The controversial events surrounding the three rounds of Kosovo's local elections in North Mitrovica, culminated in a physical assault against one and his resignation, murder of the second, and the arrest of the third of three Serbian mayor candidates, immediately after the third, and before the fourth round scheduled for 23 February .
Arrest of Oliver Ivanovic
When the arrest of Oliver Ivanovic echoed as a media bomb in the morning of a great Serbian holiday of St. Sava’s Day on 27 January, supporters of his party quickly denied the news, announcing that their leader "as a responsible citizen responded to carry out the statement to EULEX." In the late evening, it was clear, however, that the first Serbian political darling of the international representatives was formally arrested, accused of "war crimes" that occurred in 1999 and 2000. Not even his close associates, like himself, expected nothing more than the hearing, despite the fact that at least one of the charges had been 'rustling' in some drawers in Kosovo for fourteen years, and despite of occasional media reports in Albanian press on his alleged involvement in the murder and expulsion of Albanians. Moreover, Kosovo media was releasing continuous reports against Oliver Ivanovic and other Serbs in the period after the war and in early 2000s.
Belgrade – Pristina – the international community – the darling of the media
Ivanovic never gave away in public the impression that he was worried over the charges. During all of the time, like no Serbian politician so far, he moved freely throughout Kosovo and worked closely with international and Kosovo representative, spending good portion of time in Belgrade as well, imposing himself to the latter as a rare Serbian politician from Kosovo, who was maintaining good relations with the international community and Kosovo Albanians. To all three parties he left the same impression of a bright, confident, pragmatic, modern, articulate politician with influence on all sides. His extra aduts were fluency in Albanian and English, and availability to media. Oliver Ivanovic is thus primarily 'the darling of the media’, with the exception of some Kosovo media, and occasional periods when exposed to media lynching in Pristina, as this latest example .
"The Man of Chops and Changes"
Oliver Ivanovic came in focus of Kosovo and the international public as a leader of the "Bridgewatchers", a spontaneously organized group of young men, and extended by the few citizens who remained in their homes in the north following the withdrawal of Serbian security forces in June 1999. They provided civil and certain security resistance to prevent the scenario that played out largely in all areas south of Ibar River. With the withdrawal of Serbian forces and the massive comeback of exiled Albanian people and marching of KLA, in the presence of international forces, Serb civilian population was expelled from all the towns, many villages; their property, cemeteries, churches and monasteries were looted, burned, and there were also frequent cases of kidnapping, murders and other crimes. It started with a massive return of Albanians in North Mitrovica, Serbs were arrested at the usual finger pointing on the street, and experienced other threats, including kidnappings and murders. The remaining Serbs organized themselves to prevent the massive return of Albanians and their take over of the institutions in the northern part of the city.
Oliver Ivanović was undoubtedly the most popular leader in North Kosovo in the early post-war years, while simultaneously proclaimed a "hardliner", "paramilitary", "criminal" and "war criminal" on the other side. Soon, thanks to their self-initiative and pragmatism, but also the impact on the ground, managed to impose himself to the international representatives as a key negotiator, revealing his charisma and gaining positive points .
Perhaps most indicative example of the drastic changes the earlier of its negative image in Western public is the article "A Man of Chops and Changes", published in the "Times", October 2000. Journalist Andrew Purvis describes Oliver Ivanovic as "the most cunning and the most cautious Serbian politician from all cautious of Vojislav Kostunica and Zoran Djindjic at the time, noting that "the former coach of karate until six months ago was enemy number one for the international community," a "It is now a changed man", detailing the aesthetic, rhetorical, and political transformation of a local Serb leader in just six months.
"Traitor of Serbs from the North"
Years of difficult negotiations about the violent merger of the city and continued resistance of the Serbs in the north have continued. Oliver Ivanovic eventually gained increasing popularity in the Western mediaand had been winning more and more confidence of the international representatives and Kosovo politicians, while at the same time his real reputation and influence among the northern Serbs weakened and was often been accused of "selling Serbian interests." Shortly after the war, he politically bypassed with his former associates – Marko Jaksic and Milan Ivanovic , with whom he's never been comfortable since then .
In the years of his closest cooperation with Kosovo institutions, including participation in the work of the Assembly and the government, Ivanovic has actually lost a real impact in his community in the north, in spite of frequent ignorance or lack of knowledge of the facts in Belgrade and Pristina. At the same time, Marko Jaksic and other Ivanovic in the coming years were the real leaders of the community, keeping hard-line stance toward the international community and cooperation with the Kosovo Albanians.
After the Serbian elections in 2008, and the change of government, Oliver Ivanovic managed to become appointed as Secretary of State of the Ministry for Kosovo and Metohija with the Government of the Republic of Serbia. The majority of the time was spent at the office in Belgrade with field visits. As a state political official of the Republic of Serbia he started a new phase of his political engagement, while simultaneously extending his influence in the north, primarily through control of some local government officials.
With the new change of government in 2012 his ministry was abolished and succeded by Office of Kosovo and Metohija. Despite media speculation that Oliver Ivanovic was trying to keep some of the positions in this office, the new chief, Aleksandar Vulin, chose Krstimir Pantic for his deputy, by then relatively unrecognized politician, who developed his considerable political career at the barricades in 2011. Oliver Ivanovic, meanwhile, returned to Kosovska Mitrovica and began to develop his party GI SDP – Oliver Ivanović .
The party boosted up its capital primarily through the capitalization of the character and work of an experienced local politician and loyal supporters who recognized the image of Oliver Ivanovic as the actual brand of the party.
The Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court of Kosovo Jonathan Rattel confirmed that after a year of being investigated for war crimes and post-war incidents, including aggravated murder, the official procedure to initiate proceedings against Oliver Ivanovic was launched. He also confirmed that these were very serious allegations "that had to be understood as such."
Most of the citizens of the north, including almost all political leaders, are united in their assessment that it is a politically motivated arrest, primarily because it happened two days before the submission of Oliver Ivanovic’s mayor candidacy for the fourth time, the recent murder of Dimitrije Janićijević, his close friend and bestman, and and the sudden resignation of Krstimir Pantic to the post of mayor of the city. They are unanimous in their assessment that "the hunt for Serbs started, by arresting first the one who was accommodating the international community most."
However, the fact that three Serbian candidates for Mayor of North Mitrovica were ‘taken off’ within such a short time, left much room for speculation about possible motives, especially to citizens' concerns and justifiable fear for their future. As the most indicative case, it is certainly the brutal murder of Dimitrije Janićijević on his house doorstep, the father of three young children and a fourth on the way, despite the fact that this event was shadowed by the arrest of Oliver Ivanovic .
Oliver Ivanovic from prison decided to still run for mayor, and the CEC has extended working hours in order to receive two applications of Serbian candidates from the north. Since the request for release of Oliver Ivanović from custody has been rejected, his party will apparently campaign just for the release of their leader, namely against the violation of his human rights .
Undoubtedly that this arrest brought something very good to Oliver Ivanovic in a paradoxic manner – a broad and genuine popularity among the people in the north that has not had since the early 2000s. Confirmation of its popularity can be tracked via social networks – among journalists, other individuals and groups, Serbia and the world cross wild. On the other hand, international representatives in Kosovo among who he enjoyed the highest admiration and respect by far, distanced themselves from the speculation that this is a politically motivated arrest, and that they have full confidence in the impartiality of the court.
The text was originally published in Osservatorio Balcani e Caucuso.
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