A decade ago, the small Balkan state of Kosovo declared independence from neighbouring Serbia after a long and bloody struggle for national self-determination.
When it was suggested in late 2017 that I might produce a film on Kosovo to mark the state’s 10th birthday, my first instinct was to take a look at what held this young country together, against a wider background of the still difficult relationship with Serbia.
So I drew up a list of possible interviewees. It was a long list (because, as ever, I knew some people would agree to talk to me and others wouldn’t), but on it were two leading figures from the country’s ethnic-Albanian majority: the country’s current prime minister and the leader of the opposition, both seen as heroes from the secessionist struggle days.
Among the ethnic-Serb minority names on the list, one in particular stood out, that of Oliver Ivanovic, a widely-respected local politician in the north of the state who, if not uniquely then certainly untypically, had embraced the concept of an independent Kosovo and tried to build bridges across the ethnic divide for almost 20 years.
I hoped he’d be able to give me an insight into the kind of more settled society that might emerge in Kosovo should it ever resolve its problems with its more powerful neighbour.
Assassinated in Mitrovica
But as I was preparing for the trip ahead of the February celebrations, I heard the disturbing news that Ivanovic had been assassinated – shot by unknown assailants outside his office in the northern city of Mitrovica.
It’s a part of the country still plagued by ethnic tension and Ivanovic had been a beacon of hope to many across a divided community, so his killing had potentially significant ramifications that I couldn’t ignore.
But gradually he moved to centre stage as my film about the current state of play in independent Kosovo became a ‘whodunit’ – a murder mystery that promised to reveal much about the deeper fault lines that run through this troubled state.
Of course, this being the Balkans, with all its complicated history, the story threw up more questions than answers.
Amid intense press speculation and swirling rumours and wild allegations about who might have been responsible, a police investigation had got under way immediately after Ivanovic’s killing, but it didn’t seem to be making make much headway. It became clear that many people on paper, and not just in Kosovo, had an interest in silencing Ivanovic, so blame was soon being laid at many doors.
Predictably, Serbian politicians were quick to point the finger at ethnic-Albanians.
Milovan Drecun, a Serbian MP and Head of the Parliamentary Committee on Kosovo, told me that the murder was “sending the message that Serbs aren’t welcome in Kosovo. Just to remind you: over 200 000 Serbs were driven away [during the 1998–1999 war]. They didn’t come back. When they see such a brutal murder of a prominent Serbian politician, they can only decide not to return to Kosovo any more.”
It became clear that many people on paper, and not just in Kosovo, had an interest in silencing Ivanovic, so blame was soon being laid at many doors.
Troubled past: The case against Ivanovic
But there were plenty of other theories, with some of them stemming from Ivanovic’s own troubled past.
Like a number of leading figures in both Kosovo and Serbia (including current Kosovan President Hashem Thaci), Ivanovic had been dogged by questions of what he may or may not have got up to during the Kosovan war.
In 2014, he was sentenced to nine years in prison after a prosecution based on those claims (overseen by EULEX – the EU’s rule of law mission, which, almost 20 years after the conflict, continues to jointly administer justice in Mitrovica) alleged that Ivanovic had played a key role in a Serb militia responsible for the deaths of several Albanians.
But few independent observers were convinced of his guilt.
One of them, Ambassador Jan Braathu, head of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) mission, told me that he was “surprised that he was indicted in the first place – my understanding is that the evidence was not particularly strong and circumstantial. And when I heard the witnesses, one after the other actually praising Oliver Ivanovic, then I thought this is very strange.”
I later heard much the same from an EULEX insider in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, who admitted to me, albeit off the record, that the charges against Ivanovic had been “nonsense.”
Eventually, the holes in the case became impossible to ignore. Ivanovic served around 18 months in custody before his conviction was quashed on appeal and a retrial ordered. At the time of his death, he was expecting to be fully exonerated.
But inevitably some of his supporters believed the whole affair had been politically motivated – a deliberate attempt to keep him out of public life. When that failed, they said, then his enemies resorted to murder to shut him up.
Like much in this story, it’s difficult to establish the truth of such claims, but the failure of the case did thrust Ivanovic back in the limelight.
Soon after being released he was campaigning for regional office in Mitrovica, his hometown.
It possible that it was then and there his enemies took note and didn’t like what he was saying.
A voice for coexistence in a divided city
Mitrovica is a divided city, both physically and metaphorically. The River Ibar runs right through it, splitting the population in two: Albanians to the south, Serbs to the north.
In the latter, at Oliver Ivanovic’s once-favourite restaurant, I met his widow, Milena and their seven-year-old son.
She told me that in her view her husband’s death was actually the culmination in a sequence of deliberately targeted events going back for some time.
“We’d been in some difficult situations over the last years,” she said. “Firstly, once his car blew up. Then his office was set on fire, I mean, his party premises. Then my apartment was set on fire when I was there alone.”
Her husband, she told us, had been very concerned about the deteriorating security situation and his personal safety in a city where criminality had been spiralling out of control.
Few in Mitrovica believe Ivanovic had been killed by Albanian hands.
Several people I spoke to said his killers were most likely to be found within the extreme sections of his own community, die-hard Serbian nationalists for whom the very idea of an independent Kosovo is still an anathema.
Ivanovic was a well-known pragmatist. Although always an unashamed champion of his local Serbian community, he also spoke fluent Albanian and had become an increasingly resonant voice of moderation.
He believed that the best solution for the two ethnic groups lay in reconciliation within an independent Kosovo.
But this stance was always controversial and put him at odds with the likes of current Serb President, Aleksandar Vucic.
For Vucic and his nationalist Serbian Progressive Party (SPP), who hold firmly to the view that Kosovo is a sovereign part of Serbia, Ivanovic’s belief that an independent Kosovo was a reality which had to be acknowledged before reconciliation was possible, was simply unacceptable.
Ivanovic had been fiercely criticised by the SPP during Kosovo’s regional elections in October 2017 when Ivanovic stood for mayor. He was up against an SPP backed candidate from an allied local party known as the Serb List, which is run from Belgrade.
also spoke fluent Albanian and had become an increasingly resonant voice of moderation. He believed that the best solution for the two ethnic groups lay in reconciliation within an independent Kosovo.”]
A controversial TV ad: ‘The target was drawn on his face’
After his murder, President Vucic paid a brief visit to northern Kosovo to pay his respects and called publicly for calm, but for Ivanovic’s former colleagues these were hollow words.
Ksenija Bozovic, who was Ivanovic’s deputy at the recently formed Democracy & Justice Party in Mitrovica, pointed to a controversial TV election ad which portrayed him as a quisling who worked for the Kosovo Albanians.
“The target was drawn on his face. It said he works against Serbian interests, that those voting for Oliver Ivanovic are voting against Serbs, that Oliver Ivanovic is traitor and a lot of other bad things,” said Bozovic.
Kosovo’s main opposition leader, Albin Kurti, was even more unequivocal when I met him at his party’s headquarters.
“North of Mitrovica is controlled by Serbia more than Belgrade itself … And the assassination was done so professionally. It was not done by an angry individual. I think it was organised in a cold-blooded manner by the Serbian state,” said Kurti.
Inside Mitrovica’s murky criminal underworld
Still others, including some in the Kosovan press, looked for answers in the increasingly powerful organised crime elements within Serbian-run northern Mitrovica, whom Ivanovic had fiercely criticised during his election campaign.
In a September 2017 interview with the Belgrade newspaper Vreme, he’d said that his fellow Mitrovicans were “not afraid of Albanians, they’re afraid of Serbs, the local strongmen and the criminals driving Jeeps around without number plates. Drugs are being sold on every corner … we had over 50 cases of torched cars, throwing of hand grenades and unexplained killings.”
People had lost faith in the ability or the willingness of the authorities to act, he added.
“The police are watching without reacting, so the citizens feel unprotected, even though up here in the north it’s all our people in the police, Serbs … some of them are experienced policemen who previously worked for the Serbian Ministry of Interior, but they are not doing anything … It is obvious that the police are afraid not to offend the perpetrators, or the perpetrators have links to security structures.”
One person, in particular, attracted his censure, a powerful local ‘businessman’ and Serb nationalist. Acquitted controversially in 2016 of organised crime charges, this individual now conducts his affairs from an exclusive restaurant in the north of the town – where we were told us he is seen as a Mafia-style boss.
In other interviews, Ivanovic had expressed concern that in late 2017 Serbian President Alexander Vucic had singled this man out for praise for “safeguarding” Kosovo.
Almost 20 years after the conflict in Kosovo ended and 10 years after it declared independence from Serbia, those pursuing an agenda of peace and reconciliation clearly still do so at great personal risk.
A cross-border murder investigation
So could Oliver Ivanovic’s public castigation of such figures have upset someone in northern Kosovo’s murky criminal underworld? Or was that underworld prompted into acting on someone else’s behalf? Was even the Serbian state in some way responsible for his death?
Or, as it had been suggested to me in Belgrade, were such allegations merely an attempt to divert the blame, when in reality he’d been murdered by elements within the Albanian community to stir up trouble and to send a message that Serbs are not welcome in Kosovo?
Of course, none of these competing and contradictory theories and questions about Ivanovic’s death have led anywhere yet and it’s possible they never will. This is a part of the world, after all, where reaching a universally accepted version of past events is never easy.
The police investigation into the murder (which in its turn has been widely criticised for badly mishandling evidence from the crime scene) certainly seems unlikely to turn up the real culprit – especially as the currently chilly state of relations between the Kosovan and Serbian governments is not exactly conducive to cross-border cooperation.
Sometime after the bulk of my filming was finished, I went back to interview Ramush Haradinaj, Kosovo’s prime minister, who had unexpectedly become available to talk to me.
I asked how the murder inquiry was going.
“Part of the investigation is happening in Kosovo,” he told me. “But it’s inter-related as well with Serbia, so we are open to an exchange of information. However, we haven’t received a lot from the other side, so far.”
And so I return full circle to an unexplained murder of a politician who, whatever his flaws, seems to have been genuinely seeking a rapprochement between two warring sides.
Almost 20 years after the conflict in Kosovo ended and 10 years after it declared independence from Serbia, those pursuing an agenda of peace and reconciliation clearly still do so at great personal risk – which pretty much says it all.