Kosovo elections - if at first you don't succeed...

By bne IntelliNews November 21, 2013

bne -

If the goal of the Kosovo local elections in November was to finally get the Serbian minority to participate, then they can be judged a success. However, few doubt that even after the elections Kosovo remains a country divided.

The initial set of local elections held on November 3 were, for the most part, a notable achievement for this post-conflict state. A former Serbian province that unilaterally declared independence in 2008, Kosovo saw its majority ethnic Albanian population turn out in large numbers, around 60%, to vote for mayors and local councillors - a boost for democracy in this fragile new country. The OSCE mission chief, Claude Schlumberger, declared the vote a "success."

Crucially, this was the first set of elections to be held right across the territory since independence in 2008. Previous elections - including those held in 2009 and 2010 - were boycotted by much of Kosovo's minority-Serb population at the bequest of Belgrade, which instead organised elections of local representatives in separate polls. However, Serbia's attitude to its former province has changed radically since a new government, a mix of former ultra-nationalists and socialists, came to power in 2012. Finally telling truth to the Serbian people about the reality of the situation in Kosovo, the new government has thrown its weight behind a campaign to secure Kosovo Serbs' participation at the ballot box in return for getting the EU to start talks soon over Serbia's ambition to join the bloc.

An EU-brokered deal between Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and his Serbian counterpart Ivica Dacic signed earlier this year to commit to the "normalisation of neighbourly relations" forms the basis for the new detente. In practical terms, it meant Belgrade had to dismantle its controversial parallel institutions in Kosovo - which administered healthcare, education and utilities to ethnic Serbs - effectively signalling an end to Serbia's financial support to their kinsmen south of the disputed border.

Despite being an emotive subject for all Serbs, who say they will never accept losing what they believe is the cradle of the Serb nation and will continue to refuse to recognise Kosovo as a separate nation, the ethnic Serbs in most of Kosovo turned out to vote in reasonably large numbers. In ethnic Serb areas to the south of the Ibar river, turnout in the southern Serb-dominated municipalities was consistently around 50%. "Serbs in municipalities south of the Ibar river... turned out in numbers that are indistinguishable from the majority Albanian population around them. Voting in Kosovo-run elections is no longer an issue for the southern Serb community," said the Balkans Policy Research Group, a regional NGO.

The situation to the north, where the country's 40,000-50,000 Serbs are concentrated, was very different. Violence marred the local elections in northern Kosovo, with OSCE staffers forced to flee the divided town of Mitrovica in helmets and bulletproof vests after masked men stormed three polling stations, smashed windows, released tear gas and stole ballot boxes. The intimidation - believed to have been orchestrated by local politician Marko Jaksic, a member of the nationalist Serbian opposition party DSS and a leader of the boycott campaign - caused turnout to be only 3-4% (though the figure for the Serb turnout across the whole of the northern municipalities was up above 20%).

The suspension of the polls in North Mitrovica meant a re-run on November 17, which went ahead amid tight security with the Kosovo Police supported by hundreds of armed international peacekeepers.

Ahead of the vote rerun, Serbian officials did their best to deliver on Serbia's commitment to ensure participation by Serbs in northern Kosovo, warning that the divided Mitrovica could end up with an ethnic Albanian mayor if they failed to vote. Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic visited the region in person two days before the repeat vote, telling voters: "You need to help us in order to help yourselves, so that we can continue helping you - that is why you need to go to the polls."

It mostly worked: almost 23% of the ethnic Serb population turned out to vote, with the preliminary results showing that the mayor of northern Kosovska Mitrovica would be a Serb.

Yet while overt intimidation against voting was largely prevented, some local media reported Serbs feeling another, more insidious form of intimidation - this time to vote. Some locals told Balkan Insight that they had been more or less ordered to show up - or risk losing their jobs. The civil service is a major employer in the region; over 5,000 people in North Mitrovica alone work in jobs financed by the Serbian state. "I have received so many phone calls in the last two or three days telling me I must go and vote, and that it's my patriotic duty," Dejan, a resident of North Mitrovica, told Balkan Insight, as he cast his ballot at the Technical School polling station. "This is not democratic."

The British ambassador to Kosovo, Ian Cliff, who visited polling stations in North Mitrovica, praised the healthy turnout, but admitted to Balkan Insight that he had heard "of one or two" slightly organised visits to the polling station. "It's slightly unusual to vote in a school-crocodile," the ambassador said.

Problems subsiding

So it's clear Kosovo remains a country divided, both between ethnic groups as well as geographically between the north and south. The idea of northern Kosovo seceding and joining Serbia proper has certainly not been banished by this election.

Still, some are more optimistic for the longer run. Shpetim Gashi, vice-president of the NGO the Council for Inclusive Governance, points out that the initial 20% of Serbs in the north who voted in the November 3 polls is quite impressive when considering the intimidation campaign prior to and on election day. "The uncast votes were certainly voices lost, but they were not votes against integration. They were votes of intimidation," Gashi says. "By resorting to violent means on voting day, the anti-integrationists acknowledged their failure to convince voters to boycott the election through democratic means... Their support among the Serb population in the north is at an all time low."

He points out that intimidation and threats will most likely characterize every stage of integration between north and south Kosovo, though with subsiding intensity. "Many were surprised with the violence on election day given Belgrade's support for the process, and speculated that perhaps Belgrade's influence in the north was overestimated," he says. "It was not. What was overestimated was the time it will take Belgrade to dismantle what it has built for 14 years."

And only Serbia is in a position to deal with this problem, he adds. "It will take some time but Belgrade will prevail."

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