From 'Western Occupation' to 'Eastern Option'?
Exploring Roots of Russophilia among North Kosovo Serbs
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Prague Security Studies Institute.
Inter-ethnic relations between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo have been characterized by a long-lasting struggle for dominance over the province/country, which since at least the late 1990s has been perceived as the core of a much broader geopolitical issue. Ethnic Albanians have become associated with Western political and military power, while ethnic Serbs have been seeking support from Russia and other (re)emerging powers. Kosovo Serbs, from the North in particular, have mostly shared the notion of occupation and resistance against the “West’s” (i.e. NATO, EU, USA) engagement in the “break-away province of Serbia”. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that up until today North Kosovo and its Serbian majority represent a specific polity still living in contested state and institutional frameworks.
The main objective of this study is to examine how the (post)-conflict reality together with the Russian presence have been reshaping the North Kosovo Serb polity’s anti-western resentments and its resistant stance in its complex relationship with Kosovo Albanians and their Western allies. With the re-emergence of Russia as a great power in Eurasia, it appears to many to not just be a distant power in the East anymore. Russia is directly or indirectly involved in various processes that have the potential to (re)define even the everyday reality of the relatively small region, or at least it is often seen this way. Central to this geopolitical vulnerability is the issue of the unresolved status of the North, which is claimed by the Republic of Kosovo and the Republic of Serbia, with substantial influence of various international organizations and great powers.
For the majority of Serbs, Russia is the power that blocks Kosovo from gaining international recognition of its formal independence, thus directly impacting the status of the North, not to mention that Russia is often perceived as the guarantor of the Norths’ Serbian community’s survival, which is in their eyes being constantly threatened by the Pristina-based government and by the Kosovo Albanian majority. Indeed, Russia is the main “troublemaker” who stands against the full independence of Kosovo in the international arena, challenging the Western policies of recognizing Kosovo’s statehood and providing prominent support for Kosovo state-building. Geopolitics appear to be particularly pronounced in daily life in the North, even by Balkan standards. I am well-aware that the current situation as of summer 2020, given the restart of the Belgrade-Pristina talks in Brussels and especially the recently signed “treaty” of Washington under the patronage of former U.S. President Donald Trump, represents a remarkable moment to pose questions about the East and West among Kosovo Serbs.
In explaining the Russophilia in the North, I aim at answering the following questions:
How do locals understand the Russian presence in their public landscape and in the arena of international politics?
What are the reasons (what makes it possible) for Russia, and Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin in particular, to gain such popularity in the North?
What are the wishes and hopes of North Kosovo Serbs regarding the contested status of the area vis-à-vis the recent Russian foreign policy drive?
The Serbian society and polity of North Kosovo were researched using primarily anthropological/ethnographic methods in order to deconstruct the above-mentioned Russophile and anti-western discourses from the ground perspective. The concerns, fears, hopes and wishes of “ordinary” Serbs, as well as of their local political elites, regarding contested statehood in the North have been especially considered when dealing with local manifestations of Russophilia. Fieldwork consisting of participant observation, semi-structured interviews and collecting of visual material provided the author with an understanding of the complex social, political and security reality of the (post-)conflict region, its interconnections with global power-politics and narratives/understandings built upon by locals.
I employed participant observation as one of the basic but quite useful techniques of field research, taking advantage of my long-term presence in the region of Northern Kosovo, where I briefly engaged with an INGO office based in Mitrovica and have been returning to the region ever since 2013. In this sense, my current research represents yet another return to the field, allowing me to re-think and update my knowledge from previous stays vis-à-vis the main topic of this study. I turned my attention first of all to places where the phenomenon of Russophilia visually manifests itself, often in connection with geopolitics, from large murals to small shops, whose owners keep portraits of president Putin in their establishments. I focused on and observed people's relationship with this specific kind of visual representation primarily across the urban communities of Northern Mitrovica/Zvečan, where there is the highest concentration of such artefacts.
I conducted about 30 semi-structured interviews with local officials and politicians, experts, representatives of non-profit organizations and last but not least with “ordinary citizens”. In this study, I try to show on the one hand the widest range of views and attitudes and on the other hand to reveal social consensus if it exists on the topics I cover. When selecting respondents from “the common people”, I followed the technique of simple purposive sampling, but also focused on extra cases, i.e. people with nationalist and Russophile affinities. These interviews represent a key part of the research and are also the main contribution to the existing body of literature, which does not usually work extensively with the opinions and convictions of locals.
The data collected on the Russophile and anti-Western discourses are interpreted primarily from the on-the-ground perspective. Such an approach allows me to reconstruct subjective shared meanings ascribed to social reality in the social context of unsettled statehood and heated interethnic relations that heavily influence political practices, exercise of power and therefore the North Kosovo polity as such, and the ways how these shared meanings create space for the particular practices or phenomena of Russophilia to flourish.
Kosovo North, Quo Vadis?
More than twenty years after the war, there is still a lot of distrust in the air based on the actual experience of the Serbian community with the dominant nation of Kosovo, as well as with “their Western protectors”. Especially since the “March 2004 pogrom”, the Serbs of the North learned that the international presence is not able or perhaps even willing to protect them from Albanian-nationalism driven violence. One of the respondents framed this failure together with a wish for a separate and thus safe life: “More Serbs suffered after the arrival of the international forces than during the war time. But the French, they helped. They closed the [Mitrovica main] bridge”.
Mural – Because there is no going back, Kosovska Mitrovica. Radomir Đorđević, professor of the Serbian University of Pristina in exile in North Mitrovica speaks about this mural as the “Serbian Guernica”, using explicit vocabulary of Serbian resistance against invaders and occupiers (2015, 101).
Following the Kosovo declaration of independence in February 2008, the centre of Pristina de facto lacked control over a substantial part of its own claimed territory, including state borders, areas rich in natural resources, etc. In his study on Kosovo’s overlapping jurisdictions, disputed territory and unsettled statehood, Krasniqi argues, that at least in the North, we can describe it as a territory of de facto shared sovereignties, a condominium-like situation with strongly overlapping citizenship regimes (2012, 353-363). The international, or better to say Western, forces also did not succeed either in enforcing their authority over North Kosovo territory and population decisively for as long as they are presented. Thus, Northern Kosovo could be regarded as “the last Serbian holdout” in the breakaway province, together with ethnic enclaves in the rest of Kosovo to a lesser extent.
Consequently, Serbs living in the North as a rule struggle to boycott or at least ignore policies and actions undertaken by the Republic of Kosovo’s institutions. For them, Belgrade remains the political, cultural and economic capital. As a result, the North has found itself in a situation where four major players are struggling to gain control there: the independent Republic of Kosovo, the Republic of Serbia, the so-called international community and institutions and organisations of local Serbs. Such a struggle for dominance has produced highly specific, complicated institutional arrangements that Ivan Gusić calls “a disarray of intermingling governing bodies that sometimes overlap, while at other times none are functional” (2015, 218).
Tzar Lazar statue, Northern Mitrovica. Standing on the main square of North Mitrovica, Tzar Lazar is pointing towards the South as the Serbian claim to the whole of the holy lands of Kosovo and Metohija, as though he has continued fighting the fatal Battle of Kosovo since 1389. Right beside him, his consul Scherbina supports the claim, waving Serbian and Russian flags.
In 2013, Belgrade and Pristina, under pressure from Brussels, Berlin, Washington and other major Western capitals, concluded the so-called Brussels Agreement. The deal was primarily supposed to enable quiet integration of the North into the Kosovo state, while the local Serbian community received certain guarantees of self-governance or perhaps autonomy, and Belgrade could go on with its formal denials of Kosovo ’s sovereignty. However, the Serbian community that was not involved in the talks met this Belgrade-Pristina-West agreement with a high level of distrust and resistance, fearing a possible negative or even fatal impact of the deal on their community.
The impact on the North as a community or polity could be fatal. One of the local liberally- minded leaders described the agreement as “the last nail in the coffin of Serbian Kosovo and Metohija”. Indeed, the stakes are high. The future of institutions vital for the survival of the community such as education, health care, social system and pensions, but also funds that come from all around, is being questioned. There is a widespread conviction that Kosovo simply is not in a position to offer any substantial economic assistance, or even finance already existing Serbian institutions, and that the Albanians are not even willing to do so.
In the whole process of “Belgrade-Pristina normalization”, we can identify the quite blatant absence of any democratic rights from the community’s point of view, especially the right of self-determination. As one informant put it straight, “Belgrade, Pristina, EU, NATO… are deciding about us, but without us”. The locals really do not expect much sympathy, either from Pristina or from the West, but I have traced a quite frequent motif of betrayal even by their supposed capital Belgrade. Furthermore, the local community appears to be a victim of what Marta Szpala calls “playing for time under pressure from the West” (2018, 1). Various observers, including the author, comprehend that the dialogue is in fact further fuelling nationalist sentiments and fears among Serbs and Albanians alike, similar to the case of so-called transitional justice in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as one of the local informants of Bosniak nationality pointed out.
All these matters bear an obvious geopolitical aspect. Local people often feel that now, under Western pressure and for the sake of its EU membership ambitions, even Belgrade is forced to recognize the Republic of Kosovo, and even worse , their own compatriots are pushing the Kosovo Serbs to live in a foreign country, where they are threatened by the ethnic majority of the others. The West is to be blamed for their fate, directly or indirectly, via its influence over Belgrade. Concerning the above-mentioned, among many local Serbs, Russia appears to be the only hope left. However, a majority of local experts, politicians and other well-informed community members I have spoken to acknowledge the fait accompli, that even the Russians have no power to reverse the course of events if Belgrade is not willing to do so.
Russia and (Kosovo) Serbs – Long-lasting Ties
It is important to point out that Russophilia has its own historical roots and so continuity among Serbs from Kosovo as a community as well as Serbian nation and state structures. This connection was primarily established through their shared Orthodox populations, then later through diplomatic, political, economic and military envoys, and above all often through shared interests. Nowadays, we can trace several long-lasting cultural bonds among Russian and Serbian people, ranging from common Slavic origins, language and script, Orthodox religion, to widespread social conservatism, “patriotism”, Pan-Slavism, as well as a widespread shared occidentalism.
It seems that the historical memory of Kosovo Serbs, as cultivated primarily by the Serbian state and society, tends to overlook numerous problematic conflicting moments in the Serbo-Russian history, rather depicting Russia and the Russians as traditional firm allies, close friends and protectors of the Serbs. This notion of eternal brotherhood and friendship appears to be a deeply embodied narrative based on a long cultivated historical sentiment concerning memory of common struggle in various past wars and similar Russophile narratives. Perhaps the most significant Russian figure, nowadays guarding the prominent place of the main square of North Mitrovica, is the consul Scherbina. Killed in 1903 by an Albanian mob while hiding Serbian families, his symbolic presence represents a powerful memento and perhaps even a pledge, that Russia shall protect the Serbs even in the future.
Statue of Russian consul Grigory Stepanovich Scherbina, Northern Mitrovica. The sign says: “Last words of consul Scherbina” “I am the first victim in the modern history of Serbia fallen for the liberation of the Old Serbia”.
The cordial relations with the Russians are often put in sharp contrast with the perception of the Western powers, which are as a rule seen in a quite different light, often as “having their own selfish interests” or “always plotting against us”. In the North of Kosovo, these anti-Western historical resentments seem to be quite deeply rooted, compared to “liberal” Belgrade, and almost universally accepted. In my opinion, such local interpretations might be partially a result of the very recent experience with the Western presence in Kosovo, since history is being constantly re-constructed according to our present experience.
The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) also firmly supports the claims of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) in Kosovo. The church’s international diplomacy became increasingly important and vocal with the UNESCO Kosovo bid for membership in 2015. In accordance with the Serbian appeal “not to give the churches to those who burned them down” ROC side by side with the official Kremlin foreign policy, whose instructions it usually carefully follows, led an international campaign to reject the application, using Orthodox cultural heritage as the main argument. The local and national Serbian opinion is that the ROC and Russia also did a great job in restoring the Orthodox churches across Kosovo destroyed by Albanian mobs during the “March 2004 pogrom”, while NATO and UNMIK forces mostly stood by watching Serbian churches and houses burn, and Belgrade provided only patriotic rhetoric. In this particular issue, at least in the eyes of the Serbian community, the Russians provided much- needed help, when the others, especially the West, did nothing to stop the “Albanian barbarism”.
Iconic picture of Albanian man tearing down the cross of the St. Andrew ’s Orthodox church in Podujevo during the March 2004 riots, photo credit RTS.
ROC is becoming an increasingly dominant partner of SOC, representing the Orthodox religion even in terms of values and identity. The transfer of ideas and values appears to be rather one- way, where the SOC comes increasingly under the influence of ROC. Generally speaking, ROC mostly preaches conservativism, anti-liberalism and anti-Western sentiments. ROC has in the last decades enhanced its position of the leader of the Orthodox world at the expense of the traditional centre of Orthodox Christianity – the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which is in many ways more “liberal”. As of my preliminary findings, the conservatism and anti-Western resentments of ROC appear to be much more appealing for the local Serbian audience than the “liberal Orthodoxy” of the Patriarch of Constantinople when it comes to topics such as feminism or ecology.
Russia, the Only Hope We Have?
Throughout the conversations in the field, I registered frequent hopes that “the Russians will help us” and “we will be better off”. The wishes of the great majority of the Serbs in (Northern) Kosovo certainly are to survive as a distinctive community and to live within the institutional framework of Serbia, as much as possible, and the political and diplomatic support of the Russians is often emphasized as essential for the survival of the Kosovo Serbs and thus the North. A well-informed expert summarized these feelings in the community as follows: "Serbs are Serbophiles and, after that, they are mostly Russophiles”.
The Western approach to the Kosovo Serb community and their interests seems to be in sharp contrast to the Russian one. The Kremlin has succeeded in developing its image as the one who respects the wishes and acknowledges the fears of the local Serbs, offering a helping hand to the community while providing a diplomatic shield against the efforts to integrate the North into the Albanian- dominated Republic of Kosovo. Furthermore, in the eyes of many (Kosovo) Serbs, the Eastern alternative that would bring the whole Serbian nation into a strategic alliance or integration with the Russians, Russian Federation and Eurasian Economic Union appears to be more viable given current Russian FP across Eurasia and the return of the Kremlin to great power politics since the arrival of Vladimir Putin. One local pro-Russian activist summarized these hopes as: “[t]heir [Albanian] goal is to get rid of us. However, the international situation has changed, the cards are handed out in another way now.”
Mural Kosovo is Serbia [in Russian], Crimea is Russia [in Serbian], North Mitrovica.
Perhaps a bit contradictory, for the Russians the Kosovo international legal precedent represents a welcome argument for the annexation or re-joining of the Crimea, while the Serbs still insist on their rights to Kosovo and Metohija.
Russia has succeeded in creating a picture of itself as a developed country with a high standard of living, or even as an economic superpower among a large number of Serbs. Thus, in the North many locals still maintain hopes of substantial Russian assistance when it comes to rebuilding the shattered economy. Perceived as an economic superpower by most of the people I have spoken to, even if this is contradicted by Russia’s reality, at least as compared to its neighbours the EU or China, “the Russian option” represents for many a potential way out of the long-lasting economic misery for which Pristina, the Westerners and even Belgrade is to be blamed. However, the actual financial support from Russia for Kosovo Serbs remains limited. As one Russia-related activist told me: “[w]e are all sort of Russophiles, but in order for things to function we need real support”.
However, here we find a substantial cleavage in-between the cohort of “ordinary people” and what I call the experts; politicians, activists, journalists. When it comes to the publicly praised Eastern option, the local experts are usually sceptical about the possible involvement of Russia in resolving the Kosovo question in favour of Serbia or even the much more modest goal of improving living conditions in the North. One analyst summarized this in plain words: “there has never been much help from them”. The experts, who are by definition better informed about the actual role of Russia in the international arena and sometimes even about daily life in the country, regardless of their (geo)-political affinity, do not keep much hope in Moscow ’s direct help to the North. As a pro-Russian activist told me, commenting on the mural: “Crimea has its own people, its own army, so the Russians should not care much about Kosovo.” An opposition political leader put it straight: “Russians are just fucking around with the 1244 resolution”.
Ruling the North, Featuring Leaders
Since Belgrade and its local clients now rule the North with an iron fist, every sign of disagreement with any substantial official policy can have severe consequences. Those who dare to oppose the factual dictatorship, from various political positions ranging from nationalists to liberals, often point out that the West is also to be blamed directly for this state of public affairs in the North. Apart from the general pressure to integrate the North into the Kosovo state system embodied in the Brussels Agreement, especially the unfortunate role of the EU, which strongly supported the rigged local elections of 2013 that brought the current ruling clique to power and consequently eliminated any opposition, but also the unsolved case of Oliver Ivanović ’s murder, represent powerful mementos even for the liberal-minded Serbs of the North. Talking about the twinning of Srpska Lista with the United Russia party, a local political analyst hyperbolically explained to me that “if Russia and Vladimir Vladimirovich are the role models for Vučić and his SNS, then the North must be our Chechnya”. For the nationalists and Russophiles, these events represent simply yet another proof of the West’s ill intentions.
Furthermore, an expert in politics explained to me that “a dual image model of President Vučić in Serbia and of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has been created and put into extensive use by the ruling regime in Serbia. If one leader is mentioned in public, it is desirable to mention the other one. This way, in the state and among the public, a matrix of superiority as the universal compensation for the personal and national deficiencies of Serbs, and especially politicians, operates. Everything that Serbs do not possess or cannot achieve, Russians have and can do.”
As the supreme national leader, President Vučić is presented on one hand as the protector of the Serbian people, guarantor of the territorial integrity of the state and of the unity of the nation, and on the other hand, he is someone who provides financing for salaries in the North and south of the river Ibar to those who are on the payrolls of the central budget in Belgrade. The same dominant matrix applies to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. He is being publicly mentioned exclusively in a positive, affirmative and constructive international context. He is a friend of the Serbian people, guarantor of the UNSC resolution 1244 on Kosovo, thus of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Serbia, and finally the personification of the brotherhood of Serbs and Russians as well as the values they share. President Putin has a position, and not just any position, but a firm stance when it comes to the Kosovo question.
Mural of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Painted on local kafana, the Russian leader raises a goblet of firewater to cheer inhabitants of Zvečan Municipality, whose honorary citizen he is.
When you add the most popular media, first of all Serbian national television channels and tabloid yellow press, which are cheap and accessible to most people, and under direct control of the ruling political party, together with (pro-)Russian channels, e.g. even local Mitrovica television transmits Sputnik broadcasting, with the few remaining independent media under fire, especially foreign-owned outlets, the internet choked by PR, commercialism and banality, you get a closed circle of propaganda, manipulative and one-sided information. This is an important part of the political strategy for how to rule in the North and over the Serbs as a nation. As one interlocutor pointed out “one may easily interchange the Serbian media scene for the Russian one”.
Domestic and Regional Aspects of Serbia ’s Geopolitical Manoeuvring
For the ruling regime in Belgrade, the pro-Eastern foreign policy orientation, and Russophilia in particular, in combination with Serbian nationalism, has formed desirable and unquestionable rhetoric essential for its stay in power, amplified by the regime-controlled media scene. Navigating in-between the Scylla and Charybdis of the apparent need for the cooperation with the West, and the EU first of all, and the persistent public demands for a more active Eastern vector of Serbian FP forces the Serbian leadership to balance between the East and West. As a matter of fact, EU membership for both Serbia and Kosovo appears to be only a declarative FP priority, as the people in power are well-aware that they would have to substantially change the ways they rule over both of their countries.
The responsive FP towards the East appears to be operationalized as a matter of supply and demand. According to the latest survey by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP), even in central Serbia, the public identifies the preservation of Kosovo, regional cooperation, and FP cooperation with Russia to be much more important than EU membership. Only 20% of BCSP respondents believe that Serbia should adopt EU foreign policy, while 57% are in favour of aligning with Russia and China (2020, 6). In the North, the situation is further amplified by the fear of being swallowed or expelled by the Albanians and their Western “accomplices”. As one of my interlocutors exclaimed: “Russians and the Serbian army… They shall defend us!”
The ethno-national struggle over Kosovo’s territory and its peoples , together with the current geopolitical confrontation in Europe, bring us to the issue of outsiders’ perceptions of the North. While the vast majority of locals acknowledge the friendly patronage of Russia, they often see the Western presence as biased against their nation. Commenting on the international presence in the North, the interlocutor told me: “The problem is that those coming from the West have always seen the Serbs as little Russians.” This fits the usual patterns of widespread Kosovo Albanian fears, as well as propaganda on the theme of the Russian presence in the North, and so the Zajednica as Kosovo ’s Republika Srpska driven by the Russians, as repeatedly stressed in English- language publications with Pristina origins.
Mural of general Ratko Mladić, Serbian national hero from Bosnian war, war criminal from the Hague, Zvečan.
This is not to say that Serbian nationalism, the will for national unification into one state, in other words the idea of greater Serbia, is not present. Quite the opposite. The struggle for national unification runs through the modern history of the Serbian nation, the North included. However, in many of our conversations, I realized that the national unification agenda appears to be of secondary importance when compared to broad range of especially socioeconomic but also political and security concerns of the local people. The desire to live in one state that would unify all the “Serbian lands” is somehow inferior to the idea that the North should belong to the Republic of Serbia. It is precisely so mostly for practical reasons. The Serbs of the North see Serbia and not the Republic of Kosovo as the country that could provide them with guarantees of community survival and, even if limited, prosperity.
However, it is not surprising that the regional dimension of Kosovo (North) is often raised by politicians from Belgrade, and even more frequently, Banja Luka. The leader of the Serbs of Bosnia, Milorad Dodik, has openly spoken about border changes in the Balkans, which would ensure Serbian national unity, including the North. Not only in his mind, Dodik is obviously supported by the ruling circles in Belgrade, if Kosovo is to be independent, the North and Republika Srpska, and perhaps other “Serbian lands” should (re-)join Serbia. As he explained in his usual jovial style: “Serbia, Srpska and North of Kosovo joined? What’s wrong with that? This is really nice” (KosSev. 2019).
Instead of Conclusion
In my understanding, Russophilia in the North appears to be quite a complex issue. On one hand, historical sentiments and common cultural features, and especially the involvement of the Orthodox church, account for an important cornerstone of the phenomenon. But practical concerns regarding the challenged status of the North and the very survival of the Serbian community, which feels immense pressure from the Albanian majority of Kosovo and their Western allies, appears to be of utmost importance when asking the locals about Russia. The North is often seen by insiders like an object on the chess board of politics between Pristina and Belgrade, while the various Western agencies working on the ground, such as KFOR, EULEX, OSCE or even UNMIK, are perceived mostly as hostile to the local Serbs in a way that they treat the locals as troublemakers who do not want to participate in their efforts to build a new Kosovo. In this way, Western policies in Kosovo inflame pro-Russian sentiments, which are already well-established on a historical and cultural basis among the Kosovo Serbs. As a matter of fact, Russia’s direct presence in the North appears to be quite limited, but as documented above, the perceived failures of the West make Russia or the Eastern option a desired alternative among North Kosovo Serbs. These feelings, however, are not limited to Serbs. Even many Kosovo Albanians are fed up with the “Western protectorate” and its political clients, as the rising political star of Albin Kurti suggests.
Billboard Donald Trump – Serbs supported! Northern Mitrovica
The vulnerability of the region vis-à-vis geopolitics was quite visible during the previous U.S. presidential elections. Kosovo Serbs searching for any political support in their vulnerable position did not hesitate to turn to the USA. When Donald Trump was elected, many people in the North celebrated, or at least hoped for more favourable U.S. policy towards Kosovo Serbs, sometimes even comparing the new president to Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, in Pristina people were seriously asking what will happen with Kosovo. Neither Trump nor Putin brought much positive change for the North, Kosovo or the region. There is still an apparent need for finding a settlement acceptable to all sides of the conflict. When it comes to dealing with the status of the North and thus the future of local Serbs, the international community, including Russia, should listen to the fears, wishes and hopes of the people concerned and not just conduct diplomacy in the old-fashioned way – preparing secret deals with political elites in Belgrade and Pristina, whose legitimacy is quite questionable.
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 Mitrovica city is according to the Kosovo administrative system divided into two separate municipalities – North and South, but in the administrative system of the Republic of Serbia it still forms one municipality – Kosovska Mitrovica – officially. Apart from Northern Mitrovica, the North, as a de facto corpus separatum region, comprises two rural municipalities of Zubin Potok and Leposavić bordering with Serbia proper and Mitrovica´s actual suburb Zvečan. These municipalities are dominantly ethnic Serbian with Albanian rural enclaves. For more on the divided city, see Pavlović 2016, Braem 2004, UNDP 2019.
 If not stated otherwise, all the conversations and visual material were obtained in October 2020. For security reasons, all the respondents shall remain anonymized.
Local toponyms are stated in Serbo-Croatian language, the majority language of our field, if there is no established English term.
 For more info on Brussels Agreement see: Troncotǎ 2018, Bieber 2015, Beha 2015, Rossi 2014.
 For a detailed analysis see: Nešović and Caleghini 2015 Community/Association of Serbian Municipalities: The Sum of All Fears; Balkans Policy Research Group 2017 The Association of Serb Municipalities: Understanding conflicting views of Albanians and Serbs; or Beysoylu 2018 Implementing Brussels Agreements: The EU’s facilitating strategy and contrasting local perceptions of peace in Kosovo.
 Not surprisingly, the notion of Kosovo and Metohija as “the cradle” of the Serbian nation and spirituality occupies a prominent place in SOC´s agenda. Possible de facto recognition of independent Kosovo with or without its northern part, or any other substantial concessions to Pristina, as repeatedly hinted at by the Serbian political leadership in Belgrade, was always met by SOC with fierce reactions . All the major Orthodox sites, including the seat of the Patriarchate in Peć, are located in the South, including claims to quite large land ownership. In case of recognition or partition, the church, not without justification, also fears that in a few generations there would be no Serbian worshipers left in the South.
 The much- discussed UNSC resolution no. 1244 of 1999 basically established Kosovo as a UN and NATO protectorate under formal sovereignty of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, legally succeeded by the Republic of Serbia.
 Zajednica – Community or Association of Serb Municipalities – has even become probably the only one Serbo-Croatian word adopted into Albanian language during the last two decades, under the discourse of threat both by the Serbs and their allies of the East.
 See for example: Kallaba 2017 Russian interference in Kosovo: How and why?