The assassination of Oliver Ivanović, the leader of the Serbs of Kosovo, last week marked a major step backwards in the painfully slow road towards stability in the Balkans. Critically, his murder came on the same day that representatives from Serbia and Kosovo had planned to discuss ways to normalise relations in Brussels, a precondition for Serbia’s accession to the EU. Ivanović’s murder is just the latest in a region with a long history of political assassinations, many of which remain unexplained but point to the workings of dark forces that are still at play in the countries that once made up Yugoslavia.
Oliver Ivanović was killed by a gunman in a drive-by shooting last Tuesday, outside his party offices in the city of Mitrovica. His murder contains all the elements of a whodunit mystery. As a representative of Kosovan Serbs who at the time of his death was awaiting a retrial for war crimes allegedly committed against the Albanian population during the Kosovan war, it is likely that the blame will fall on Albanian interests.
However, despite the war crimes allegations, which Ivanović denies, he was known as a moderate politician who unlike most of his peers took the time to learn Albanian and had come to accept the reality of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. And in his defence of Kosovo’s Serb minority, he had been given to criticising Serbian policy towards the breakaway former province. This conciliatory tendency had earned him the ire of many Serbian nationalists who saw his actions as akin to selling Kosovo down river to the Albanians. It also earned him more than his fair share of death threats from his fellow countrymen.
Though the motive behind Ivanović’s murder may never be known, it does hint at the continued existence of a complex web of crime, corruption, and political intrigue that seeped in to fill the power vacuum left behind after the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early nineties. Indeed, just over the border from Kosovo lies Montenegro, whose long-time leader, Milo Djukanovic, made his career by successfully leveraging those murky forces for his own advantage.
During Djukanovic’s near thirty year reign as either prime minister or president of the small Adriatic nation, Montenegro has acquired the reputation as a place where organised crime has been allowed to flourish. The notorious drug baron Darko Saric was allowed to operate with apparent impunity in the country for many years, allegedly laundering his money in a bank owned by the Djukanovic family. While Djukanovic turned Montenegro into a safe house for such internationally wanted kingpins, it has become anything but safe for citizens. A gang war in the small port town of Kotor that has raged for several years claimed its 30th victim last September, and came just a week after an innocent bystander was shot during a gangland hit in the capital Podgorica. Few of the killings have led to convictions, leading to accusations that elements of the state security services have been compromised by the gangs and are purposefully failing to investigate their activities.
What this tells us is that even in states that are relatively advanced in their progress towards EU membership, like Montenegro, criminally connected politicians and criminal networks alike remain free to operate, undermining the rule of law in the region. The murder of Oliver Ivanović is just the starkest and most recent reminder of that.