KOSOVSKA MITROVICA -- On a recent Saturday morning in the Serbian section of this ethnically divided city in northern Kosovo, a group of young men are gathered in a small square in front of a fountain. Next to them is a table decorated with the red, white and blue Russian flag, and featuring two distinct stacks of papers. One stack contains a list divided into four sections: name, date and place of birth, passport number and signature. In the other pile are copies of a notice addressed to the Russian ambassador in Belgrade, Alexander Konusin.
The notice lists the troubles that Kosovar Serbs have experienced at the hands of the European Union and NATO, without any protection from the government in Serbia. The text ends with the following words: "Serbs and Russians are blood brothers and share beliefs and ideals. Russia has protected Serbia for centuries, and we won't forget it. We request that the Russian Federation, as the successor of the Russian Empire, help us receive Russian citizenship. So help us God, St. Savva and the great martyr tsar Nikolai Romanov."
A number of curious passersby in Kosovska Mitrovica stop to see what's going on. "What are they giving out?" they ask, slowing down slightly as they hurry to the nearby market. But when they hear the words "Russian citizenship," some start to form a line so that they can add their names to the letter to the Russian Ambassador. Within about half an hour 20 Serbs have signed.
Igor Voinovic, the organizer of the day's signature collecting activities, watches the crowd contentedly. Voinovic is the leader of the popular movement "Motherland," and a member of the Organization for Serbian and Slavic Solidarity. From nearby, an enormous poster of Vladimir Putin, Dimitry Medvedev and other Slavic leaders looks down at the Russian-citizenship seekers.
"We've had the idea to ask Russia for citizenship, but today we started collecting signatures in Kosovska Mitrovica for the first time," Voinovic explains. "We are not planning to give up our Serbian passports, but we want to have dual citizenship. That will protect us from the European Union and NATO."
NATO and the European Union, which Serbia is hoping to join, are not acceptable for Voinovich and like-minded Serbs. "They spread drug use and homosexuality," says Voinovic. More importantly, they do not recognize Kosovo as part of Serbia.
"Serbia's place in the Balkans is in a union with Russia. And the European Union represents death and evil," says another of the group's members. "The European Union took the worst from communism and fascism. That's why about 10 different organizations are collecting signatures. Russia has always helped Serbia in moments of need."
Trying to read the tealeaves
Voinovich just started to collect signatures, but Zlatibor Djordjevic, head of the group "Old Serbia" has been doing so for a while. Thanks in large part to Djordjevic's efforts, the Russian embassy in Belgrade has received 21,733 requests for Russian citizenship from Kosovar Serbs.
Another man, Zvonko Verselinovic, boasts that he could collect even more signatures – from 80% of Kosovo's approximately 120,000 Serbs. A well-known businessman, Verselinovic gained even more local notoriety after he was featured in a New York Times article, which highlighted his role in smuggling fuel over the poorly controlled Serbia-Kosovo border. Veselinovic denies that he has ever done anything wrong, calling himself an honest businessman.
Serbian newspapers have been asking themselves whether or not the Serbs will in fact get Russian citizenship. The question has dominated local conversations almost as much as the most popular mystery of the year: Will Serbia become a candidate for European Union membership? The question of Russian citizenship has dominated discussions on talk shows and in the headlines of Serbian newspapers.
A recent announcement by the Kremlin that the Interior Ministry would work out some possible solutions regarding the requests has only further inflamed the debate. A Serbian paper announced in its headline: "Medvedev ordered: give Serbs Russian passports."
Djordjevich is not content to rest on his laurels. He says he has collected another 50,000 signatures, which he will send to the Embassy in Belgrade to be forwarded to Moscow. "Even under the Ottomans we were in a better situation," he says. "Kosovar Serbs are losing their identity. They have to get documents that say: citizen of the Republic of Kosovo."
"If we had a Russian passport, not a single Albanian or NATO soldier from the Kosovo Force would treat us like they do now," Djorjevich adds. "It would be enough for Russia to say: those are our citizens and we will protect them. That is enough. But it should be understood: We are not planning to run off to Russia. We want to get Russian citizenship, but to keep our Serbian citizenship."
Pinning their hopes on Putin
After Kosovo declared independence in 2008, four northern municipalities including Kosovska Mitrovica declared that they would not recognize the authority of the Republic of Kosovo. So another republic was born - Serbian Kosovo.
When, a couple of months ago, Kosovar authorities established their own border control points with the support of international forces, local Serbs built barricades to block the approach to the control points. They don't let anyone through the controls, and occasionally have trouble with NATO soldiers who are trying to help the Kosovar customs agents do their job.
What is more, the Serbs constructed a new road through the mountains to "Greater Serbia," along which they bring in fuel and food. Veselinovic's transportation company provides the machines necessary for the construction of these "alternative routes." There's no doubt that if Veselinovic decides to help collect signatures, their numbers will jump.
At the same time, the Russian leaders seem to be much more popular among Kosovar Serbs than the Serbian leaders in Belgrade. There are no portraits of Serbian President Boris Tadic on the streets. But Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's face smiles out from store windows and down from billboards.
In the Kosovar-Serb town of Zvecan, Putin was made an honorary citizen after he called the Kosovo declaration of independence illegal. Kosovo has not made a formal application to the United Nations because it is concerned that Russia will veto the application.
Zvecan's mayor, Dragisha Milovic, says he trusts Putin, but has not yet asked for Russian citizenship himself. Instead, he sent the Kremlin a letter asking for investment in infrastructure like water systems and roads. He is still waiting for an answer.
For the moment, Milovic and Vecelinovic are fighting with Prisitina over control of the border, and as long as they are winning, they have every intention of staying put. But if they feel like they are starting to lose, they would like to go to Russia, not Serbia.
All of these actions, though, might just be a pre-election prank. The activists in Kosovo are thinking about the parliamentary elections approaching in Serbia next spring, and see the requests for Russian citizenship as a way to discredit the current government, which is leaning towards Europe. If that is the case, then it doesn't really matter what Moscow responds to the citizenship-seekers. The important thing is to send as many petitions to Russia as possible, before the approaching elections.
Read the original story in Russian