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The North Kosovo election boycott worked

imageYesterday, Kosovo went to the polls for the first truly national election since independence in 2008. Following an agreement struck between the Serbian and Kosovan governments, the overwhelmingly ethnic Serb areas north of the Ibar river participated in Kosovo state elections for the first time.

Participation in the elections, which were intended to boost ethnic Serb representation within Kosovo government structures, was officially encouraged by the government in Belgrade (keen to move forward with their European Union ascension bid) and influential Serb community leaders in Kosovo (keen to get their hands on increased budgets).

South of the Ibar, the elections were a success with Serbian candidates winning the mayoral races in each majority Serbian municipality. Indeed, the five municipalities with the largest Serb populations recorded the highest turnouts in the country. It seems that these isolated communities recognised that participation in the elections was crucial to ensuring the survival and vibrancy of their communities inside the Kosovan state.

Physically divided from the rest of Kosovo by the Ibar, and immediately adjoined to the Central Serbia region, the residents of North Kosovo did not share this viewpoint. Given that they have never been subject to the institutions of the Kosovo government and had instead remained a de facto part of Serbia since the end of the 1999 war, they saw no reason to alter the status quo.

As such, an active and well-organised campaign was deployed across the region calling for a “100 percent boycott” of the elections

For most part, the boycott campaign worked. Predicted turnout figures across the northern municipalities range from five to 25 percent.

During the course of the afternoon yesterday, I toured several polling stations in the Leposavi? and Zvecan regions. They were as quiet as the grave, yet there was no indication of the low participation rates being caused by anything other than unwillingness to engage with an election associated with the Kosovan – rather than Serbian – state.

Only in the ethnic flashpoint of Mitrovica, though did I detect hostility towards those Serbs opting to participate in the polls; manifested in the form of groups of leather jacket-clad, shaved-headed twenty-somethings hanging around outside polling stations “observing” goings on.

Just after 5pm, an ultra-nationalist group laid siege to a polling station in the city of North Mitrovica, firing tear gas canisters and destroying ballot boxes. Following the attack, the final two hours of polling were cancelled and observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe retreated from North Kosovo on the basis of security concerns.

With that one action, hard-liners undermined not only their own community’s peaceful boycott campaign but also cast into peril the entire, painstakingly-negotiated agreement on the status of North Kosovo agreed between Pristina and Belgrade – not that, on the latter point, local Serbs care.

A large amount of the frustration and unwillingness of local Serbs to participate in the elections comes as result of the “top down” nature of the decision-making processes that brought the elections about. It is clear that the Serbs of North Kosovo trust neither Belgrade or Pristina to negotiate about their future. They feel their own concerns are subjugated by Belgrade’s EU aspirations and Pristina’s thirst to bring all of Kosovo under central government control.

Solving the North Kosovo problem is going to require not only patience but genuine dialogue with all parties concerned with the region’s future. The people of North Kosovo must be treated as equals in the process, not political pawns.

North Kosovo needs a Governor – not a series of political pygmies

imagePolls are now open across Kosovo in the first genuinely national elections to take place across the country since it declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

I’m currently in the overwhelmingly ethnic Serb region of Northern Kosovo where, for the first time, local residents will have the opportunity to participate in elections organised by the administration in Pristina as opposed to institutions loyal to Belgrade.

The concept of electing local Mayors to administer public services is a solid one. In North Kosovo, though, it’s not an exciting or groundbreaking one. After all, the Serbian local government institutions that have hitherto operated in North Kosovo have discharged this role relatively effectively to date.

Instead, we all know that these elections have far more to do with political symbolism and the transfer of the power of the Serbian state to the Kosovo Government – a process almost uniformly opposed by Serbs in North Kosovo.

In the city of Mitrovica, which is divided by the River Ibar between a predominantly Serbian north and overwhelmingly Albanian south, a contest is taking place in the north between current Mayor Kristimir Pantić and prominent local activist Oliver Ivanović. Due to the city’s status as a flashpoint for ethnic violence and a regional hub for international NGOs, a significant degree of pressure has been exerted on the city’s residents (particularly those employed in Serbian state institutions) to lend the elections legitimacy by participating in them.

As we approach lunchtime, pre-election predictions that turnout would reach 15-20% are appearing highly optimistic. Throughout the morning, a small trickle of voters have cast votes in the towns of Zvecan, Leopsavic and Zubin Potok. By 10:00, only 1.7% of registered voters had cast their votes in North Mitrovica – many of them likely to have been from the small Bosniak and Albanian communities.

In terms of making these elections appear relevant to local residents, I have concluded that the region would have been better served by the election of a single Governor for the whole of the North Kosovo region rather than a series of relatively powerless local political pygmies.

The election of a high-profile and powerful Governor answerable to North Kosovo residents would lend some much-needed visibility and purpose to the role rather than the obscurity and anonymity today’s elections will engrain in local politics. Such a figure would be visible and accountable in a way that, say, the new Mayor of Zubin Potok (population: 14,000) will struggle to be.

A Governor would have the legitimacy required to persuade Belgrade to transfer control of not only traditional local government services such as transport and waste collection to the region but the remainder of services provided by the Serbian state locally such as oversight of the local university and government pensions offices.

From Pristina’s perspective that would be a gain as it would put some clear blue water between North Kosovo and the government in Belgrade.

With a population of little more than 60,000, a Governor for the region would still only be presiding over a population roughly akin to the size of Canterbury. By no estimations would such a local government unit be too large to effectively manage.

Opponents of the idea of a single Governor for the region will argue that it is unacceptable to treat North Kosovo any differently as a unit than anywhere else in the country. They need to wake up and smell the coffee.

Local government elections south of the Ibar only work effectively because, broadly speaking, citizens identify with a central government they feel connected to. The situation in North Kosovo is a sui generis and, as such, needs its own creative solutions to bring about civic leadership and participation in the Kosovan state.

I’d be interested to know your thoughts on how you’d strengthen local accountability and political participation north of the Ibar.

Kosovo elections and ethnic Serb participation – the real challenge is North Kosovo

eulex_kosovo-ethnic-1The past months have seen a marked shift in external perceptions of the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia.

These changes have been largely brought about by efforts by the government in Belgrade to temper the more bellicose language used by its officials towards Pristina and a willingness of Kosovo Prime Minister Thaci’s administration to compromise on judicial and policing matters in order to strengthen the hand of the minority Serb community.  For both nations, the prospect of EU membership is no longer a pipe-dream but a genuine possibility.

The present period of relative détente between the two parties does, however, remain fragile.  While confidence-building measures have improved relations between the two sides, little trust exists.

The local elections scheduled to take place on November 3rd are one big confidence-building measure in themselves.

Traditionally, the vast majority of Serbs in Kosovo have refused to participate in the institutions of the independent Kosovo.  This refusal has been based upon two factors – firstly, personal anger at what some Serbs saw as an ethnic Albanian “power grab” when Pristina declared independence and secondly, because of the urging of Belgrade officials to boycott the polls.

The increased levels of cooperation between Belgrade and Pristina have precipitated a thawing in Serb opposition to the elections – largely as a result of realpolitik.  Serbs living in Kosovo realise that independence is now an irreversible reality for Kosovo and that non-participation in the election process is tantamount to handing power to the ethnic Albanian community.

On a visit to the Serbian enclave of Gracanica yesterday, Serbian Prime Minister Dacic said: “it is in their [the Albanians] interest to have as few Serbs as possible vote in the elections… we have to do something that does not suit them, and that is to take power and use it for our own interest”.

The two leading candidates for the office of Mayor of the Serbian portion of Mitrovica, Krstimir Pantic and Oliver Ivanovic are also urging Serbs to participate in the elections.

In an interview with InSerbia.com, Pantic said: “these will not be just local elections, and the vote does not mean the Serbs will recognize Kosovo independence… on the contrary, [we] will finally get institutions recognized by the international community and institutions that the Albanians will have to respect”.   Ivanovic added: “we have the option to maintain a good relationship with Serbia or stay all alone. We have no relations with Pristina, we have not had relations with Brussels for a long time, and in the event that we refuse to turn out, we will be left on our own, and that is bad, and disastrous”.

It’s a curious turn-around on the part of both Belgrade and figures formerly views as anti-Pristina “hard-liners”: rather than accuse Serb participants in the elections as traitors as in the past, leading Serbian politicians are instead urging their community to vote for positive, patriotic reasons.

From the perspective of anyone wishing to see stability in the region, the Serbian government is right to urge Serbs in Kosovo to participate in the elections.   Many Serbs in Belgrade are, however, too far removed from the day to day reality of life in Kosovo to understand that Kosovo Serbs are far from being a monolithic block.

Take the case of Gracancia, where Prime Minister Dacic made his comments urging Serbs to participate in the elections.   Gracanica is no more than fifteen minutes from the centre of Pristina and entirely surrounded by ethnic Albanian areas.   As pleasant as the village is with its stunning monastery and clutch of delicious small bakeries, it’s far from a metropolis.

For the Serbs that live there, interaction with the administration in Pristina isn’t an option but rather a reality if they wish to access healthcare, pensions and, for young people, a quality education.  They realised at the last round of local elections that the votes of their community could buy lasting political power in the area whereas non-participation would hand control of local government to Albanians.

The same is not true for the Serbian communities of North Kosovo that are largely physically divided from the rest of the country by the Ibar.

If one looks beyond the pile of rubble on the bridge separating north and south Mitrovica and the odd ultra-nationalist mural in the pretty town of Zvecan, there is very little difference between life in North Kosovo and the towns just over the border in Serbia proper.   For the citizens of North Kosovo, the institutions of the Serbian state remain in very much place – from schools and universities to pension offices to health clinics.   Serbian music still fills smoky cafes from Zubin Potok to Leposavic and knowledge of the Albanian language is, at best, threadbare.

While international troops continue to roam the streets, the residents of the north feel largely “safe” from the administration in Pristina that few trust and even fewer wished to see declare independence from Serbia.

Many Serbs in the North see the recent Pristina-Belgrade accords as having threatened their sovereignty and jeapordised their passionate wish to return to direct control from Belgrade.  Why, they ask, should they participate in elections they see as Pristina-led when they are already largely in control of their own destiny?  What, they wonder, is the real agenda of politicians in both Belgrade and Pristina?  Is Belgrade sacrifyincing them, they wonder, in order to pursue a greater EU dream at the expense of its own citizens?

Here is where the challenge lies in respect of the November 3rd.

Serb participation in the local elections south of the Ibar will, of course, be seen as a great success for both Serb and Kosovan EU ambitions.  But it might not be enough to satisfy EU power-brokers.

These elections can only be judged to be a success of the 75,000 Serbs of North Kosovo can be persuaded that participation is in their patriotic interests.

With less than two weeks to go until Election Day, the word on the ground is that participation on the North is unlikely to exceed a disastrous 20%.

The last months have heralded significant improvements in Pristina-Belgrade relations.  The next challenge is how to go about improving trust between Belgrade and North Kosovo.

Ivica Dacic and the art of the possible

There’s an interesting piece on the Balkan Insight website this evening reporting comments made by Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic regarding the future status of Kosovo.

Referencing the 1995 Dayton Agreement which brought about an end to conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina by dividing the country up into two functionally autonomous regions linked by only the very loosest central government ties, Dacic argues in favour of a “new Dayton” to resolve the conflict between Serbia and the majority-Albanian government in Pristina about the future of Kosovo.

Unsurprisingly, the suggestion has been dismissed out of hand by the government in Pristina.  After all, why would they feel compelled to accept a sovereignty-sharing arrangement with Belgrade?

Kosovo’s independence has been recognised by the United States and twenty-two of the EU’s twenty-seven member states (those that don’t – Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania, and Greece – have problems with irredentist or secessionist movements and are unwilling to recognise Kosovo for fear of setting an internal precedent).  Furthermore, 93 of the 193 United Nations members recognise Kosovo, just shy of the “magic number” (100) require for them to apply for UN membership.

The charming and urbane former Serbian State Secretary for Kosovo Oliver Ivanovic, who I have had the pleasure to meet on a number of occasions in his home-town of Mitrovica, offered a withering response to Dacic’s suggestion: “only Serbia thinks that Kosovo’s status has not been resolved, while for the [Kosovo] Albanians and the West the issue is resolved”.

The government in Belgrade increasingly gives the impression of advocating a position on the Kosovo issue that it itself knows is untenable and unrealistic, while at the same time losing out on genuine opportunities to improve the lives of Serbs in the province.  On a diplomatic level, Serbia enjoys a level of confidence and trust akin to that of a Greek covered bond.

Despite the dogged international support it has received, backed up by tens of millions of Euros in US and EU funding, the Ahtisaari Plan which was supposed to ensure the safe return of Serbs to Kosovo and their integration into the country’s political system has, for most part, been a failure.

While a small number of Serbs hold posts in the Kosovan government and in municipal authorities, large tracts of the country remain total “no go” zones for Serbs.  In the past four months alone, two elderly returnees were murdered close Urosevac, two men were shot while driving in Istog while Serb homes near Zac were pelted with stones and daubed with extremist graffiti.

These communities are exactly the ones forgotten by the Dacic government in its almost-daily clamour to announce new and untenable “solutions” to the Kosovo conflict.  Politics is the part of the possible and, try as he might, Dacic will not achieve the impossible: the reunification of Kosovo and Serbia in a unitary state.

It’s time for Dacic to wake up to what he can positively achieve for his people.

In the short-to-medium term the Serbian government should aim to secure two successful outcomes from their EU-led negotiations with Pristina – and avoid any talk of reunification, beyond that of the majority Serb provinces in the north of Kosovo where Pristina’s writ has never run.

Firstly, a clear pledge should be extracted from the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) to refocus its resources on guaranteeing the safety of Serb returnees to an area that is, at least in theory, a “multi-ethnic Republic”. Secondly, the government should push for the security checks and (in some cases spiteful) customs levies being levelled on Kosovo’s northern and western borders with Serbia to be removed in order to allow a free flow of people and goods.

In return, Serbia should promise to continue working with Belgrade on projects such as the sharing of cadastral records, the mutual recognition of educational diplomas and the re-opening of railway links between Pristina and Belgrade – an economic link Kosovo badly needs.

Such a solution would go some way towards achieving a sense of normalisation between Kosovo and Serbia that is of benefit to both its peoples – without the word “sovereignty” passing Ivica Dacic’s lips or giving Kosovan Prime Minister Hashim Thaci the opportunity to level his usual allegation of Serb “aggression”.