Yesterday, 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.