The crisis may have been utilized but at its root is genuine concern.
“I would appreciate it if you would find time to write an opinion and observation on what is going on [in the north] as what I am getting from there is very superficial coverage…”
This is how I was approached to write this piece and why I immediately accepted. It resonated with what has been my impression of how the north is seen — as a superficial, simplistic, Belgrade-run part of Kosovo.
There is nothing simple when it comes to the north of Kosovo, although it may appear so. Every new crisis arising here is not just an isolated incident easily explained away by infamous Belgrade meddling; and yet this is all you can see in Kosovo’s media.
Even before getting into their cars, numerous journalists pouring into North Mitrovica already knew how their stories were going to be told.
“Prime Minister Haradinaj was right, the humanitarian crisis in the north is false,” is how you can sum up many of the media reports on the north in recent days.
Having media line up to give the impression of supporting a campaigning politician’s position was not enough. No, some of them also claimed to have uncovered secret plots and evil plans of some powerful people in hiding with ties to other mysterious people.
Closed for business
Shops, pharmacies, restaurants, cafes, gas pumps, and boutiques in the four Serb majority municipalities in the north of Kosovo all closed their doors for business on Monday and Tuesday this week in what they have called a “warning protest.”
In recent days, traders in the north of Kosovo had been complaining that they were running out of supplies. This follows a widespread boycott of buying goods from the Albanian-majority south, itself a reaction to both the introduction of a 100% tax on products from Serbia, which was introduced by Kosovo’s government last November, and a subsequent high profile crackdown of illegal smuggling operations by Kosovo Police at the end of May.
Many Serb traders are reported by north Kosovo media KoSSev to have been sent a memo signed by “The Association of Entrepreneurs of Kosovo and Metohija” that urged them to show “harmony and unity” in their boycott “at all costs.”
Serb politicians have characterized the situation as a “humanitarian crisis,” whereas Kosovo’s leaders have said it is a “staged” crisis for political purposes.
Businesses were open again for trade from Wednesday, but business leaders in the north have warned that further protests could follow if they are unable to access Serbian products.
It is true that the north of Kosovo has long been used as a political pawn, tossed around as a bargaining chip and used as a stage for political statements by both Belgrade and Prishtina. It’s also true that the area’s gray area status, operating simultaneously both within and without two systems, makes it an attractive place for those with links to both politics and organized crime who like to operate in the shadows of society.
But that does not mean that everything that happens in the north follows the same script.
What none of Kosovo’s media managed to uncover is the truth — that traders and citizens living in the north of Kosovo are fed up with their daily lives being negatively impacted by larger political games. There were very few accounts of the position of the average consumer in the north, of how local people see the situation or even what could drive the traders to resort to such extreme measures as closing their shops.
And what is happening in the north?
Well, it is a crisis for sure. North Kosovo, with its parallel systems and symbolic value to two antagonistic sides, has been in a permanent state of emergency for the past 20 years, it is just that some emergencies are bigger than others.
The latest emergency, with the traders’ protest and closing of the shops is a legitimate form of protest. And it is first and foremost a reaction to a string of forceful and violent exertions of Kosovo government’s will.
It has inevitably been exploited by Belgrade, with Aleksandar Vučić seizing the opportunity to present himself as a self-styled “European Robin Hood.”
But this all started with the taxes in November 2018, and it culminated with the excessive use of force by special units of Kosovo police during anti-smuggling action in May 2019. The first decision boosted the smuggling routes, the second shut them down abruptly, thus enforcing the trade embargo on Serbian products.
So the current crisis was a sole result of the implementation of the Kosovo government decision not to import Serbian products. The smuggling of goods from Serbia stopped for more than two weeks, and this was the first side of the coin.
The other side is the Serb traders’ boycott of Albanian distributors and general boycott of the shops in the south. Due to these two aspects of the crisis, the products available in local stores were running out.
Here we come to the repetitive argument — but there are other products in Kosovo.
The tax ended this rare spontaneous opportunity for inter-ethnic communication, replacing it with yet another brand of banal nationalism.
Sure, there are, but there are also IV fluids in Serbia, and Kosovo still chooses to import theirs — at greater expense — from Germany. Should I pretend not to understand why? In both cases, people whose whole lives have been politicized are choosing to exercise economic nationalism.
Serb traders previously had products from the south; they have been successfully trading with the south for years, and until the taxes it had been a rare positive example of inter-ethnic communication and cooperation here. It should be noted that it was also not a rare sight to see a person from South Mitrovica crossing the bridge and going into Serbian pharmacies, stores and boutiques.
However, the tax ended this rare spontaneous opportunity for inter-ethnic communication, replacing it with yet another brand of banal nationalism.
But economic nationalism is not the only cause of the newest crisis. There is a genuine concern from the traders that they will lose profit if they replace all of the Serbian products.
Unlike the Serbian enclaves around Kosovo, for people in the north, larger personal shopping trips to Raska or Novi Pazar are not impractical alternatives. Used to the products they know and have trusted their whole lives, they will resort to monthly or weekly trips to these cities just for shopping. This is already a practice around slavas and major holidays.
The more frequent the trips the more money will leave north Kosovo and local tradespeople will lose their business. All of this can have devastating consequences on the local economy.
And this time at least, the role of Belgrade in bringing about the crisis is less significant because the groundwork for this crisis was primarily laid by Kosovo government action. The action that has brought back such segregation that products started to have an “ethnic background.”
Boycotting Serbian products is one thing, but banning them is a direct restriction of consumers’ choice and it is naïve to expect that in the complicated multiethnic background in Kosovo it would not have an adverse effect on how the affected community reacts to the imposition.
Anyone who understands Kosovo’s decision to impose tariffs should be equipped with enough parallels to understand the boycott of the Albanian distributors and shops by Serb traders and consumers.
Finally, I can always recognize Belgrade’s meddling in any Kosovo Serb political action and while there were numerous accounts of people being threatened not to go and buy products in the south, I can claim from my own perspective that the majority would have boycotted them regardless because of the defiance caused by the taxes.
The practice is such an important part of our quality of living that “smuggling” is no longer a bad or dishonest word here.
Another issue to consider is the currency. The majority of people in north Kosovo still receive their salaries, pensions or social welfare in dinars. For many of them, changing dinars into euros to go and shop in the south is a bad economic decision in the long run, as the money lost in conversion would decrease the value of their income.
Temporarily, the crisis is averted, Serbian products re-entered the north Kosovo market on Wednesday (July 3) and most of the shops are open for business. But until a more institutionalized solution is found, the scene of emptied out or closed shops may repeat again.
Regardless of what any politician says, not having an open store or a pharmacy in an entire city is a considerable adaptation for any citizen, even those used to very extreme politically charged situations.
The Serbian community has already been smuggling textbooks in the Serbian language and medicines way before the taxes — since 2015. The practice is such an important part of our quality of living that “smuggling” is no longer a bad or dishonest word here. This is why the majority uses a euphemism “obtaining goods through alternative roads” to refer to what they see as justified smuggling.
For now, it appears north Kosovo will resort back to smuggling the products consumers want to buy. But how long this will last is up to the Kosovo government.
Feature image: Milica Andrić Rakić.