Kosovo will likely face yet another round of local elections in the Serb-majority town of North Mitrovica in late February. This new crisis, which comes in advance of important elections in Serbia, will serve as a useful political tool in the hands of Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.
On Saturday, the Serbian mayor-elect in North Mitrovica, Krstimir Pantic, suddenly refused to assume office. The seemingly abrupt decision was announced at the official ceremony where he was to take his oath and be sworn in as the mayor of the largest Serb-majority town in northern Kosovo. Pantic announced that he refused to assume mayorship because he “felt tricked” by Kosovo authorities and the international community, supposedly because his oath was printed with an emblem of the Republic of Kosovo covered by a white sticker.
Kosovo Serbs: Pawns in Belgrade’s internal power games
But Pantic’s excuse doesn’t really offer a solid justification for such a drastic move, and there are compelling reasons to believe that it was orchestrated by elements in Belgrade.
Serbia will likely hold early national elections on March 16th. Election season is usually a time when the Kosovo issue is instrumentalized to discredit political opponents, and as a “weapon of mass distraction” from more mundane matters, like the 20.1 percent unemployment rate, which is projected to rise.
It’s all but certain that the head of the center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), Aleksandar Vucic, will be the next prime minister of Serbia. And Vucic has been eager to put all of his perceived competitors in their place — including coalition partners and members of his own party. Pantic, the almost-mayor of Mitrovica, is a member of SNS, a party in which Vucic demands total obedience and even sacrifice (e.g. the calculated resignation of mayors, of which there have been two in recent months) from all members who wish to stay in the game.
The political intrigue Pantic has created in northern Kosovo will be highly useful for Vucic’s power consolidation campaign in several respects.
Inter-coalition countdown: Vucic vs. Vulin
Before forming the current Serbian government in 2012, Vucic was considered a staunch opponent of any type of Serbian-Albanian dialogue in Kosovo. When he called Serbs to participate in Kosovo’s local elections last year, some less opportunistic nationalists accused him of treason. At the same time, some hardliners saw his coalition partner, Aleksandar Vulin, as a man who stands firm in protecting “Serbian national interests” (Vulin serves as a Serbian government minister in charge of Kosovo issues).
So it’s no surprise that Pantic, in an interview with Vecernje novosti, blamed Vulin for the latest North Mitrovica scandal. “I don’t blame the Serbian Government, but the minister in charge of Kosovo [Vulin] who has been doing politics on his own and building his own party’s infrastructure, and took the least care of Serbian national interests,” Pantic said. Vulin, he added, “was saying one thing, but doing another.”
Pantic used the incident to undermine prevailing perceptions of Vulin as the ultimate hardliner on Kosovo and present Vucic (“the Serbian government”) as the real “defender of Serbian interests”.
Inter-coalition countdown: Vucic vs. Dacic
Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic managed to reach a “historic” EU-sponsored agreement last year with his Kosovar counterpart Hashim Thaci. The “Brussels agreement” was the basis for Serb participation in Kosovo’s local elections. This political hot potato could have been the end of Dacic’s career, but instead turned out to be a much-praised success, for which he received a Nobel Peace Prize nomination along with Thaci and EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton.
Pantic also attacked this accomplishment in his interview, describing it as a failure. “I think that the entire ‘Brussels agreement’ will collapse very soon,” he said. The would-be mayor claimed that “the Albanians won’t allow [the Serbs] to have the level of authority we would want and which was agreed in Brussels.”
In other words, Pantic’s little scandal came right in time, when Vucic needed someone to stain the Nobel Prize nominee’s image before seizing the prime minister’s seat for himself.
Pantic’s ideology: Anywhere the wind blows
In 2004, Krstimir Pantic was a member of the right-wing Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS).
From 2005 to 2009, he worked as as an information secretary in the “illegal” Kosovo government’s Ministry for Community and Return. After Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, Pantic received a scholarship from Thaci’s government in Prishtina to pay for a PhD program in Belgrade, where he’s formally still a student. He later claimed that he needed that scholarship money because he was broke at the time.
He joined SNS in 2010 and became mayor of North Mitrovica, serving in the Serbian government’s administration — a so-called parallel institution. He is frequently mentioned as a close associate of Zvonko Veselinovic, a controversial local businessman who was allegedly involved in large-scale smuggling across the administrative border with Kosovo, and currently is on trial in Serbia for stealing 32 trucks from Hypo Alpe Adria Leasing. Pantic was also one of the key organizers of the Veselinovic-funded Serb barricades at border crossings in 2011. The barricades were erected to protest Kosovo and EU institutions, but also protected lucrative smuggling channels.
In 2012, Pantic was appointed deputy director of Serbian government’s Office for Kosovo and Metohija, headed by Vulin. The same year he had to resign from his mayoral post, but was immediately made deputy mayor. Opposition parties accused Pantic of consolidating power. He openly opposed participation in Kosovo’s election until October, but quickly changed his mind and ran for office the next month.
As tensions in North Mitrovica have risen in recent days, Dimitrije Janicijevic, a former mayoral candidate, was ambushed and shot dead during the night of January 15. Janicijevic served as a deputy in a municipal parliament on behalf of the Independent Liberal Party, a Serbian party that promotes dialogue with Kosovo Albanians and are part of Hashim Thaci’s coalition government.