Serb violence and boycott mar Kosovo's local elections

By bne IntelliNews November 4, 2013

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Local elections in Kosovo on November 3, which were supposed to have been a major step in bringing the ethnic Albanian majority and Serb minority communities together, disintegrated amid violence and boycotts.

According to media, at around 5:00pm local time, a gang stormed into a polling station in a primary schools in the Serb part of Mitrovice, the central town in the divided north of Kosovo, using pepper spray or, by someoe account tear gas, and smashing ballot boxes. Ballots were reportedly destroyed and international election observers forced to flee.

A short time later, police found and removed an unexploded bomb outside a technical school in the same town. A spokesman for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) confirmed to Al Jazeera that 60 members of its mission responsible for the organisation of the election had withdrawn from three areas due to security concerns.

Groups surrounded polling stations to intimidate people intending to vote and abusing mayoral candidates, resulting in a low turnout in the four Serb municipalities in northern Kosovo. The latest figures showed an average voter turnout of 47.9% across Kosovo, but under 10% in Serb areas.

The events will be a huge disappointment to the EU, as the participation of the north Kosovan Serbs in the council and mayoral elections is central to the so-called "Brussels Agreement" between Belgrade and Pristina. Under the historic deal to normalise relations that have been frozen since the erstwhile Serbian province declared independence in 2008, the four Serb-dominated northernmost municipalities are to be incorporated into Kosovo's legal system. Therefore, they are required to take part in local elections.

As a reward for giving up its hold over northern Kosovo, where around 40,000 Serbs control significant pockets, Belgrade will get to open talks with the EU about joining the bloc in the coming months. Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and Deputy Premier Aleksandar Vucic, who staked their reputations by agreeing the EU deal, issued a joint appeal to voters to take part in the elections.

The Central European Policy Institute (CEPI) suggested the election as a litmus test for the EU-brokered deal's ability to be "a harbinger of a new era in the relationship between Belgrade and Pristina, as well as for their European transformation." After the fact, that seems unlikely, though there will be huge pressure on all sides to declare the elections as some kind of success. Vucic called on the international community to allow Serbia to intervene in Kosovo and arrest those it considered suspects for incidents. However, Kosovan Interior Minister Bajram Rexhepi rejected the proposal.

According to Al Jazeera, Krstimir Pantic, the mayoral candidate for Kosovska Mitrovica who was physically attacked on the eve of the election, called for the polls in northern Kosovo to be declared void. He also said there were indications that Marko Jaksic, a member of the Serbian Parliament from the hardline Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), was behind the incident in the primary school.

DSS was highly active in campaigning against Serb participation in the polls. Jaksic said this theory was "a great political stupidity," adding he saw plain-clothed Serbian police telling hooligans they had their support ahead of the incidents.

Gerard M. Gallucci, a former peacekeeper who blogs for the NGO TransConflict, believes that "detaching membership - for both Serbia and Kosovo - from finding an immediate solution to the Kosovo issue might help everyone move forward with a greater sense of security and an openness to cooperation."

Continuing, he suggests: "The northern Kosovo Serbs may see failure of the election as a final way to make it clear they want no part in an 'independent' Kosovo. Faced by the choice between violence and/or possible ethnic flight, would it then be time for the international community to reconsider the idea of partition?"

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