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In a corner of Kosovo, still cheering for Putin

MITROVICA, Kosovo – As Europeans and Americans were appalled this spring by evidence of Russian atrocities in Ukraine, Nebjosa Jovic, a university administrator in northern Kosovo, decided to act. Action: He organized a street protest to cheer Russia.

“We want to send a message to the West, especially the headquarters in the United States, to stop persecuting the Russians,” said Jovic.

Only a few people showed up, said Jovic, because of the “circle of fear” that envelops northern Kosovo, a predominantly Serb region distinct from the rest of the country, where Albanians, for the most part, support Ukrainian household. , which accounts for more than 90 percent of the population.

“Russia is the only glimmer of hope we have left,” said Milos Damjanovic, a local historian in the mostly Serb part of the divided city of Mitrovica, north of Kosovo. for the partition of Yugoslavia, of which Kosovo was part of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

On the main road north out of Mitrovica – past a guard post guarded by American soldiers – a billboard assures local Serbs that they are not alone against the West and still have friends influential: It displays images of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia and Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic, hailed as “honorary citizens” of a settlement nearby ethnic Serbs.

Mr. Putin did not appear to receive his honorary title, but he still stands out in the minds of many as a potential and much-hoped-for savior, the latest in a line. long Russians who, in the past Serb region, worked tirelessly to protect their Slavic “brothers” from outside enemies, especially the Muslims.

Russia fought more than a dozen wars with the Muslim Ottoman Empire, who defeated an orthodox Christian Serb ruler, Prince Lazar, at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. That ancient reversal had an impact. to modern Serb nationalism, causing a deep discontent with Kosovo’s majority Muslim Albanian population, although some Albanians fought on the side of the Serbs.

In the center of the statue stands Mitrovica honoring Prince Lazar and Grigory Scherbina, a Russian envoy to the region who was killed near the city by a Muslim soldier in 1903. An inscription on the statue of the emissary It reads: “A drop of the blood of the Russian brothers mixed with the Serbian blood that has flowed for centuries”.

Not to mention that the Russian envoy is of Ukrainian descent.

History, largely bloody and dominated by tales of masculine bravery, pops up across the Balkans, particularly in celebration – or denunciation – of “brotherhood” relationships. between Russia and Serbia, both predominantly Orthodox Christian countries.

“We have too much history and too much Balkan masculinity,” said Ljiljana Drazevic, who runs a small business weaving woolen shawls. “People are desperate, but I never had any hope of getting anything from Russia,” she said.

Besides supporting Serbia at the United Nations and devoting diplomatic weight to claims that Kosovo still belongs to Serbia, Russia has provided little concrete aid. And, by repeatedly citing Western intervention in Kosovo as justification for Russia’s occupation of Crimea and other Ukrainian lands, Putin has undermined the principle of territorial integrity on which Serbia rests its claims. themselves towards Kosovo.

However, Marko Jaksic, a former local councilor in North Mitrovica, part of the city’s Serb ethnicity, said: “When you lose all hope, you believe in miracles. For many here, Russia is the last hope of protection.”

Albin Kurti, prime minister of Kosovo, a country most Serbs insist does not exist, lamented that Putin has become the patron saint of the most hardened Serbs. “For the extremist groups in Kosovo, Putin is their idol,” Mr. Kurti said in an interview in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo.

Most ethnic Serbs, whether living in Serbia or in enclaves in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, consider Russia their friend, not because they necessarily like where Mr. Putin has led his country. but because they hate NATO. This is especially evident in northern Kosovo, where a 1999 NATO bombing campaign that broke Serbia’s grip on Kosovo is seen as the ultimate source of all of this region’s problems.

Damjanovic, the historian, said that he prefers to live in the “free world”, not in a “world without rights like Putin’s Russia” but because of NATO, “We have no other choice.” . Our only choice is Russia.”

Before NATO intervened, an unnamed storekeeper said the dark, pothole street outside her store was well paved and well lit. She said she felt sorry for the Ukrainians killed by the Russian military but wondered why the West “didn’t cry for us” during the NATO bombing campaign.

Last year, asked by pollsters who were “the best defender of Serb interests,” more than 65% of residents in northern Kosovo chose Russia and just 3% the United States.

North Mitrovica’s role as a bastion of pro-Russian sentiment created a problem for Vucic, the president of Serbia. He rejected imposing sanctions on Moscow over the invasion, and for years he stimulated a Serbian sense of victimhood. At the same time, however, he worked to convince the West that he was not in the Kremlin’s pocket.

For Mr. Vucic, a leader trying to bring his country into the European Union, the fact that ethnic Serbs rooted in Russia in the Kosovo region certainly follows his thumbs up as a bad look. .

Mr. Jovic, the organizer of the pro-Moscow rally, complained that local officials loyal to the Serbian president tightly control all political activity in the region and make it difficult to express support. to the Kremlin.

Mr. Vucic, according to Mr. Jovic, did not want to complicate his already faltering efforts to join the European Union. “The West,” Mr. Jovic said, “thinks that anyone who supports Russia is a fanatic.”

In some cases that may be true, but for most Russian fans in northern Kosovo, Moscow is simply a refuge from feelings of isolation and despair, of which there are many. things in these sections.

Tired of being branded as extremists and upsetting Mr. Vucic’s balancing act between East and West, Serb officials in northern Kosovo offered muted support for Russia and refused to seek Moscow’s support. Igor Simic, deputy head of the political party representing the Serbs in Kosovo, said: “Russia has sympathy here, but we do not seek any help from there.

Even the anti-NATO historian Damjanovic admits that Russia often disappoints. One example, he said, was in June 1999, when Moscow sent troops to Kosovo just hours before NATO forces arrived. Despite a warm welcome from ethnic Serbs waving Russian flags, Russian forces did nothing to stop the majority of Albanians from violent retaliation after the Serbian police and army left. NATO troops, too, mostly stood aside.

But that, Mr. Damjanovic noted, was when Boris N. Yeltsin was in charge of the Kremlin. “Now it’s Putin. he said. “I don’t know anyone in Kosovo who is supporting Ukraine,” he added, looking at Albanians’ near-universal support for Ukraine.

The fact that so many Albanians in Kosovo are cheering for Ukraine is enough for many Serbs to do the opposite.

Ethnic Albanians “completely support Ukraine for no real reason, so we all support Russia,” said Milan Doctures, a young Serb artist in northern Mitrovica. “I’m not saying that Putin was right to kill Ukrainians, but Russia has its reasons and I’m completely against NATO.”

“I personally have no sympathy for Russia” in Ukraine, said Milos Milovanovic, a researcher at an NGO in Mitrovica and a rare Serb critic of Moscow. As a result, he notes, “I’m always arguing with my friends.”

Almost no one in Kosovo, he added, thinks much about the war in Ukraine, but nearly everyone is on the side “on an emotional level” depending on their ethnicity.

“Unfortunately,” Milovanovic notes, “feelings and reason don’t go hand in hand.”

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