Death of Oliver Ivanović

Oliver Ivanović, one of the most prominent Kosovo Serb politicians, was killed in front of his office this morning around 08:15. According to the press reports, he was hit with four or five bullets, found by a neighbor still alive, but died in a hospital within an hour. A burned car was found in a street near by, and the Kosovo Police Service said it was probably the car used in the assassination. So far, nobody had heard or seen anything.

Oliver was a prominent politician in both Kosovo and Serbia, who punched well above his electoral weight thanks to skill and political instincts. He started his political career, as did many other Kosovo Serb politicians, in 1999 as a member of the Serb National Council. At the time, he was also alleged to have been the head of the so-called “bridge wachers”, an organized group of unsavory characters who guarded the bridge connecting North and South sides of Mitrovica. They were heavily criticised by the international community and the Kosovo Albanians, but the Kosovo Serbs credited them with their survival in the north in those troubled times right after the NATO intervention. In those days, a lot of them lived in fear or actually suffered injury or worse.  He was arrested by both UNMIK and EULEX and never ran from the arrest, he met with ambassadors and heads of mission (including UNMIK and EULEX) on regular basis, he was a regular interlocutor to all embassies and visiting missions, and many other things besides.

Through the years he left the SNC, joined a party, started his own party, was an MP in Kosovo and a high government official in Serbia, and participated in more negotiations, conferences and meetings than he could count. He was probably the best known Kosovo Serb politician in the international arena. He was also the only old-guard Serb politician that comes to mind who spoke fluent Albanian. Liked or not, he was respected on all three sides of the Kosovo triangle of Serbs, Albanians and the international community.  And although the author of this article frequently found himself on the opposite side of the table, Oliver was still considered a friend.

The press reports his car was set on fire earlier this year. If memory serves, his car was set on fire or shot at several times before, so that would be nothing new for him. His offices also burnt down in 2013, in a fire that went unexplained. So it is not as if he has not received threats before.

His murder is certainly going to have political consequences. He and his party were just gearing up for the upcoming local elections in Kosovo, and he would certainly put up a strong show. Last time this happened he was a strong candidate for the mayor of Mitrovica, but then he got arrested by EULEX on serious charges, convicted, and seen the verdict overturned. Had he won at that time, the political landscape in Mitrovica could have looked different today.

The Kosovo Government and the EU condemned the murder, and asked for perpetrators to be found as quickly as possible. Serbia held a session of the National Security Council, and President Vučić stated that Serbia wants to participate in the investigation as it feels that its interests were attacked by Oliver’s murder. And a Serbian delegation broke off the technical dialogue talks in Bruxelles, first in 13 months.

This seems as somewhat unnecessary theatrics, as it is not clear what political point it was trying to make. Condemnations by the EU and the Kosovo government also ring somewhat hollow, seeing that they both have a role to play in the investigation, and are expected to contribute to finding Oliver’s killers (The Kosovo institutions directly, through the KPS, and the EU through its largest ever mission, EULEX).

Cooperation between Pristina and Belgrade will be crucial. Belgrade maintains surveillance of the Kosovo border, and many aspects of life in Northern Kosovo still flow through Belgrade institutions, directly or indirectly. Perpetrators might have used Serbian phones, or driven vehicles with Serbian license plates, and for identification of any such element Belgrade would have to want to cooperate. It is not likely that the Kosovo government would accept Belgrade as a formal part of the investigation as the GoK has been trying very hard to prevent any appearance of Belgrade authority over Kosovo (and criminal investigations are certainly an exercise of authority). But there are several ways in which Belgrade can help and services on both sides know how to do it.

It is extremely important for Kosovo (and Serbia) for this murder to be resolved quickly. Oliver was a prominent politician and his murder, regardless of whether it was politically motivated or not, will have political consequences. Also, unless his murderers are found and their motives established, both the Serbian and the Albanian side will keep blaming the other.

Mitrovica was long considered an area beyond redemption, a lawless wasteland where gangs rule and politicians use the misery to their own ends, an area that breeds problems. But Oliver did not see it that way. Whether you agreed with him or not, he was certainly dedicated to his own vision of future for Kosovo Serbs, and it is this author’s firm opinion that without him that future will be a little less bright than it could have been.

Rest in peace, Oliver.