Global Independent Analytics
Aleksandar Mitić
Aleksandar Mitić

Location: Serbia

Specialization: Balkans, NATO and EU policies, Strategic communications

Belgrade furious at controversial sentence  of moderate Kosovo Serb leader

The Serb president compared the sentence of Oliver Ivanović by an EU-monitored Kosovo court to nine years in prison for alleged 1999 war crimes to the 1804 Turkish beheadings of Serb rebel leaders

Within an hour of an Agence France-Presse report from the scene in western Kosovo on the NATO bombing of a convoy of Albanian refugees which killed 73 people on 14 April 1999, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair reacted by claiming that “it must have been the Serbs who had bombed”. In the days that followed, NATO and the Pentagon did their best to put the blame on the Serbs. Only five days later did they admit it was a „NATO mistake“. But by that time, the story was already somewhere else in Kosovo. One of the most horrendous war crimes committed in the Kosovo war was thus buried by spin. Not surprisingly, no NATO soldier or politician was ever even interrogated, let alone persecuted. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zfFkS4hh58

On that same 14 April of 1999, in northern Kosovo, four Albanian men were allegedly arrested by an armed group of Serbs. Their bodies were found six months later. It was by no means an isolated case. Thousands of Albanians and Serbs were killed during the separatist conflict which opposed, on one side, NATO and its allies on the ground – the Albanian „Kosovo Liberation Army“ – and, on the other, the Serbian police and army.

A decade and a half later, the 14 April killings led to the trial of Oliver Ivanović, widely regarded as one of the most moderate and prominent Kosovo Serb politicians, who had devoted the last 15 years to a dialogue with the Albanian leadership, as well as with NATO and EU officials, who are effectively controlling the Kosovo security and law enforcement system.  Along with four other Serbs, Ivanovic was charged with participating in the murder of the four Albanians in Kosovska Mitrovica. Arrested after being called for an interrogation by the EU police and law mission in Kosovo (EULEX), Ivanovic was tried for almost two years. Pleading not guilty and calling the process “political,” he went on a hunger strike for months before being hospitalized. Out of 19 witnesses at the trial, only one of them said he had seen Ivanovic the day of the murder in Kosovska Mitrovica, “being armed and wearing a blue uniform.” Although there was no evidence that Ivanovic, who was at the time the director of a plant in northern Kosovo, was implicated in the killings, the Albanian judge at the trial proclaimed him guilty and sentenced him to nine years in prison, while the remaining four Serbs were acquitted.

The sentence came as a shock for Ivanovic and his lawyers, who immediately announced an appeal. Public opinion in Serbia reacted with fury. In a rare moment of unity, ruling and opposition parties condemned the ruling. Several hundred people rallied in Belgrade, chanting “I too am Oliver!”.  At a Euroleague basketball game, fans of Crvena Zvezda Belgrade waved a banner reading “How low did our State get when the Albanian EULEX is putting it on trial. Freedom for Oliver Ivanovic!”[i]. Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić said Ivanovic was guilty “only because he is a Serb,” arguing that this was an attempt to behead the Serb leadership in Kosovo, and comparing it to the 1804 beheading of rebelling Serb leaders by the Ottoman Turks.

The sentence came at a delicate moment, following weeks of violent clashes in Kosovo between the opposition and police[ii], days after early parliamentary elections were announced in Serbia and ahead of the January 27 new round of talks between Serbia and Kosovo Albanians in Brussels.

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić said the sentence would hurt the dialogue while U. S. ambassador Kyle Scott -- a staunch supporter of Kosovo’s secession – said there would be no impact on the talks. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić said he would attend the Brussels meeting and put the Ivanović case on the top of the agenda.

The Ivanović case is even more striking since he has been one of the most moderate Serb leaders in Kosovo, entertaining good contacts with Western officials in Priština and Brussels, and arguing for Serb participation in the Kosovo institutions despite overwhelming opposition in the Serb community. Instead of being praised, he was arrested and sentenced. To many commentators in Belgrade, the case shows that not even the least conflictual of Serbs is immune from persecution in Kosovo.

Ever since the end of the 1999 war, Serbs and human rights activists worldwide have pointed to the double standards in the prosecution of war crimes in Kosovo[iii]. While the entire Serb leadership was sentenced for war crimes by the Hague tribunal, none of the Albanian KLA leaders were sentenced despite the widely available evidence. A new war crimes court, set to start working this year, might change the perfect imbalance. No one expects it to render full justice, as sentencing key Albanian leaders would destroy the Western narrative which keeps on justifying the 1999 NATO bombings and killings, as well as the Western support for Kosovo’s unilateral secession from Serbia in 2008. Not counting the hundreds of thousands of Serbs who had been ethnically cleansed from their homes in Kosovo, fleeing violence or massive discrimination. To those few who have stayed, the Ivanović case is a stark reminder – if they needed any -- about the kind of justice they can expect in the future.


[i] http://www.alo.rs/delije-ogorcene-presudom-ivanovicu-foto/30766

[ii] http://gianalytics.org/en/304-pri-tina-violence-is-a-d-j-vu-albanian-tactic

[iii] http://www.nytimes.com/2000/06/08/world/rights-group-says-nato-bombing-in-yugoslavia-violated-law.html

 

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