Kosovo’s celebrations last month for the tenth anniversary of its independence peaked with a free concert headlined by the popular British singer Rita Ora, who was born in Kosovo. In some ways, Ora embodies everything that Kosovo would like to see itself as: young, dynamic and successful. The grand festivities also featured police and military parades through Pristina, Kosovo’s capital city, and optimistic political rhetoric. At a special parliament session to mark the country’s first ten years of independence from Serbia, Speaker Kadri Veseli pledged that “the second decade of independence would be focused on the economic well-being of Kosovo’s citizens.”
All this pageantry and high-minded sentiment, however, could at best only serve as a temporary distraction from the reality of life in Kosovo, which remains difficult thanks to the economic underdevelopment, institutional corruption and organised crime that blights Europe’s youngest and poorest state. This reality was brutally underscored by the murder of Oliver Ivanovic, a popular Kosovar Serb politician, just one month before the independence celebrations. Given the country’s deep ethnic divides and troubled history, the outside observer would be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that if a Serb politician is killed – especially one facing charges of war crimes against ethnic Albanians, as Ivanovic was – it was likely carried out by “the other side”, meaning ethnic Albanians. Statements made by people close to Ivanovic tell a very different story, however. They point to the bullying tactics employed in Serb regions to ensure that the population adheres to Belgrade’s diktats, as articulated by their political apparatchiks in Pristina, the Serb List. Any deviation from the party line – as Ivanovic had done, by criticising Serbia’s policies in Kosovo – is met with harsh retribution.
What’s more, these political imperatives are seen by many in the Serb-dominated north as overlapping with those of organised crime gangs. A former colleague of Ivanovic explained: “They control everything. They decide who will be mayor, who will be the directors of Serbian firms here, who will be employed by those firms . . . They control the flow of money in the north and so they have all the power, and they have some of the police in their hands too. Oliver let everyone know about that,” said Dragisa Milovic, a doctor based in Mitrovica, the heavily divided city in which Ivanovic was killed. Milovic does not hesitate to blame Serbia. “Belgrade created a party here that it wants to operate by remote control, that only thinks in one way. That’s the reason we wanted to change things, so there would be a plurality of opinions here.”
Unfortunately, Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s president and the Serb List’s political puppet master, is not known for tolerating a plurality of opinions. A report by the human rights watchdog Freedom House in 2017 found a decline in numerous democratic indicators under Vucic’s tenure, with Belgrade scoring particularly poorly in the areas of independent media and independent judiciary. According to Freedom House, journalists complain that political pressure from Vucic’s regime leads to widespread self-censorship. The report agreed that following parliamentary elections in 2016, “authorities moved to purge the regional public broadcaster RT Vojvodina of critical editors and journalists. Investigative journalists, in particular, continued to face frequent threats and intimidation attempts.”
It’s a strange paradox that a country could be backsliding on basic democratic values even as it moves closer to joining the EU, but this curious phenomenon is by no means unique to Serbia. Its former possession Montenegro has become considered the other “star pupil” of the Western Balkans. Its progress towards joining the bloc is so supposedly advanced that it, like Serbia, has been given 2025 as a possible accession date. Behind this veneer of progress and Europeanization, however, Montenegro too has a dark underbelly, which taints the highest levels of its politics.
Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro’s former prime minister and former president—and potentially future prime minister, if he pulls off his political comeback—has a lot in common with his autocratic counterparts in Serbia and Serb Kosovo. Djukanovic earned his political stripes as a protégé of notorious Serbian war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. During the Bosnian War, Montenegro outraged the international community by deporting Bosnian Muslims fleeing Serb atrocities back into Bosnian Serb territories, where many were ultimately executed.
However, being a wily political operator, Djukanovic came to realise that if he wanted to cling to power he would have to cozy up to the West, which he duly did by cutting ties with Milosevic before the NATO bombing that led to the latter being overthrown in 2000. Safely ensconced in power, Djukanovic set about consolidating his position. Among his many schemes, he enriched himself and his family from a privately-owned bank accused of laundering money on behalf of drug lords and became involved in a cigarette racket with the Italian mafia.
It’s one thing for a country that has just celebrated its tenth anniversary to still be mired in underdevelopment, corruption and poverty. We should be much less patient with countries like Serbia and Montenegro, who have been singled out as frontrunners in the march towards EU integration and yet struggle to maintain fundamental rights and adhere to democratic norms.