In One Corner of Kosovo, Cheers Still Ring Out for Putin

MITROVICA, Kosovo — When Europeans and Americans recoiled in horror this spring at evidence of Russian atrocities in Ukraine, Nebjosa Jovic, a university administrator in northern Kosovo, decided he had to act: He organized a street protest to cheer Russia on.

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

Only a few people showed up, Mr. Jovic said, because of the “circle of fear” that envelops northern Kosovo, a mostly ethnic Serb region out of step with the rest of the country, where ethnic Albanians, most of whom strongly support Ukraine, make up more than 90 percent of the population.

Viewed from London or Washington, the horrors visited on Ukraine by Russia offer a clear and inescapable moral choice. But, filtered through the prism of grievance and history in places tormented by their own strife, Ukraine’s misery fades in favor of local claims to victimhood.

“Russia is the only glimmer of hope we have left,” said Milos Damjanovic, a local historian in the mainly Serb part of the divided city of Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, and a fervent believer that the West and its NATO military alliance were responsible for the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, of which Kosovo was part until the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

A mural reading “Kosovo is Serbia — Crimea is Russia” in the main square in the mainly ethnic Serb part of Mitrovica.Credit…Armend Nimani for The New York Times

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

Mr. Putin has not shown up to collect his honorary title, but he still figures prominently in the minds of many residents as a potential and much hoped-for savior, the latest in a long line of Russians who, in the Serb accounting of the past, have labored tirelessly to protect their Slavic “brothers” from hostile outsiders, particularly Muslims.

Russia fought more than a dozen wars with the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which defeated an Orthodox Christian Serb ruler, Prince Lazar, at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. That ancient reversal bulks large in modern Serb nationalism, feeding a deep well of grievance toward Kosovo’s largely Muslim ethnic Albanian population, even though some Albanians fought on the Serb side.

In the center of Mitrovica stand statues 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 envoy’s statue reads: “A drop of brotherly Russian blood joins the stream of Serbian blood that has been flowing for centuries.”

Milos Damjanovic, a Serb historian, in a bar in the majority ethnic-Serb northern part of the city last month.Credit…Armend Nimani for The New York Times

Not mentioned is that the Russian envoy was of Ukrainian origin.

History, much of it bloody and dominated by tales of masculine martial valor, looms large across the Balkans, particularly in the celebration — or denunciation — of “brotherly” bonds between Russia and Serbia, both predominantly Orthodox Christian nations.

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

The State of the War

  • A Critical Moment: After success in the northeast battlefields, Ukraine is pressing President Biden for more powerful weapons. But Mr. Biden wants to avoid provoking Russia at a moment U.S. officials fear President Vladimir V. Putin could escalate the war.
  • Ukraine’s Counteroffensive: As Ukrainian troops try to inch forward in the east and south without losing control of territory, they face Russian forces that have been bolstered by inmates-turned-fighters and Iranian drones.
  • In Izium: Following Russia’s retreat, Ukrainian investigators have begun documenting the toll of Russian occupation on the northeastern city. They have already found several burial sites, including one that could hold the remains of more than 400 people.
  • An Inferno in Mykolaiv: The southern Ukrainian city has been a target of near-incessant shelling since the war began. Firefighters are risking their lives to save as much of it as possible.

Aside from supporting Serbia at the United Nations and giving diplomatic heft to claims that Kosovo still belongs to Serbia, Russia has provided little in the way of concrete aid. And, by repeatedly citing the West’s intervention in Kosovo to justify Russia’s seizure of Crimea and other Ukrainian land, Mr. Putin has undermined the principle of territorial integrity on which Serbia bases its claim to Kosovo.

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

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

A newly built Serbian Orthodox Church in Mitrovica. History looms large across the Balkans, particularly between Russia and Serbia, both predominantly Orthodox Christian nations.Credit…Armend Nimani for The New York Times

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

Mr. Damjanovic, the historian, said that he would much prefer to live in the “free world,” not in a “world of no rights like Putin’s Russia” but, because of NATO, “We have no choice. Our only choice is Russia.”

Before NATO intervened, a storekeeper, who declined to give her name, said that the dark, potholed street outside her shop had been well paved and well lit. She said that she felt sorry for Ukrainians killed by Russian troops but wondered why the West did “not cry for us” during the NATO bombing campaign.

Asked by pollsters last year who was “the best defender of Serb interests,” more than 65 percent of residents in northern Kosovo chose Russia and only 3 percent the United States.

A guard post manned by American soldiers on the main road north out of Mitrovica.Credit…Armend Nimani for The New York Times

North Mitrovica’s role as a citadel of pro-Russian sentiment has created a problem for Mr. Vucic, the Serbian president. He has rejected imposing sanctions on Moscow over the invasion, and for years, he has fanned Serbs’ sense of victimhood. At the same time, however, he has labored to convince the West that he is not in the Kremlin’s pocket.

For Mr. Vucic, a leader who is trying to get his country into the European Union, ethnic Serbs’ rooting for Russia in a Kosovo region firmly under his thumb is a bad look.

Mr. Jovic, the organizer of the pro-Moscow protest, complained that local officials loyal to the Serbian president tightly controlled all political activity in the region and had made it difficult to stage open displays of support for the Kremlin.

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

In some cases, that might be true, but for most of Russia’s many fans in northern Kosovo, Moscow simply offers a refuge from feelings of isolation and despair, of which there are a great deal in these parts.

Wary of being tarred as extremists and of upsetting Mr. Vucic’s balancing act between East and West, ethnic Serb officials in northern Kosovo offer only muted backing for Russia and deny looking to Moscow for support. “Russia has sympathy here, but we are not seeking any help from it,” said Igor Simic, the deputy head of the main political party representing Serbs in Kosovo.

A Serbian flag is displayed on a street vendor’s shop in the majority ethnic-Serb northern part of Mitrovica.Credit…Armend Nimani for The New York Times

Even Mr. Damjanovic, the anti-NATO historian, conceded that Russia had often disappointed. One example was in June 1999, he said, when Moscow sent troops to Kosovo just hours before NATO forces arrived. Despite receiving an ecstatic welcome from ethnic Serbs waving Russian flags, the Russian forces did nothing to prevent the majority ethnic Albanian population from taking violent revenge after the Serbian police and military 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 is Putin. The stronger Russia is, the better it is for Serbs,” he said. “I don’t know anybody in Kosovo who is supporting Ukraine,” he added, overlooking the near universal support for Ukraine among ethnic Albanians.

That so many ethnic Albanians in Kosovo are cheering for Ukraine is enough for many ethnic Serbs to do the opposite.

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

Milos Milovanovic, a researcher who works at a nongovernmental organization in Mitrovica and who is a rare ethnic Serb critic of Moscow, said, “I personally feel zero sympathy for Russia” in Ukraine. As a result, he noted, “I’m always arguing with my friends.”

Hardly anyone in Kosovo, he added, has thought much about the war in Ukraine, but nearly everyone has taken sides “on an emotional level” depending on their ethnicity.

“Unfortunately,” Mr. Milovanovic noted, “emotion and rationality do not go together.”

The Ibar River separates Kosovo Albanians and Serbs in Mitrovica.Credit…Armend Nimani for The New York Times

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