How to unite a deeply divided Kosovo? Name a lake after Trump

ZUBIN POTOK, Kosovo – Ljiljana Trifonovic, an ethnic Serb living in a waterfront hamlet in northern Kosovo, never cared about American politicians – “they are all against us,” he said. she says – but she made Donald J. shine in the White House.

“He’s a little bit crazy like us and has the same hair color as me,” Ms. Trifonovic, 58, said, patting her orange blonde mane.

All the same, it was a big surprise at the end of last year when a huge banner suddenly appeared next to the reservoir outside his house, declaring the water “Trump Lake”. Another large banner was mounted at the same time on a bridge down the road, announcing that it would henceforth be called “Trump Bridge”.

“We already have our own name for the lake. Why Trump? Ms. Trifonovic asked, mystified and also annoyed by the abrupt renaming of the first thing she sees each morning when she looks out the window.

But things are not that simple. The artificial lake, created in the early 1970s by a large hydroelectric project while Kosovo was still part of Yugoslavia, has not one but two names: one used by the Serbs – Gazivoda – and the other – Ujman – used by the ethnic Albanians who now dominate Kosovo. , who declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

Most things in Kosovo have two names and that’s usually not a big deal. The two communities, which rarely mix and harbor deep suspicions about each other, simply use whatever they want.

But what to call the nearly five-square-mile reservoir, which stretches all the way to Serbia but is mostly located in Kosovo, became a problem late last year when officials from the two countries became entangled in a Trump administration’s unorthodox diplomatic push to cure poisons. gap between the two communities.

The effort, led by Mr. Trump’s ambassador to Berlin, Richard Grenell, sidelined the State Department and also the European Union, both of which had been working for years, without much success, to bring Serbia to accept the existence of Kosovo as an independent. State. Divided by ethnicity, language and history, Kosovo’s majority Albanian population and its Serbian minority disagree on just about everything, especially the status of the lands they share.

Hoping that mutual economic interests could help break down intractable political barriers, Mr Grenell, whom the White House has appointed as a special envoy to try to negotiate a settlement in Kosovo, offered to send experts from the ministry. of Energy to consider the modernization of the old hydroelectric. the plant to the reservoir, which could benefit both sides.

“What to call the lake which is in Kosovo and Serbia has been a serious point of friction”, Mr Grenell posted on Twitter in September as he scrambled to negotiate a deal that he hoped would add a diplomatic feather to Mr. Trump’s ceiling in the weeks leading up to the November election.

In what started as a joke, Mr Grenell suggested calling it “Trump Lake” might help. But then the joke got serious. The then Prime Minister of Kosovo, Avdullah Hoti, sent a tweet that he “welcomed the amb. Grenell’s proposal that Lake Ujman be renamed Trump Lake. “

Officials in the Serbian capital Belgrade, eager to please Mr Trump, whom they deemed more sympathetic to them than previous US presidents, have also welcomed the idea.

Then, to everyone’s dismay, the banners appeared.

Kosovo, perhaps the most pro-American country in the world, already has a Bill Clinton Boulevard and a statue of the former Democratic President, who presided over a NATO bombing campaign against Serbia at the end of the 1990s, as well as a Hillary store and highway named after President Biden’s late son Beau, an army officer who helped train Kosovo judges after the 1988-1989 war.

So honoring Mr. Trump, it would have been reasonable to assume, wouldn’t bother too many feathers.

Ethnic Albanians are so grateful to the United States for saving them from the Serbian rampages in the 1990s that “almost anything that is offered by America will be accepted, no matter how stupid it is,” said Valdete Idrizi, member. of the Parliament of Kosovo in the northern town of Mitrovica. “Without the United States, we would not have a state of Kosovo.”

But Mr. Grenell’s suggested name change for the man-made lake has proven to be a bridge too far for even the most ardent pro-Americans, who never really liked the idea of ​​”Trump Lake” and are there. have become openly hostile now that they no longer need to. worry about pleasing the former president.

“We’re not going to change the name, obviously. The lake has a name, ”Vjosa Osmani, US-trained interim president of Kosovo and expert on international law, said last week in an interview in Kosovo’s capital Pristina. “It was very embarrassing to hear people joke about it. It is a question of sovereignty. “

The proposed name change, however, served a singularly elusive goal in this part of the world: it united the Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo. Almost everyone finds the idea ridiculous.

“The lake has a name and it is not and never will be Trump,” said Milan, Trifonovic’s 31-year-old son. “How would you feel, Americans, if one of your lakes suddenly became Lake Milosevic?” he asked, referring to former autocratic Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. “This is all crazy.”

Who put together the professionally printed canvas banners, which disappeared after a few days, is a mystery.

Albanian ethnic leaders denied responsibility, as did President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia, who claimed in September that it was a local initiative of ethnic Serbs living near the lake because “Kosovo Serbs love US President Donald Trump.”

This surprised local Serbs, including the mayor of Zubin Potok, a dark Kosovo Serb town near the lake. The mayor, who declined to be interviewed, told a local reporter he knew nothing about the banners renaming the lake and bridge until she called him.

Last week, at a smoky cafe in the city’s cultural hub, patrons laughed and choked on their espressos when asked about Trump Lake. The bartender, who only gave her first name, Peter, said a better name would be ‘Melania Lake’ because, as a native of Slovenia, another former Yugoslav territory, the former first lady is at least one Slavic and, unlike Mr. Trump, probably knows where Kosovo is.

Dejan Nedeljkovic, a political activist in the region who, unlike many Serbs in Kosovo, is very critical of the leadership in Belgrade, said he first learned of the banners from watching the television and was certain that Mr. Vucic, the increasingly authoritarian president of Serbia, had them “because he wanted to show that he was a friend of Trump and to flatter him as a master of diplomacy.”

“It’s utter nonsense that they came up with this idea,” Nedeljkovic added.

But Mr Trump, elated to be hailed as a peacemaker, reveled in the idea that only he could have calmed the Balkans, saying at a campaign rally in Nebraska just days before the election Americans that “they have been fighting for 400 years. But, thanks to her efforts, are now “kissing and kissing”.

Serbia maintains a tight grip on ethnic parents living in Kosovo, where Serbian enclaves, especially in the north, rarely recognize the government in Pristina and instead receive instructions from Belgrade, which controls a health service, school system and a separate media apparatus for Serbs living in Kosovo.

Bypassing the Belgrade line can be perilous. Oliver Ivanovic, an independent-minded Kosovo Serb politician in Mitrovica, less than an hour’s drive from the reservoir, was assassinated in 2018 by unknown gunmen. Rada Trajkovic, a hospital worker and politician in a Serbian enclave near Pristina who criticized Belgrade’s heavy hand, recently went into hiding, fearing for her safety. She said that the dissident Serbs were under “horrible pressure”.

Mr Trifonovic, whose house, now submerged in snow, overlooks the reservoir, showed photos of himself playing with friends in the lake in the summer, when the water, sparkling in the sun, takes on the hues of the sea. Mediterranean.

Said that the Serbian president seemed to like the idea of ​​’Lake Trump’, he quickly let go of his pre-renaming hostility. “He’s the president. If he wants to call it Trump Lake, then we’ll call it that, ”Trifonovic said. “But in my heart, it will remain as it always has been.”

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