by Jasmina Scekic
NORTH MITROVICA, Kosovo — It’s a real Catch-22 trying to open a nongovernmental organization in a country you don’t recognize. After all, it’s hard to apply for registration from officials you regularly denounce as “occupiers.”
This is the dilemma faced by Vitaly Milonov, a municipal legislator from the Russian city of St. Petersburg. A controversial figure, Milonov made international headlines last year as the author of a local law banning so-called “homosexual propaganda” that became a model for national legislation.
And earlier this month, Milonov treaded into Balkan politics when he announced the opening of a human rights NGO in Kosovo’s ethnically mixed city of Mitrovica, near the border with Serbia.
Milonov says the purpose of his organization, which he calls the “Russian human rights center,” is to help Kosovo’s ethnic Serbian population, which he claims is being subjected to a “real genocide” under the rule of “Albanian occupiers.”
Milonov explained his vision to reporters at a hotel in North Mitrovica on January 19: “It should be a center where there will always be both our monitors and representatives of the Serbian side so that we can efficiently carry out monitoring on human rights abuses by the Islamic-Albanian occupiers, the Turkish fascists, and send information in a timely fashion to Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church, and international public organizations.”
Kosovo is a former region of Serbia that unilaterally declared independence in 2008. It has been recognized by 109 countries, including 23 of the 28 European Union member states. Serbia and Russia do not recognize Kosovo, although Belgrade has begun to normalize relations with Pristina under an EU-brokered mediation process.
About 90 percent of its estimated population of around 2 million people is ethnic Albanian, while some 4 percent is ethnic Serb. Much of Kosovo’s ethnic Serbian population was displaced to Serbia during the fighting in Kosovo in the late 1990s.
People wave Serbian flags during a rally in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica, where local Serbs refuse to accept the independence declared by Kosovo’s Albanian majority.
Milonov says his new NGO is 100 percent “privately” funded and that he is participating as an individual rather than as a Russian official.
Among other things, Milonov alleges that troops of the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) mission have frequently commandeered the private property of Kosovar Serbs. Such allegations come up periodically, but there has been scant evidence to support them.
‘Anarchy’ Or ‘Positive Solution’?
Although Milonov’s NGO has opened its doors, it is not legally registered. “As of January 2014, there has been no request submitted to our address, to the address of the Ministry of Public Administration, by any Russian nongovernmental organization,” Zeqir Bekolli, an official with the ministry , which oversees NGO activity in Kosovo, explained to RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.
As might be expected, opinion in Mitrovica is divided on whether Milonov’s new initiative is needed.
Adriana Hodzic, a member of the Bosnian community and an activist in North Mitrovica, argues that unregistered organizations will lead to “anarchy.” “I honestly think this anarchy should stop. Measures need to be taken to put such activity under control,” she says.
On the other hand, Kosovar Serbs such as Nikola Jovanovic welcome Milonov’s attention. “I don’t think we can expect much from the authorities in Belgrade,” Jovanovic says. “Therefore, the interconnection through Orthodoxy and Russia is something I see as some kind of positive solution for Serbs in northern Kosovo.”
Fellow Mitrovica Serb Zorica Ristic agrees. “I would really like for this [NGO] to happen, for something like this to really be established,” Ristic says.
Although Milonov is only a city legislator in St. Petersburg, he has gained national and international notoriety as the outspoken author of Russia’s first law banning the propaganda of “nontraditional sexual relations” to minors. Russia has since adopted such legislation nationally.
Appearing in Kosovo, Milonov was combative and provocative. “European politicians used to tell you [ethnic Serbs in Kosovo]: ‘Please, be patient. Be more polite toward the Albanian nation.’ But from another hand, the Albanian nation is not going to keep with the peaceful initiatives,” he said in English.
“The Albanian nation is going to push you out from this region — because this is the main goal of this…I should say…occupant regime in this territory: to destroy all Orthodox Christians in this area.”
He said his new organization will also pay for the construction of an Orthodox church in Mitrovica and will try to provide educational opportunities in Russia for Kosovar Serbs.
Milonov’s initiative comes at a sensitive time, as EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton works to broker agreements between Kosovo and Serbia that would normalize relations between the central Kosovo government and the ethnic-Serb-populated part of northern Kosovo.