Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Report #1 – Kosovo
By Peter Lippman
Mid-July, 2013

2013 Report index

Report 1:  Kosovo, mid-July, 2013
Report 2Sarajevo, July 2013
Report 3Sarajevo, continued July 2013
Report 4Tuzla, July 2013
Report 5Mostar, July 2013
Report 6Srebrenica, August 2013
Report 7Srebrenica, continued, August 2013
Report 8:  Prijedor and vicinity, August 2013
Report 9:  Prijedor and vicinity, part two, August 2013
Report 10: Tomašica, December 2013

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In mid-July, I went to Kosovo to visit some friends and to update my impressions of the place, after having been there last November. On the political scene, some big changes are taking place. This refers to the “Brussels agreement” between Belgrade and Prishtina, brought about by negotiations under pressure from the European Union.

Between 1912 and 1999, Kosovo was under Serbian rule and had been annexed to Serbia. NATO drove Serbian forces out of Kosovo in 1999 and the province was then governed as a UN protectorate. In February of 2008 Kosovo declared independence with the support and recognition of the United States and most of the EU. In 2010 the International Court of Justice (the World Court) found that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was legal under international law. Official recognition of Kosovo’s independence by additional countries came gradually, but to date somewhere around a hundred states have recognized Kosovo. Serbia itself has not done so, continuing to assert that Kosovo is historically and legally part of Serbia. And Russia has backed up Serbia, making it impossible for the UN to afford official recognition to Kosovo.

There is no reason to believe that this official limbo will change for a long time. However, the EU has exerted great pressure to effect an improvement in relations between Kosovo and Serbia, demanding this normalization as a condition for Serbia’s eventual membership in the EU. There are ways to make these things happen – and gradually to absorb both Serbia and Kosovo into the EU – without forcing Serbia’s leaders to publicly renounce the politically expedient conceit that Kosovo still belongs to Serbia.

In Serbian elections in the spring of 2012, Tomislav Nikolić of the Serbian Progressive Party and Ivica Dačić of the Socialist Party of Serbia won positions, respectively, as President and Prime Minister of the country. These results were discouraging to those hoping for reconciliation in the region, since Nikolić, a Chetnik anointed by Vojislav Šešelj (now on trial for war crimes at The Hague) was anything but a progressive. And Dačić was Slobodan Milošević’s spokesman during that leader’s war-ridden mandate in the 1990s.

But Dačić is someone who has shown that he can read the handwriting on the wall. Several years ago, he implicitly recognized that Serbia had lost Kosovo forever when he suggested that the country be partitioned and the Serb-populated enclave in the north be annexed to Serbia. And President Nikolić’s recent behavior has shown that he too can engage in realpolitik in the interests of his country. It is apparent that both politicians have decided to cut their losses through a de facto recognition of Kosovo, in return for the opening of negotiations for EU membership. Cutting a deal with Kosovo was one major obstacle to achieving that goal.

The Brussels agreement, signed in the Belgian capital in April, works to resolve a host of tense problems between Serbia and Kosovo. First, there is the problem of the northern Serb enclave in Kosovo, centered around Mitrovica and bordering on Serbia. While other Serb enclaves within Kosovo do not share borders with Serbia, the Serbs in Mitrovica have been able to harbor thoughts of annexation of that part of Kosovo to Serbia, just as proposed by Dačić. These ambitions have for years been bolstered by ongoing payments of cash from Belgrade to Serbs in a de facto-partitioned Kosovo, who constituted a parallel government that remained loyal to Serbia.

The recent agreement puts an end to such ambitions, uniting those four northern, predominantly Serb-populated municipalities into a district – an "association of Serb municipalities – that will be subject to Kosovo rule, but will have autonomy in matters of economic development, health care, and education. The agreement also arranged to incorporate the enclave into the Kosovo police and justice systems.

The Brussels agreement further arranged to incorporate all Kosovo Serbs into Kosovo's electoral system. It stipulates, wisely, that neither country will obstruct the other's entrance into the EU. The agreement also, significantly, disbands the parallel Serbian political, judicial, and law enforcement structures that have been supported financially by Belgrade. Henceforth all officials in such institutions are to be paid by the Kosovo government from its own budget.

These arrangements ostensibly remove Belgrade from the picture as a direct material influence on the fates of the Serbs still living in Kosovo. It is hard to imagine what could be a more concrete, if still de facto, recognition of Kosovo's independence. And both Serbia and Kosovo are now in line to participate in a Stabilization and Association process, the first step required for joining the EU.

This is not to say that everyone in Kosovo is happy – far from it. Many Serbs, especially in the northern enclave, have responded with outrage and have even been involved in several violent incidents, declaring that they will never be part of Kosovo, and that their leaders in Belgrade are "traitors." And some Albanians, led by the activist organization Vetëvendosje (self-determination),* criticize the Brussels agreement for giving away sovereignty to Serbia over parts of Kosovo territory. Click here and here to see Vetëvendosje's position on the agreement
, also here. *(For my previous writings on this organization, click here).

One of Vetëvendosje's fiercest complaints, shared by many Albanians, pertains to the amnesty clause in the Brussels agreement. This legislation was set to provide amnesty to all Serbs who had participated in resistance to the Kosovo government through smuggling, setting up roadblocks, carrying weapons, and other crimes. The purpose of the amnesty is to allow Kosovo Serbs to be integrated into domestic governmental functions without fear of prosecution. Protest was raised against the law because it would exonerate not only those who had resisted Kosovo for political reasons, but also common criminals. In the face of broad protest, the law was amended to exclude those accused of violent crimes.

Furthermore, the agreement saw fit to amnesty dishonest Albanian officials as well, prompting the accusation that it was an opportunistic law put into place to shelter the corrupt elite. In mid-September the amnesty law is still involved in contentious proceedings within the Kosovo Parliament, and it has not yet been finalized.

Meanwhile, the fear on the part of many Serbs is that in becoming absorbed into the Kosovo state institutions, they will lose the income that they have been accustomed to receiving from the Serbian government. Now, many of them, for example teachers and other government employees, will be paid from the Kosovo budget – but those payments are considerably lower than what Serbia was paying. On top of this Serbs, especially in the northern enclave, had widely avoided paying taxes, and now there will be pressure on them to pay. 


Statue of Bill Clinton in downtown Prishtina, on Bill Clinton Boulevard.                     George Bush Avenue, which intersects with Bill Clinton Boulevard.

Arriving in Prishtina, I visited with my old friend Naim, a professor of computer engineering whom I had met during the turbulent days in the late 1990s. He lived through everything and survived. More recently his family converted his two-story house into a lovely restaurant, where we sat and talked about current events on a couple of occasions.

“In Kosovo, religion is coming back in a big way. People are looking for answers to their problems,” Naim said. “Albanians do things in extreme ways. When it was communism, we were the biggest communists. Now, some of our people aren’t seeing other answers to their problems, and religion has the answers.”

I asked Naim what he thought of the Brussels agreement. He saw it in a critical light, but said, “This is a negotiation. No one gets all they want, that’s how an agreement works. But the stronger party, and that’s Serbia, is going to get more.” Naim was particularly critical of the amnesty agreement, especially of the part pertaining to corrupt Kosovo Albanian officials, who pose a massive problem to the development of the country and even to the essential legitimacy of its government. He was willing to leave in place all amnesty for the Serbs, as long as corrupt Albanians were punished and corruption brought under control.

Speaking of Vetëvendosje, Naim conjectured that the party may not win enough votes to participate in Parliament in country-wide elections due to be held later this year.

The “NEWBORN” sculpture in Prishtina, created upon the declaration of Kosovo’s independence.

On the second day of my visit I went right away to Gračanica, a Serb enclave not far from Prishtina, towards the southeast. Not only do Serbs live there, but there is also a Romani population. After the 1998-1999 war, the Roma in Kosovo experienced hostility, mistreatment, and discrimination from the Albanians, and many of them left the country (see my report on the Roma of Kosovo from last fall here). Many of those who did not leave, or who came back, ended up living in Serb enclaves because they got along better with the Serbs than with the Albanians.

I tracked down my friend Džafer, the human rights activist I had interviewed last fall. As we were walking down the street in Gračanica after we met, he started explaining to me that there too, some Roma were becoming ostentatiously religious. Just as Džafer was telling me this, a friend of his came up and said to him,
“Selam alejkum,” the greeting that, in these parts, only religious Muslims use. Džafer laughed and said to me, “Do you see what I mean?”

I had never been to Gra
čanica before, so we stopped by the famous Byzantine monastery, built nearly seven centuries ago during the height of the medieval Serbian kingdom. Vidovdan, the Serbian national day that commemorates the Ottoman victory at nearby Kosovo Polje over the Serbian kingdom, had taken place less than a month earlier. Džafer told me that thousands of people had come to Gračanica from Serbia on that day, June 28th, to observe the anniversary.

As we walked through the center of town I noticed that the atmosphere was markedly different from that in the Albanian-dominated parts of Kosovo – especially Prishtina, where there is ongoing construction and a relatively cheerful feeling on the whole. In Gračanica I saw people selling meager produce and looking rather desperate about it. The Albanian names on the bilingual road signs were crossed out, leaving only the Serbian ones – the opposite of the case in the Albanian-dominated areas.

Džafer told me that people in Gračanica, a surrounded enclave, worried about the results of the Brussels agreement. He said,
“With the new agreement with Serbia, government officials and employees will be absorbed into the Kosovo government. So people will no longer be paid by Serbia. Serbs in Gračanica are worried about losing their incomes.”

We went to
Džafer's house, visited with his family, and talked. Džafer was expressing great worry about the political and social situation in Gračanica and beyond. He told me that he thinks there will be war again in six or seven years. “People are preparing for this,” he said. I asked who was preparing, and he named Vetëvendosje on the Albanian side, and some extreme nationalist organizations that are operating in Serbia. I commented, “But for there to be a war, there has to be approval and involvement from the respective governments.” Džafer said, “Not necessarily.” Džafer concluded his worried statements by saying, “I am a child of war, I don’t want my children to have to live through that.”


We were about to go off to hunt down Šani, a friend I knew in the United States who had recently returned home to Kosovo, when he came knocking on Džafer’s door. Šani is both a folklorist – beloved around the United States for his sharing and teaching of Romani dance and music – and a human rights activist, closely involved in the work of the organization Voice of Roma (I quoted him in the report cited above from last year).

Šani took us on a walk back from Džafer’s neighborhood into the center of town, where he was staying. On the way he told us that there were Albanians in living in Gračanica, but that they have been leaving, and there are “fewer and fewer now.” As for relations with the Serbs, he said,  “The Serbs and Roma live side by side here, but you can tell where the Serbs live - their roads are paved, the others are not.”

We came to Šani’s neighborhood and met his new neighbors, some Roma and some Serbs. Some of the Serbs had been displaced from other parts of Kosovo. We did not discuss politics very much, beyond Šani expressing a distrust of the Albanians. We sat and shared a drink with Šani’s neighbors and, true to his personality, he was already holding court as the central charismatic figure, just a few days after arriving in his new neighborhood – after living in the US for twenty years.

As we were sitting, someone came up driving a contraption that was a cross between a chain saw and a Third World go-cart. For him, it was a way to make a living. Šani promised a donation from Voice of Roma for a new motor for this mobile lumber mill. He told me that the organization is giving scholarships to young people in the community to help them stay in high school. Voice of Roma is paying particular attention to young girls, encouraging them to study and to avoid getting married at a very young age.

Our conversation wandered into folklore. It turns out that one of Šani’s parents is first cousin with the renowned singer Esma Redžepova (look her up) On the subject of cultural appropriation, Šani talked about the famous Bosnian-Serbian musician and sound track arranger Goran Bregović, who has used many Romani themes in his arrangements. Šani said, “Bregović stole everything he used from us and then he said, ‘even the Gypsies are now using my melodies.’” And he said of the “Roma wannabes in the West,” i.e., the scores of musicians who play Romani music without due respect: “They don’t want to be Roma – they want to be Gypsies.”

I’ve noticed that in Bosnia, Serbia, and most of the rest of the former Yugoslavia where I’ve spent time, there’s a routine practiced by people who have a lot of time on their hands, and perhaps not much work. Maybe it adds structure or eventfulness to their day. That is to sit and socialize at one kafana or other visiting place for a while, and then move to another place and do the same thing.

We did this with Šani. After visiting a kafana, and then his neighbors, he took us to a place that is probably the finest building in Gračanica, after the monastery. That is the Hotel Gračanica, a new hotel built by a Swiss doctor who took a personal interest in the well-being of people in the enclave. With its brightness and classiness it seems out of place in the bedraggled enclave – an enclave within an enclave. This five-star hotel boasted beautifully crafted woodwork, folksy and tasteful paintings on the walls, an outdoor pool, and pleasant rooms at 80 euro or less. We sat outside and had meze – Šani’s treat – while looking at the rolling hills in the background, and nearby, a little brook flowed beside the swimming pool, lined by red poppy flowers. The hotel was a special source of pride because some of the very few employed Roma, including Džafer’s wife, work there.

Prominent portrait of Ibrahim Rugova, pacifist leader of Kosovar Albanians in the 1990s.

I met with my old family friend Bardhyl in Prishtina and we talked about current issues and life in Kosovo. Bardhyl told me that this year, fewer people are coming to visit Kosovo, and therefore there is less money coming into the country. Economic difficulties are setting in. Many people have gone to Europe to seek asylum.

Asylum seekers from Kosovo have become a thorny problem in the European Union. People leave Kosovo for Europe without a plan or any guaranteed employment. Until Croatia became a member of the EU at the beginning of July, Hungary was the closest point of entry into the EU for people traveling from Kosovo. There, they get stuck because they don’t have European work visas – Kosovo is the last part of the former Yugoslavia from where visas are required to enter Europe. Bardhyl noted that there are five thousand Kosovars in just one camp in Hungary, and many more in Belgium as well. These people, he said, are paying a thousand Euros each to be smuggled into Europe, and then they face legal complications, usually resulting in deportation. 

Bardhyl is not completely satisfied with the Brussels agreement. But, he says, “we did not achieve our freedom all by ourselves. So we have to listen to the West, to the people who helped us, and cooperate by participating in the negotiations. The part of the agreement about the association of Serb communities is not perfect, but we can live with it.”


I visited with my friend Erëblir, whom I wrote about last fall (see that writing here). Commenting about the Brussels agreement, he said, “I am against the agreement. This is a compromise between the two peoples, but there is not closure on the war yet. Around Gjakova, for example, there are still over 2,000 people missing. You can’t tell the families of those people that it is time to make peace.

“And there is the amnesty law, which says that all who committed crimes are to be pardoned. This is so that the Serbs in the enclaves don’t fear being part of Kosovo. But it is also designed to apply to corrupt Albanian politicians, and that is not acceptable.”

As the Kosovo Parliament was preparing to ratify the Brussels agreement in June, Vetëvendosje organized protest demonstrations in Prishtina. For the most part these were peaceful, but there was a violent response on the part of the local police, who arrested dozens of protestors. Speaking of the organization, Bardhyl said, Vetëvendosje is still a positive force. They have done the best work against corruption, exposing the crooked highway contract, for example (referring to an overpriced construction project lacking in transparency – see the above link).  They are the best option, but they might not win in the upcoming elections. This is because there are 80,000 people on the government payroll, and they have to protect their incomes. They will vote for the ruling party, the PDK. Also, there is corruption in the voting process.”

Prishtina, capital of Kosovo, is not placed in a particularly lovely setting as are some other towns in the country. But its atmosphere is pleasant enough in some parts of town, especially along the pedestrian thoroughfare now called Mother Teresa Street, lined with comfortable sidewalk cafes that are served by friendly waiters. Visiting with friends in those cafes, you have the feeling that things are looking up in Kosovo, that people who live there have a future, that they are able to make things happen for themselves in life.

Discussing life in Kosovo, Erëblir said that the security situation both for Albanians and Serbs is better than it has been before. “People even speak Serbian in the city now, without fear of criticism or worse. But the welfare situation is very poor. Almost 40% of the population of Kosovo lives on less than fifty Euros a month. You don’t see as much poverty in Prishtina, but it exists elsewhere. And the hospitals are in very poor shape. People have to buy their own medicine, even though we citizens are paying for medicine for the public hospitals through our taxes. Nor are the schools in good shape. There are too many students per class.”

Statue of Mother Teresa on Mother Teresa Boulevard, center of Prishtina.

Finally, I met with Emrush, a local lawyer I had met last year. He is working on his doctorate in international law. Emrush commented on the affection that Kosovar Albanians have for the United States: “I like that in Kosovo they celebrate July 4th. And when the 9-11 attacks happened, people in Kosovo were crying.” (Here I must mention that one of the main streets in Prishtina, boasting a life-size – if not quite artistic – statue of Bill Clinton, is named “Bill Clinton Boulevard.” And it intersects with “George W. Bush Street.”)

Sharing recollections from his youth in the pre-war period, Emrush told me, “We used to celebrate the holidays of all the religions. Religion was not the issue in Kosovo. Then things got very bad because of politics. In 1997, when I was a teenager in high school, I was arrested by the police. Our schools had been abolished, and the police were angry at me for carrying Albanian textbooks. They took me into the police station and made me stand all day in the hall, for seven days. They would question me for a few minutes every day. I could see my friends across the street, but I could not leave.”

After the Serbian regime was driven out of Kosovo and the war ended, Emrush finished college and was able to find employment in a government agency. Unlike Erëblir, he is not a fan of
Vetëvendosje, but supports the Brussels agreement. He said, “The Brussels agreement leads to a consolidation of the country. We gave up some things, and there is a big problem with corruption. There have been some trials, but we have to develop an independent judiciary. In any case, going towards membership in the EU is the only thing that can help Kosovo make progress.

I mentioned the serious economic difficulties that Bulgaria and Romania have had with the transition to membership in the European Union. And now Croatia, the EU’s newest member, is confronted with the imperative of second-class economic status as well. Emrush responded, “But I would like to know, what is the alternative?”

I discovered one helpful source of information when I picked up the local newspaper, “Prishtina Insight,” at the Hotel
Gračanica. It is published twice a month in English, and it’s an affiliate of the very competent Balkan Insight Regional Network (BIRN). The issue I picked up in mid-July featured stories about the highway corruption scandal, the amnesty law, and a special on journalistic independence. You can see the front page of recent editions, full earlier editions, and subscribe at

Next report: Sarajevo


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