Nicholas Watson in Prague -
While Serbia is full of talk about possible early parliamentary elections next year, the municipal elections in Kosovo on November 3 present a more immediate problem for Belgrade.
As part of the historic deal signed in April between Serbia and Kosovo to normalise relations that have been frozen since the erstwhile province declared independence in 2008, the four Serb-dominated northernmost municipalities are to be incorporated into Kosovo's legal system and so are required to take part in the local elections. As a reward for giving up its hold over the pockets of about 40,000 Serbs in the north of Kosovo, Belgrade will get to open talks with the EU about joining the bloc in the coming months.
According to the Central European Policy Institute (CEPI), the elections will provide a litmus test for the EU-brokered deal, dubbed the "Brussels Agreement" - whether it can be "a harbinger of a new era in the relationship between Belgrade and Pristina, as well as for their European transformation." Recent events suggest the jury is still out on that.
The run-up to the local elections has been fraught with tensions between the two communities of Serbs and ethnic Albanians that have spilled over into violence, falling-outs between political leaders and heated rhetoric.
The most recent hiccup, a refusal by Pristina to allow Serbia's prime minister to visit the municipalities for the duration of the campaign, was only resolved on October 7 after talks in Brussels between the two sides. Ironically, Ivica Dacic only wanted to visit in order to encourage Serbs there to take part in the elections, which is seen as crucial to giving the polls legitimacy. The mayors and most political representatives of the northern Kosovo Serbs have mounted a boycott against the elections and independent estimates put Serb participation at only 15-30%.
"We have agreed to establish a mechanism which would allow Serbian officials to visit Kosovo without problems," Dacic said after the talks with Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci. Following the talks, Thaci told Kosovo TV that, "Kosovo will respect the accord on the freedom of movement without discrimination."
There have been more esoteric arguments that threatened to derail the elections, some stemming from the necessity of leaving some questions unanswered or vague in order to get the "Brussels Agreement" signed in the first place. For example, Pristina regards the agreement as an important step towards full normalisation between two countries and will eventually lead to Serbia's recognition of Kosovo as an independent state; Serbia on the other hand sees the deal as status-neutral (it says it will never accept the independence of what it sees as the cradle of Serb civilisation), so was miffed at the appearance of "Republic of Kosova" on the ballot papers.
Voter registration has also been fraught with problems, given that many Serbs fled Kosovo when war erupted between the two sides in 1998 and the Nato bombing brought the conflict to an end in 1999. The Serbs say that so far the Central Electoral Commission in Kosovo has allowed for only 17% of the 39,000 voters from among refugees who have applied to participate in the elections, which they feel is too few.
The most worrying scenario is an upsurge in violence, which is never far from the surface in this volatile region. On September 19, a Lithuanian officer of Eulex, the EU's police and civilian mission there, was shot and killed in Zvecan in northern Kosovo. And a week before that, the family of Oliver Ivanovic, the former Serbian secretary of state for Kosovo who is running for the post of mayor in Mitrovica, was attacked for his political stance that Serbs should participate in the local elections. According to UN data, between January and April, there were numerous serious incidents reported, including shootings, explosions and violent clashes. "A lot of things could go wrong," says BeÃ¡ta Huszka of the Hungarian Institute of International Relations in Budapest, "among which an upsurge of violence is probably the greatest danger."
This violence could depress the voter turnout further - which is perhaps the point of it - making the whole election a farce and dealing a blow to Serbia's hopes of starting a dialogue with Brussels about joining the EU. Worryingly, say observers, there appears to be no back-up plan by the EU in the case of the elections failing or to cope with any unintended outcomes in their aftermath.
The ramifications of failure would likely be immediately felt in Serbia in the form of early elections, ending a period of relative political stability and threatening economic reforms; CEPI notes that Dacic's "pompous reaction [to being refused entry to Kosovo] may mark the beginning of the electoral campaign for the next parliamentary elections in Serbia."
But even if the elections are carried off with some degree of success, analysts stress that they are the beginning of the process, not the end. "Overseeing the elections will not be the last balancing act that the EU will need to undertake to see the process through to the end," says CEPI.
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