Harriet Salem in Belgrade -
Amidst political mud slinging, bomb blasts and the fatal shooting of a member of the EU's rule-of-law mission by an unknown assailant, Kosovo is bracing itself for local elections, with international significance.
Scheduled for November 3, the controversial vote is the first to be held across the territory since Kosovo's unilateral declaration of 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, who instead organised the election of local representatives in separate polls. However, in an about turn, this election campaign has seen Serbia's incumbent government - a coalition led by the Socialist Party of Serbia and the Serbian Progressive Party - throw their weight behind a campaign to secure Kosovo Serbs' participation at the ballot box this Sunday.
The motivation for the change of heart came through an EU-brokered deal between Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and his Serbian counterpart Ivica Dacic to commit to the "normalisation of neighbourly relations". Whilst seemingly benign, the requirement is a deeply emotive topic for Serbia, which vehemently opposes Kosovo's independence. And in practical terms means Belgrade dismantling its controversial parallel institutions in Kosovo - which administer healthcare, education and utilities to ethnic Serbs - effectively signalling an end to Serbia's financial support to their kinsmen south of the disputed border.
Until recently such a concession would have been unthinkable. In July 2012, the former president Boris Tadic's handshake with Thaci, the first between officials since the civil war between Serbs and the ethnic Albanian population ended in 1999 folowing Nato intervention, was greeted with outrage in Serbia. Fast-forward one year and the ink on the Brussels agreement was already dried. "Kosovar and Serbian political leaders have made huge steps within a short period of time in closing the gap that existed between them before the Brussels negotiations and eventual agreements," says Arjan Drymishi, head of the Tirana-based European Security Research Department for Democracy and Mediation.
Many have attributed the rapid progress to the political standing of the April agreement's signatories. During the war Thaci was a member of the inner circle of the Kosovo Liberation Army, whilst Dacic was a spokesman for the former dictator Slobodan Milosevic. "The past of these men has undoubtedly given them credibility with the citizens of their countries to push through an agreement which under previous administrations was unpalatable," a Brussels-based source close to the EU tells bne.
But while all sides have successfully reinvented themselves as pro-European, as the elections approaches the strain in the newly formed relationship between old enemies is showing. Squabbles over "status neutral" insignia on election materials, the registration of internally displaced voters and Serbian politicians enetring into Kosovo territory have all threatened to derail proceedings.
However, according to Drymishi, such skirmishes should be considered par for the course rather than a serious attempt to depart from the original agreement. "Given the differences of opinions and positions that exist between Brussels and real life in the most politically sensitive part of the Balkans, both Serbian and Kosovar politicians have, at times, succumbed to pressures of local politics," he says. "But they have also successfully reformulated their positions. This shows both the pressures under which they are acting out their political roles but also their willingness to stick to their commitments."
Certainly both sides are edging ever closer to the EU, both in terms of political and economic allegiance. "Consensus over whether the Western Balkans join the EU is only growing for all involved parties," says Luka Oreskovic, a Harvard researcher specialising in Southeast Europe. "In Kosovo there has always been relatively strong support for the EU. But even Serbia, which in the past harboured some of the strongest anti-EU sentiment in the region, has made a significant turn away from that path. Public support for EU membership has grown substantially, and politicians have also taken steps to move away from heavy economic dependence on a sole actor, Russia, in favour of multilateral trade and finance relations that continue to include Russia, but also extend to European countries... this has removed a significant barrier to Serbia's progression with the EU".
Yet even if Belgrade's politicians are committed to the cause, it remains to be seen whether they can persuade others to follow suit. Just days before the election, a poll from the UN suggests that turnout of Kosovo Serbs will be less than 16%. "Many Serbs in northern Kosovo have rejected the Brussels Agreement and... this faction will be keen to show their influence to both Belgrade and Prishtina authorities," says Drymishi. "If the turnout of Serb voters in the elections will be low enough to question their validity it will be a serious blow and will give a new momentum to the radical alternatives on both sides."
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