Newly established ‘Srpski Opstanak’: Challenged candidacy, dismissal – pressure or fake opposition?

Foto: KoSSev

The candidacy of Aleksandar Arsenijevic from the newly established civic initiative – Srpski Opstanak for the mayor of North Mitrovica in the upcoming Kosovo elections has been rejected. According to Arsenijevic, his candidacy was reportedly rejected because of „one benign thing“ – a 300 euros fine for a criminal offense verdict pronounced in November 2018.

The fact that the verdict in question was issued within the last three years, however, makes it a valid reason to challenge Arsenijevic’s candidacy.

On Thursday, Srpski Opstanak held their first press conference in the offices of their newly established initiative, which was attended by only two media crews – KoSSev and Radio Kontakt Plus.

Dusan Milunovic, a fellow member of this initiative, is also a candidate as an MA councilor. He is already performing this duty.

Srpski Opstanak claimed that they are facing pressures, citing Arsenijevic’s recent termination from the position as a high school professor as the most obvious example of this. They reveal that they are awaiting the response of the Supreme Court of Kosovo to the appeal they filed through a lawyer.

In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Arsenijevic stated that he believes that the decision of the Election Complaints and Appeals Panel was made based on an erroneously established factual situation, which is reflected in the fact that the attached evidence was not taken into account. At the same time, Srpski Opstanak state that the substantive law has been violated, because it is an indisputable fact that Aleksandar Arsenijevic was convicted by the judgment of the Basic Court in Mitrovica on November 19, 2018, when he received a €300 fine for an act which was committed on October 28th, 2017.

On the rejection of Arsenijevic’s candidacy
What will be your next move if you get rejected by the Supreme Court?

Arsenijevic: Bearing in mind the fact that we don’t have time to deal with legal remedies due to deadlines and everything, we will most likely give up on the elections. That is one of the possible decisions, we will not reach it hastily, but one of the ideas is not to go to the polls, so as not to give a false illusion of pluralism in North Mitrovica.

Foto: KoSSev

As a civic initiative or as a candidate?

Arsenijevic: We are assessing that. We are assessing many decisions – a call for a boycott and other things. These are not topics one should think about in the heat of the moment. We must calm down first because we are under constant pressure these days, and we have to see what we’ll do, but our participation has already been called into question.

„I believe that when it comes to Aleksandar’s candidacy – we did everything by the book and he must be given that right,“ said Dusan Milunovic.

What will happen if the Supreme Court decides in your favor – did you miss the deadline to pick the candidate for mayor? And what led you two to form this initiative?

„As far as this verdict is concerned, I could be both the prime minister and the president, a firefighter, and a police commander, I could be involved in public life because that verdict is a €300 fine,“ Arsenijevic emphasized.

Arsenijevic: We will leave that for them to decide. And as to why Dusan and I joined forces – I occasionally followed the work of the assembly and I noticed that Dusan Milunovic is a unique case in the assembly. Although we don’t have the same views about some things, I turned to him to see how I could get involved. He told me that he would help me with the required paperwork, but I planned to do this with my list. However, we agreed that I would run and that we wouldn’t have any candidates on the list except the two of us, because people often asked us – what will transpire if this happens to me. For that very reason, I couldn’t explain to people what would happen if their employment in a high school was terminated. In order to protect them – that is the reason why we did not include more people on the list.

You (Milunovic) said that you faced pressure, but that you are resisting it. How should we interpret the fact that the two media crews that attended your conference today belong to the same media outlets at the time when you canceled your press conference on irregularities?

Foto: KoSSev

Milunovic: That situation is similar to today’s situation, I spoke with you, you knew that this was my first press conference, I had a different idea how to do it. I scheduled a conference, which was something unfamiliar to me at that time. I was even nervous before the process itself, which was scheduled to take place in front of the municipality. At noon when the conference was scheduled to take place – no one was there. You showed up at the last minute – KoSSev and Kontakt plus, I thought that a larger group of people had to be present (…) Nothing has changed as far as my position is concerned. I expressed my position publicly, I voted against that decision then, I had nothing to hide, it’s just my personal mistake that at one point I didn’t manage to cope with that media life. And I will certainly work on that.

Milunovic: As the deadline for submitting the list approached, people tried to distance themselves from this narrative or switch this to some other election process in which the conditions will be more realistic. I could not take that burden on myself in case something bad happened to people, you all know what kind of a town we live in. Maybe that’s why Aleksandar and I joined forces, because, despite all the pressures we’ve faced, we still have a common idea for this town – and that’s a better life for people in it (…) We’ve known each other for a long time, now we have some joint political views and a common story that we will certainly continue in the future.

What kind of verdict did you get (Arsenijevic)?

Arsenijevic: I have a criminal verdict, a €300 fine from two years ago.

For a misdemeanor or a criminal offense?

Arsenijevic: A criminal offense, and that’s enough about that for now.

Criminal offense? When did it take place?

Arsenijevic: The verdict is from November 19th, 2018.

If you have had a criminal offense verdict in the last three years, you have no right to run…

… The law on this is very vague and written in such a way that everyone can interpret it differently.

But the CEC made a clear rule – if a candidate has had a criminal verdict in the last three years, he has no right to run?!

Milunovic: Yes, but people within the institutions also say that they are aware of the wrong provision in the law which is poorly interpreted and contains no additional explanations. We go to the court, and the court, if it makes a decision – it will be binding for the CEC and his candidacy will be valid.

Arsenijevic: As far as this verdict is concerned, I could be the prime minister and the president, a firefighter and the police commander, involved in public life, because that verdict of a €300 fine does not deprive citizens of any rights. Therefore, I can be the mayor, but I cannot be the candidate for mayor.

If you have a criminal offense verdict, within the valid deadline, what argument did you include in your appeal, considering that the basic rule of the CEC was violated at the start?

Milunovic: The CEC must be run as a state institution and not as a private company. They have the Law on Elections, but above that – the general law and the constitution above all.

„Article 45 of the constitution clearly states that every citizen of the Republic of Kosovo who has reached the age of 18 has the right to vote and to be elected unless legally limited by a court decision.“

What did the explanation of why your candidacy was rejected say? Did they state that this rule was violated?

Milunovic: They did, and we do not dispute that, that is why we turned to the Supreme Court.

Are you asking for a change of the rule?

Arsenijevic: No, not for now, but for later – yes. At the moment, it is important for us that the Supreme Court deals with the general law and the constitution. My human rights are not endangered by this, they were taken away from me, the rights prescribed by the Geneva Convention.

Did you appeal against the decision to take your criminal offense verdict as a restrictive measure (cf. for your candidacy)?

Arsenijevic: Yes. And the fact that it was a fine – rather than a prison sentence and probation – makes a big difference.

What is the main argument you listed in your appeal?

Arsenijevic: Deprivation of human rights, because this decision of the election appeals panel convicted me for the same crime for the second time. The court did not take away my rights, but the election panel did.

„We appeal to all institutions, and now we appeal to that Supreme Court, to take into account the signatures of support we received for this candidacy, to take into account the fact that we live in a very unstable area and that this decision of theirs is harming not only us as an initiative or Aleksandar personally, but the entire political community and young people who want to enter political life.“

About his dismissal…

Milunovic: Aleksandar’s termination was made on the 31st. The time this happened is symbolic, and I think that this gives a negative example to all citizens and sends a message with a long-term effect. Who will defend this city if not intellectuals?! I called on them to have a little more courage and oppose some decisions.

Do you suspect that the dismissal has a political background?

Arsenijevic: I don’t suspect that, I know it.

The information I have about the dismissal is that there is a professor with a permanent employment contract and that you have a fixed-time employment contract. According to the law, those with a permanent employment contract have priority over contractors. Are you familiar with this information? Is this information true?

Arsenijevic: I’m familiar with the information, but I can’t believe it out of the simple reason that the school has not yet officially received the request for a transfer of a professor from another school, that is the information I have. And as for the full workload, no problem, we will all refer to that and then the school will have a total of 20 professors.

That is also the case in other schools as well?

Arsenijevic: That’s right. Many professors don’t have a full workload. I didn’t have it, and they neither asked for it nor said that I needed it. Some colleagues only teach two classes a week, there are colleagues who teach physics who don’t even have a degree.

Which schools are you talking about?

Arsenijevic: Our high schools, you have at least one such case in each of them. Once again, we would not even complain about it, I respect my colleagues and my goal is the survival of our citizens in this town. Young, competent people are fleeing this town. My generation, future generations, are fleeing.

If I understood your allegations well, it was a case of nepotism, you were dismissed and another professor took your post. Did you become a professor in a similar way or did you ethically apply through a job vacancy – and were deemed the most qualified candidate? You didn’t get the job through your “contacts”, nor was there any intervention from the school administration?

Arsenijevic: No, none whatsoever. I am primarily a student of the same school, my mother was a professor in that school. She taught 40 generations of students at that school. She retired on January 21st, and days before that, I inquired as to what documentation I would need, and I prepared it. At the moment when I applied for the job, I was told by the principal that he had received an order from Jasmina Dedic, the head of the administration, saying that I could not get a job at the grammar school and that I should look into whether the Vucitrn Grammar School had a vacancy.

Why couldn’t you get a job at the grammar school?

Arsenijevic: Because a professor from the Economics High School asked for four classes, and she already held 14 classes. When I went to Jasmina Dedic’s office, I saw her arguing with the professor and her sister, and when I saw them leaving, Mrs. Jasmina Dedic told me – you will teach at the Grammar School, they were rejected. So, I came to the Grammar School under the pretext that the professor from Raska, that is – not from Mitrovica, from the Economics High School, begged to work in the Grammar School.

Does this mean, therefore, that the decision on your employment was not made by the school, but by the head of the school administration?

That’s right.

About pressures

How many members does the „Srpski Opstanak“ initiative have?

Arsenijevic: We have a lot of supporters and members and because of the things I went through, we did not want to expose them to pressures because we do not know what will happen. For now, it’s just Dusan and me. We can call this some kind of coalition because he and I are like two separate entities.

Do you have members? How many?

Milunovic: That number is large, we have about 450 signatures of support, and over 50 people are directly involved in the initiative. However, everyone has their own lives and we do not want to insist on them participating in this election process in this way.

If you have experience, and you were a member of the GI SDP, and your members are not ready to be politically active from day one, what is the point of sparing them (cf. of the pressure) now? How can a politician be inactive at the beginning and then become active?

Arsenijevic: We won’t diminish their energy at the very beginning when we have not even confirmed my candidacy, imagine taking 100 people to the streets now.

If you are protecting them from pressure, how will they deal with it later?

Milunovic: It is their right not to want to be part of the election process, and they will face some sanctions later – we will see.

Arsenijevic: They want to be part of the election process, we simply did not include them at the time, but we will include them when the time comes.

Why? Because of the pressure?

Arsenijevic: We received a gazillion questions – what if someone gets fired? How will we react to that? That’s why we decided that it was safest for us to operate alone.

Who is putting pressure?

We face pressure from the institutions.

Which institutions? You say it is coming from both sides, which institutions are placing pressure on you?

Arsenijevic: You saw the decision on the termination. There is also pressure on the street, some of our friends are urged to influence us negatively. For their safety, we cannot say who it is.

Who do you suspect?

Milunovic:  Decision-makers, governing structures.

Local? Central? From Belgrade, Pristina, Mitrovica?

Milunovic: Local. No one else could do that. We all know that the government here lies in the hands of a list, and that is exactly why we want to achieve pluralism with our candidacy.

And which list is that?

Milunovic: Srpska Lista, which is the decision-maker in the provisional body and in the local assembly, education, health, retirement, and everywhere, we have no dilemma when it comes to this and we explicitly say so. We have clear positions which differ from theirs.

You said that one type of pressure you are exposed to are calls to your members, supporters. What are the other types?

Milunovic: One of the biggest pressures is what is felt in the air, people associate it with the things that have happened in the past. And this termination will put pressure not only on Aleksandar but on all people.

Arsenijevic: Another type (cf. of pressure) are funny messages with which my candidacy was met: „Congrats on the burning of your car and bar and other things.“ They send people to do that, but things can be felt in the air.

About whether they are the so-called „artificial competition“

„With my previous activities, I had the opportunity to notice a whole series of unseemly decisions that influenced the fact that this town does not have a development phase, and that some other issues are being addressed, such as high politics – we are constantly under some tension,“ said Milunovic.

Srpska Lista also has rival candidates, but some people view them as artificial competition. What do you have to say to those who think that you are just artificial, fake competition to SL?

Milunovic: After everything that happened, should I be explaining to you that I am real competition to SL? I had the opportunity to prove my actions on the field several times, I refused all kinds of offers because I always expressed a different attitude. This position that Aleksandar and I share is a clear political program we want to implement. Such allegations are just excuses used by individuals who do not want to get involved in this process and challenge every kind of energy through Facebook and likes. Whose competition we are – time will tell, as well as whose competition they are or non-competition, the time has already shown because this should be done on the field and not from home.

Arsenijevic: I would avoid political games, but Srpska Lista itself created a zone of mistrust, and brothers are not speaking to each other during Sunday lunch and hiding information on whether they will be employed or not, there is no trust among brothers.

How could SL or any party accomplish that?!

Milunovic: Due to the absolute power they hold, from kindergarten to senior citizens, a part of social life is in the hands of one governing structure. I faced them and when (as a councilor) I would vote against, you realize your vote is not valid, because of some provisions per which they have a two-thirds majority, and we cannot challenge their decisions.

What are the key problems in the town?

Milunovic: The lack of transparency of the work of the municipality and the wrong image in the media in relation to the situation on the ground – that is my main complaint. The municipality of North Mitrovica has a small budget, but it was no utilized properly. The municipality does not use its opportunities. We in the local assembly are more concerned with high than local politics. I voted the same as SL, when I knew that it was something that would benefit the town.

„You are all aware as to how many times the sessions were held without media presence. At one point, this pandemic was used as an excuse not to invite journalists. I have to admit that I also made a few mistakes by not informing the media after the sessions, but the minutes from all those sessions exist, and I am at your disposal to provide them to you whenever you want and write a story about it to inform the citizens!

I would like to inform you that on September 9th, a session will be held with one of the points – transparency of the municipality – as per unbiased reports, we are described as the most non-transparent municipality, while claiming that we are the most transparent. In fact, things are much different on the ground,“ Milunovic said. 

All representatives from Belgrade and Kosovo have clearly stated that no one can violate the Serbian unity in Kosovo and that other candidates don’t have Belgrade’s support. Do you?

Arsenijevic: For now, we don’t have anyone’s support, as you can see. As far as the violation of unity is concerned, you all know how long I’ve been living here and how I personally called on people to unite, I gave everything I had for this town. Unity is violated by those who contributed to this town losing its splendor. I want to restore the splendor of my Mitrovica, to return to the time when we were all united. That is my goal and I will fulfill it.

„We will show our maturity and strength to persevere in this process. We will not lose our energy just because we went through this torture – because of the institutions that sabotaged our candidacy, because of these other types of pressure.“

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