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A thin red line in Kosovo

Kristen Chick, Pristina
February 8, 2015

Recent protests in Pristina shook Kosovo's capital and forced the sacking of a government minister. Soon their effects may also be felt as far away as Brussels as talks to normalize Kosovar-Serbian relations resume.

Kosovo police officers fire tear gas during clashes at a demonstration in Pristina, Kosovo, 27 January 2015 (photo: EPA/STRINGER)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

As Kosovo and Serbia resume EU-mediated talks on normalizing relations on Monday, the demonstrations in Pristina, the most significant unrest since the former province of Serbia declared independence in 2008, indicate that Kosovars' growing impatience may present a new hurdle to the dialogue.

The protests were sparked by comments from an ethnic Serb minister in the Kosovo government and the government's delay of plans to nationalize Kosovo's largest mine after opposition from Serbia. But the large turnout at the protests shows a deep frustration over the lack of progress the Kosovo government has made in the seven years since independence and what many perceive as Serbia's role in stalling that progress. Around 10,000 people protested on January 24, and a smaller but still significant crowd gathered on three days later. Both protests began peacefully but ended in clashes with police that left dozens injured and arrested.

"Kosovo's red line now shows to be very thin. It will be very difficult to push Kosovo to make major new concessions, if at all," said Leon Malozogu, director of the Pristina-based think tank Democracy for Development. Prime Minister Isa Mustafa "will have to be very careful that for each compromise he makes, to make sure it comes with significant rewards," or he may face new protests, said Malozogu.

Aleksandar Jablanovic (photo: Bahri Cani7DW)
Spark of the uproar: Minister of Communities Aleksandar Jablanovic refered to ethnic Albanians as "savages"Image: DW/B.Cani

The demonstrations were organized by opposition parties and other groups after Minister of Communities Alexsandar Jablanovic, an ethnic Serb, used the word "savages" to refer to ethnic Albanian protesters who blocked a group of Serbs on a Christmas pilgrimage in an area that was devastated by fighting during Kosovo's 1998-1999 conflict with Serbia. When Kosovars expressed outrage, he said he didn't know whether Serbian forces had committed war crimes there, though they have been documented. Jablanovic is leader of the Serb List party, which is supported by Belgrade.

'Humiliation' for Kosovars

As calls for Jablanovic's resignation grew, Kosovo's government moved to nationalize the territory's largest mine. Once employing 20,000 people to mine its deposits of lead, zinc, and silver during the days of Yugoslavia, Trepca now languishes at minimum capacity. But Serbia, which also claims partial ownership of the mine, protested the takeover, and Kosovo's government suddenly backed down. To Kosovars, it appeared their government was acquiescing to Serbia's demands.

This was "humiliating" for Kosovars, said Naim Rashiti, the Kosovo project director at the Balkans Policy Research Group. Many people were already upset that despite promises of a bright future from politicians, unemployment, poverty, and corruption are high.

In what many regard as a sign of the desperation, tens of thousands of Kosovars are now leaving their homes, illegally migrating to EU countries to seek jobs and a better future. While politicians sold dialogue with Serbia to citizens as a process that would resolve issues with Belgrade and then focus on jobs and other economic issues, Rashiti said, Kosovars see few tangible improvements after years of negotiations.

'In Brussels' interest'

Besmir Yvejsi is one of them. He participated in the January 24 protest, though he said he didn't agree with the violence that followed it. An editor for a science magazine from the area where protesters blocked Serb pilgrims, he was deeply insulted by Jablanovic's comment. And he believes that dialogue with Serbia focuses on topics "that are more in the interest of the EU than of Kosovars."

Protests in Pristina (photo: Bekim Shehu, DW)
Thousands of anti-government protesters clashed with riot police in Kosovo's capital Pristina at the end of JanuaryImage: DW/B. Shehu

If many are impatient about negotiations, they also worry about what they see as increasing Serbian influence on Kosovo. A Pristina resident who would only give his name as Arban said Serbia was intent on destabilizing Kosovo and preventing economic progress, and was using Trepca to do it.

"The main issue for us is economic growth and economic stability," he said. "Serbia will never allow Kosovo to breathe freely."

On the eve of a planned February 4 demonstration, the prime minister gave in to protesters' demands and dismissed Jablanovic. Their success may encourage future street action if people, or opposition parties, grow angry or impatient with the government. The protests were a "wake-up call," Rashiti said.

"The government has to understand it has limited time to make changes," he said. "People's patience has run out."

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