One-on-one | Kosovo

Milan Radonjić: I want the truth to be important to people once again

By - 02.03.2021

Author of the book ‘Oliver, Like a Brother to Me’ talks about the murder of Oliver Ivanović.

In one of the key interviews on the day prior to his murder, in the midst of the election campaign for the mayor of North Mitrovica, Oliver Ivanović gave his last interview to Belgrade-based journalist Milan Radonjić.

During this conversation, which was published posthumously, Ivanović said that his opponent isn’t another election candidate but “an entire criminal structure, and also unambiguously, the Government of Serbia.”

Three years later, based on this interview and additional research, Radonjić published the book “Oliver, Like a Brother to Me,” that can be bought along with the Serbian NIN weekly magazine.

In his book, the author describes the climate in Kosovo shortly before Ivanović’s murder and points a finger at those who transgressed him, including the people with a motive to remove him, with reference to Ivanović’s statements, but also other sources.

Today, two investigations are ongoing to solve his murder, one in Belgrade, and another in Prishtina. The Prishtina-based investigation focused on the vice president of Srpska Lista Milan Radoičić and businessman Zvonko Veselinović, both living and working in Belgrade, but the arrest warrant against Radiočić was dropped on March 1. 

K2.0 spoke to Radonjić about his book and what is happening with the investigation of the unresolved politically motivated murder.

Photo: Dejan KožulK2.0: What do you think about the current investigation?

Milan Radonjić: I don’t think there will be a resolution, an epilogue, without the intervention of a third force. I don’t expect too much from Belgrade’s and Prishtina’s investigations due to another process — the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue. That process is ongoing, and it is, unfortunately, a priority for both the politicians and the people who are observing the Balkans from Brussels.

Oliver’s destiny is a paradigm because he, as a man, stood between the two communities, communicated with them, and represented a sort of a bridge that bound them together.

You mentioned a third side that could influence the investigation, or reveal the murderer’s background. Does this third side care about finding the truth?

What’s important to me are the people in institutions and individuals: The man or woman, their conscience, honor, values. I would like to think that these two things will eventually merge, these processes the EU insists on, as well as the normalization of relations; not only for just a bunch of benchmarks, that these societies need to go through, but that the normalization also has relevance for the people living here.

There are many different fates for people in Kosovo who aren't as familiar to the public as Oliver was, and they ended up the same way he did.

I think that, in Oliver’s case, this injustice was so blatant that it can’t be ignored, it can’t be pushed under the rug. And I hope that some people, whose opinions matter, will be speaking in favor of the necessity of an international investigation. I don’t believe that anything will change with regard to Belgrade’s and Kosovo’s political elites. However, changes may occur after the election.

I would say that this third side has currently a lot of understanding for both Belgrade and Prishtina, resulting in the fact that the investigation isn’t conducted adequately, and that the issue of solving a murder case isn’t a priority.

Oliver is a case in and of itself, and it’s especially blatant because he was a politician in constant contact with the media. There are many different fates for people in Kosovo who aren’t as familiar to the public as Oliver was, and they ended up the same way he did, while those murders were never solved. Justice is denied to them.

I hope that the moment will come. That large-scale political processes which, in some ways, are being imposed upon the ruling elites, will be bound together with people’s lives. I think that’s important because that is the only way that societies can be cured of violence as a means of political struggle, which is very noticeable in Kosovo’s society.

We can see what happened with the legacy of Ibrahim Rugova and how this whole new “elite” was established through the war, more or less.

With that in mind, perhaps Kurti has different ideas but I’m afraid that he is also a slave to that past in a certain way; that this search for justice, respecting the life of the individual, people’s fates, that all of this is still far away.

You have spent a lot of time in Kosovo, especially in the north, and Mitrovica. As for the people who know what’s going on, are they ready to make changes, and they are confined by a small but powerful group of people who obviously have such influence that they can prevent a murder investigation? It seems they are supported by the media on both sides.

When we observe the media, especially those from Belgrade, it creates the impression that the war is either looming or just ended recently. This conflict hasn’t been healed or solved. The task of every government in this process should be to reconcile the two peoples.

One of the more beautiful ideas Oliver spoke about was to create a clinical center such as the one that currently exists in Mitrovica but a hospital where Serbs and Albanians would work together. That’s where the two communities would meet through the process of healing all people who need help.

Photo: Atdhe Mulla

Serbia invests heavily in Kosovo, gives a lot of money away, but I’m not aware of a single Albanian family that received this assistance, especially when it comes to families of victims, civil victims of the war in Kosovo. I don’t know if anyone in Belgrade thought about it, but this is a matter of civility and doesn’t require any further explanation.

The basic emotion that still exists in Belgrade in relation to Kosovo is — acting like the hurt party, acting insulted; an emotion of a person from whom something was stolen, who lost something. However, I don’t think that’s the right way to go.

You mentioned the money Serbia is sending. You discuss in the book the money flowing into Kosovo, north Kosovo. You also pose the question of the final destination of this money. We are discovering some traces of money that lead to unsolved murders. It’s as if the intention is to keep this situation as it is, hunting in murky waters that has been ongoing for more than 20 years.

To a large extent, this is the destiny of the Western Balkans countries, these private states. When it comes to north Kosovo and the system established there, there is no talk of pluralism, any political diversity or differences.

When you talk to the young people, you notice their deep disillusionment that doesn't seek to become materialized.

However, it’s the same situation when it comes to work, to economic parameters. There is only one party and one company. That’s the main feature of this situation. Not only that a difference of opinion isn’t encouraged but isn’t permitted. It has somehow been banished from public life. That’s devastating for every society.

As much as people from Belgrade believe they are helping some greater cause with all that money, they are actually destroying the texture of a society. When you talk to the young people, you notice their deep disillusionment that doesn’t seek to become materialized. This has turned into an ingrained way of thinking. Nothing matters; quality isn’t important, knowledge isn’t important, creative thinking isn’t important. What matters is obedience; hardcore stances is what matters, personal connections are important.

A private state in all its glory. That is, a state that is fully criminalized, not based on institutional work but the free will of individuals who have the monopoly on force.

The region we live in is so specific that we have a constant lack of human capital. People are continually leaving this region. This is the fate of the Balkans, and that’s why I think that the EU’s and U.S.’s influence is vital. It’s also important for this influence to be precisely measured. I’m going back to this again. What this region desperately needs is organic growth, paying more attention to how these societies are living.

Photo: Atdhe Mulla

When the issue of the north’s integration surfaced, it all didn’t happen overnight. That region was living in line with a certain rhythm, independent from the rest of Kosovo. I know only one case, of a person from the Slovenian academic community, who explored the effects of the north’s integration into the legal system of Kosovo, the effects it would have on society, what would happen to those people.

No one has explored that, and I’m doing it in the book. Because this process was outsourced to the people who are no humanists, they aren’t too interested in what will happen to society in the next 10, 20, 30 years. They are business people and that’s the main marker of this relationship, and even of the EU’s relationship toward Kosovo. There is a task that must be completed. It costs so much and it ends here. Nobody cares about the people and their fates, about society in the long run. This is a road to disaster.

Can we say that north Kosovo is, in some way, one of the last legacies of the Milošević era? In the book, you mentioned this second, third echelon of Milošević’s government that is still present in Kosovo today. You mention them through the story about Mitrovica University, such as Uroš Šuvaković, former close friend of the couple Milošević–Marković. It’s as if it all came together in the north of Kosovo today?

Northern Kosovo is specific. After the war, there was persecution, an exodus of Serbs from Kosovo. That’s when the north became separated from both Serbia and Kosovo. It stayed in a limbo of sorts.

Instead of trying to lift the University up, it has become a place for accommodating the deserving. Serbia doesn’t really know its values, so it can’t even reward its deserving citizens in this manner.

The depth of illusions related to Kosovo and Serbia is obvious. Those people are in a position to earn their livelihoods while not working at all. I can’t recall a single professor from that place who had published any internationally recognized paper. Why is this the case? Well, it’s an issue of long-lasting historical processes; more precisely, the political process in Serbia that’s been limping since 2000, and that is somewhat left unfinished.

Both Ražnatović, and Radoičić after him, were in a way, circumstantially, put in a situation where they striped the state bare.

This democratic transition of ours, that started on October 5, didn’t end well; it had a breaking point in 2003, when prime minister Zoran Đinđić was killed. The north of Kosovo remained as a pledge, as some sort of stake in that game. Those people are the victims of these incomplete policies, of the unfinished process of Serbia’s democratization.

It’s interesting to draw this comparison of the 1990s with two guys on a similar path. Those are Željko Ražnatović Arkan, who started as a criminal and managed to grow into a relevant political actor, and Milan Radoičić, who had a similar path, who is now the vice president of Srpska Lista.

The individuals themselves aren’t as important. They make up a paradigm but they aren’t important.

Both Ražnatović, and Radoičić after him, were in a way, circumstantially, put in a situation where they stripped the state bare. In a certain way, they are like people who see their parents naked and with no clothes on. At that moment they recognize that these institutions aren’t anything to be afraid of, that everything is a product of the free will of individuals; even better if one is not constricted by some moral scruples or values…

I don’t know how we arrived at a situation where the state surrenders to the people who don’t deserve it. This is moral degradation, the degradation of criteria of what constitutes socially acceptable behavior, what is patriotism, what is the state…

If we go back to the period preceding the murder, we can draw a parallel with previous killings, with how the murder was prepared in the media. Zoran Đinđić and Slavko Ćuruvija had similar fates.

The media are the usual suspects and our profession is, in this sense, disreputable, and with some good reason. It depends on the individual if they are going to read those articles, but also if they are willing to write them, create them.

As we see with Oliver’s example, there is no border between the media and the physical assassinations. It doesn’t exist and the handwriting is the same. When you read the media, especially those inclined toward the government and not owned by the state, you can recognize a war discourse.

And now, the war that is ongoing against our neighbors is the same war that is waged against society. If you are in favor of the government, then you are at peace with the government. If you are contesting that opinion, then you are at war with the government, and as such, you are subjected to an escalation of limitless hatred, where one should stop and say that it’s enough.

Đinđić was also defamed through the media but Oliver’s case was, in this sense, more indicative, because everything that they were saying about him was so obviously false that this case and those election ads sounded painfully wrong.

However, not even that was enough for someone to say: “Stop, don’t do that.” The media feel no obligation, or rather the people who work in the media feel no obligation toward the truth, and that’s the most painful thing in all of this — that the truth isn’t binding. This society has lost its sense of obligation toward that word, toward the meaning of the word truth. We have lost that and one of the reasons why I’ve written this book in such a way is that I tried to make the truth important to people once again.

To a certain extent, the book was created as a response to the misunderstanding of the former main editorial office of BIRN, which is what you are writing about. It’s as if they didn’t want to go too far in publishing the stuff you wrote about as a correspondent from Mitrovica?

It’s nice that you’re drawing my attention to that, because that’s an important moment. I would say that I didn’t have sufficient understanding, and it all depends on this understanding, liberty and willpower of the journalist to pursue the matter.

The field of liberty for the individual journalist, for journalism as a profession, has been greatly constricted by reduced budgets, a polarized public, closed discussions, and also political correctness, ideological determination… Those aren’t independent narratives but ideological ones.

When I published the interview, we had to fill in the blank space and talk about his trial for war crimes that was construed in a banal manner. This topic isn’t discussed in either Belgrade or Prishtina, and it’s not the only one. Numerous questions remain out of sight, and that’s decisive for the future.

Are there any sparks in Kosovo that should be defended? One of the segments is related to Bošnjačka Mahala, a neighborhood that lives and functions between those two worlds. Is it the value we are talking about?

The neighborhood is bilingual. I believe this is very important. The Kosovsko-Pomoravlje district recently suffered from floods, and a bridge was carried off by the water, with Serbs and Albanians working together. Štrpce is a good example but the primary place is taken up by language.

Language is an issue that has been fully pushed under the rug during the last 20 years. That is accepted as such; that these two societies must live separately, not understand each other, let alone cooperate on some points that are vital to everybody, such as clean air or rivers. I think it would be great if a department for BCS [Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian] languages were to open at the University of Prishtina. It would create a healing effect. This would be a great step toward better understanding.

Oliver was a man who wanted to learn Albanian and he learned it perfectly. I think that young people should have an opportunity to find out something about the other community, something that isn’t projected through a media filter. Without language, there is nothing left. That’s the most important message I would like to convey; the right way is to build peace for a future society, to preserve those sparks.

And the University of Mitrovica should surely have an Albanian language department, and this shouldn’t just be an issue of higher education but everyday life. Finding ways for people in Kosovo to know more about each other and to see their own future through this process, a future they can create by themselves.

Feature photo: Dejan Kožul.