Vucic, the Serbian President, during a visit to Mitrovica, laid a wreath at the place where Oliver Ivanovic had been shot dead.


The Victim: Oliver Ivanovic was born in 1953 in the village Rznic close to the town of Decani in Kosovo. Ivanovic trained to be a pilot for three years at the Zagreb Military Academy, but was unable to qualify due to an eye condition. He returned to Kosovo where he studied Mechanical Engineering at Mitrovica University and Economics at Pristina University. He settled in Mitrovica where in the pre-war period he achieved local renown as a Karate instructor.


In June 1999 Oliver Ivanovic was one of the founding members of the Bridge-Watchers, an organisation set up by local Serbs and Serb refugees from other parts of Kosovo to prevent Albanian incursions across the Ibar River into Serb northern Mitrovica. At the same time Ivanovic began his political career when he was chosen as President of the Serbian National Council (SNV) for Northern Kosovo. In this immediate post-war period Ivanovic was one of the most powerful political figures in the Serbian populated areas of northern Mitrovica. In July 2001, however, Ivanovic lost his position as head of the SNV for Northern Kosovo after he clashed with other leading members over whether to take part in forthcoming parliamentary elections. In an early sign of his increasing readiness to compromise advocated the participation of Serbs in Kosovan elections. In spite of this split over political strategy Ivanovic remained a leading Kosovo Serb political figure becoming head of the Executive Committee of the SNV in North Mitrovica in October 2001. In the Kosovo elections which took place in November 2001 Ivanovic was elected as an MP for the Serbian Povratak (Return) coalition. In the October 2004 Kosovan elections Ivanovic was re-elected as an MP representing the Serbian List.


Oliver Ivanovic’s relations with political leaders in Belgrade were mixed. Vojislav Kostunica, who was Yugoslav President from 2000-2003 and Serbian Prime Minster from 2004-2008, viewed Oliver Ivanovic as being too pragmatic in his relations with the international administration and Albanian political leaders, preferred instead to work with Marko Jaksic and Milan Ivanovic, his own  party’s representatives in Kosovo. Oliver Ivanovic did, however, work closely with Nebojsa Covic, the head of the Serbian government’s Co-ordination Centre for Kosovo. In 2004 when Nebojsa Covic became leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), after it merged with his own Democratic Alternative, Oliver Ivanovic also joined the SDP. In 2008 Oliver Ivanovic was appointed as State Secretary for Kosovo in the newly elected Serbian government under the Serbian President, Boris Tadic. With the SDP having failed to clear the electoral threshold in the previous year’s elections Oliver Ivanovic was nominated for this position in the Serbian government by the liberal market-oriented party G17 Plus led by Mladjan Dinkic. Oliver Ivanovic’s association with G17Plus was a further indication of his movement towards the centre ground of Serbian politics. The coming to ascendency of the Serbian Progressive Party headed by Aleksandar Vucic after the 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections signalled a fundamental shift in the politics of Serbia. The Serbian government sought to exert control over the Kosovo Serbs through the Serbian List grouping. Oliver Ivanovic, increasingly at odds with the government in Belgrade founded the Freedom Democracy and Justice civic organisation which sought to preserve an independent voice for Kosovo Serbs.


On 27 January 2014 Oliver Ivanovic was arrested in operation organised by EULEX, the EU’s Justice and law and order mission on Kosovo. He was charged with war crimes involving responsibility for ordering the killing of 9 Kosovo Albanians on 14 April 1999 during the NATO intervention, and being similarly responsible for the killings of 10 Kosovo Albanians during post-war rioting on 3 February 2000. Oliver Ivanovic maintained that these charges were politically motivated. On 21 January 2016 Ivanovic was convicted in relation to the 1999 killings, but acquitted on the charges related to the violence in February 2000. He was sentenced to nine years in prison. On 16 February 2017, however, the verdict was over turned on appeal, and a retrial was ordered. Oliver Ivanovic’s retrial began on 24 March 2017.


Freedom Democracy and Justice put up candidates for the October 2017 local elections in Kosovo. In the run-up to the elections Oliver Ivanovic complained of a climate of intimidation. On the morning of 28 July Oliver Ivanovic’s car was burnt out. Two candidates for Freedom, Democracy, and Justice withdrew from the elections during the course of the campaign. Oliver Ivanovic standing for election as Mayor in Northern Mitrovica was narrowly defeated by Goran Rakic, the Srpska List candidate. In an interview on N1 TV in November 2017 stated that during the election campaign ‘they did to me except shoot me – and even that is not excluded.’


Reactions: The killing of Oliver Ivanovic sent shock-waves through Serbia, Kosovo and the wider region. The Serbian government responded immediately by calling a meeting of its National Security Council. Aleksandar Vucic said that: ‘For the Serbian state this is considered an act of terrorism.’ Marko Djuric, the Director of the Serbian government’s office for Kosovo, stated that ‘Mr Ivanovic’s killing was aimed against the Serbian people.’ Rasim Ljajic, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade, Tourism, and Communications, who had been a colleague of Ivanovic’s when he was in government, gave a tearful interview in which he stated ‘I told him (Ivanovic) so many times to leave Kosovo Mitrovica. It turns out Ivanovic was safer in jail than free. The only important thing now is to discover who is behind the murder.’  The Serbian government subsequently demanded that it should be allowed to participate in the investigation into Oliver Ivanovic killing. It also announced that that the EU mediated dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo would be suspended until those responsible for his assassination had been identified. Some Serbian opposition leaders combined condemnation of the killing with criticism of the governments of Serbia and Kosovo. Dragan Sutanovac, the leader of the Democratic Party, told a press conference on the day of the assassination that ‘many have painted a target on Oliver Ivanovic’s back in the past. This was a shot at peace.’ He questioned why Ivanovic had not been provided with help with security by the authorities in either Kosovo or Serbia. Sasa Radulovic, head of the opposition Enough is Enough movement stated ‘the power in Belgrade and in Mitrovica is in the hands of the Serbian Progressive Party (led by Aleksandar Vucic) In Pristina (Ramush) Haradinaj rules with the support of the Progressive Party.  Keep your words to yourselves only action (counts)’. Nenad Canak, leader of the opposition League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina, speaking on 19 January, speculated as to who was responsible for the killing saying that ‘I am sure the finger that pulled the trigger is from the local criminal milieu but as far as I can read politics the Russian interest is behind all this.’     


The government of Kosovo also quickly condemned the killing of Oliver Ivanovic. It stated that Ivanovic’s assassination challenged: ‘the rule of law and any attempt to establish order throughout the entire territory of Kosovo. Violence is unacceptable no matter from whom it comes and to whom it is directed.’  The Kosovo government, however, predictably, rejected Serbia’s demand that it should be able to be involved in the investigation of Ivanovic’s killing. Speaking on 22 January Ramush Haradinaj, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, dismissed the idea that Oliver Ivanovic’s killing might be a manifestation of inter-ethnic violence. He stated that: ‘There will various motives political and criminal, but not ethnic.’ On 26 January Albin Kurti, leader of the opposition Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) stated that there were two possible explanations for the killing of Oliver Ivanovic. Kurti said that Ivanovic had either been killed by the Serbian security services in order to demonstrate that they could act with impunity in northern Kosovo or he had been assassinated by former Serbian paramilitaries with the intention of preventing him from providing information on their wartime activities. Albin Kurti provided no evidence to support either of these theories. Azem Vllasi, a veteran Kosovo Albanian politician and lawyer, speculated that the assassination was the work of: ‘Serb and Russian extremists who freely roam the north.’


Frederica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, made phone calls on 16 January to Aleksandar Vucic , President of Serbia, and Hashim Thaci, President of Kosovo, in which she condemned the killing, expressed her condolences to the family and friends of Oliver Ivanovic, and called for ‘calm and restraint’ on all sides. Greg Delawie, the US ambassador in Kosovo issued a statement saying: ‘I condemn in the strongest possible terms the violent killing of Oliver Ivanovic this morning and extend the embassy’s deepest condolences to his family. I call on all Kosovo’s justice institutions to investigate this incident swiftly and professionally and bring the perpetrators to justice. We urge all sides to avoid dangerous rhetoric and remain calm at this sensitive time and recommit themselves to work toward the normalisation of relations and improvement of the lives of the citizens of Kosovo and Serbia.’ Alan Duncan, the UK government Minister for Europe, commented on the murder stating: ‘We are deeply shocked and concerned by the killing of Oliver Ivanovic. We call upon the Kosovo police and other rule of law institutions to investigate this incident thoroughly and bring those responsible to justice at the earliest possible opportunity.’ The Russian Foreign Ministry also initially followed this international consensus in condemning the killing and calling for a swift identification of those responsible.           .


Consequences: While the initial reactions of the Serbian and Kosovo governments towards each other over Ivanovic’s murder were confrontational this soon shifted towards a more pragmatic approach.


On 22 January it was confirmed that Serbian and Kosovan prosecutors would be sharing information in order to make possible a co-ordinated investigation. On 23 January Ivica Dacic, the Serbian Foreign Minister, met EU  ambassadors and told them that the suspension of dialogue with Kosovo was temporary and could be resumed once progress had been demonstrated. The Serbian government has identified movement towards EU membership as a strategic goal, is unwilling to allow events in Kosovo to divert it from this objective. On 31 January Antonio Tajani, President of the European Parliament, speaking in Belgrade stated that Serbia had made progress towards EU, but also emphasised that there should be a ‘progressive reduction of tensions and continuation of co-operation’ over the issue of Kosovo. Tajani’s visit took place prior to the publication of the new EU Balkan Enlargement Strategy on 6 February. Opinion polling conducted in Serbia in early February showed only a relatively small minority of the population to be concerned that the events in Kosovo would lead to an overall deterioration of the security situation.


The Kosovo government had, possibly, an even greater need to avoid unnecessary confrontation which would damage relations with the West. While Serbia has sought to balance movement towards the West and maintaining links with Russia Kosovan foreign policy since independence in 2008 has been primarily focussed on developing links with the US/EU. Over recent months, however, relations between Kosovo and the US/EU have deteriorated severely. The primary issue of contention between Kosovo and Western governments has been the move by the Kosovo assembly, supported by Hashim Thaci, to abolish the War Crimes Court, which was set to begin its operations. On 25 January Ramush Haradinaj confirmed that he had been denied visas to travel to the US and UK. Kosovo he said was now ‘isolated.’ Although on 5 February Hashim Thaci confirmed that the Kosovo government was backing down over the War Crimes Court, and Ramush Haradinaj got his visa to attend the US National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, it remained important for the Kosovan government to demonstrate that it was investigating Ivanovic’s death and avoiding confrontation with Serbia in order to continue the process of repairing its relationship with Western countries and institutions.


The only negative response to this, relative, stabilisation of the situation has come from the Russian government. On 29 January Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman tweeted that: ‘Results of the investigation into prominent Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic’s assassination are nowhere to be seen. Belgrade’s requests for joint effort are being ignored. One has the impression that Pristina and its sponsors have something to hide.’ The tweet not only appeared to place responsibility for the killing on the government of Kosovo, but also to implicate Western governments.


The impact of Oliver Ivanovic’s killing was, however, felt with the local community in Mitrovica its surroundings as well as at state and regional level. The killing dramatically added to the existing sense of fear and isolation felt by Serbs in Mitrovica and the other Serb populated northern municipalities. Following Aleksandar Vucic’s visit to Kosovo it was stated that he would meet Momcilo Trajkovic, head of the Serbian National Forum for Kosovo, and a delegation from his organisation in order to address these concerns. The meeting which took place on 30 January concluded with an agreement that Kosovo Serb representatives would be included in an internal, government organised, Serbian dialogue on the Kosovo issue scheduled to take place in mid-March 2018. Other Kosovo Serbs have, however, remained sharply critical of the Serbian government. Rada Trajkovic, a former MP in the Kosovo assembly, has suggested that the killing may have been carried out by Serbian organised criminals, and has accused the government in Belgrade of failing to confront the problem of criminality in northern Kosovo. Representatives of Ivanovic’s Freedom, Democracy and Justice organisation have also expressed disquiet about the way the investigation is being conducted by the Kosovan authorities.


Developments: On 10 February two policemen were arrested in Northern Mitrovica on charges of manipulating evidence at the crime scene. They subsequently admitted to the charges but stated that they had acted out of ‘ignorance and lack of training, and not deliberately.’ No other arrests have currently been made as part of the investigation.



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