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Kosovo elections: the mayoralty of North Mitrovica is a poisoned chalice

imageYesterday, the people of North Mitrovica went to the polls to vote in a re-run of the local elections postponed from November 3rd due to a nationalist attack on polling stations in the city.

So far, the reaction to the election from the international community has been positive. Notably, the head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSC) Mission in Kosovo, Jean-Claude Schlumberger issued a statement stating he was “very pleased that there were no incidents… and that the balloting went smoothly. All security providers, Kosovo Police, EULEX and KFOR, as well as political entities running in Mitrovica contributed to the peaceful environment“.

It seems that Schlumberger was right. Friends on the ground tell me that the security situation was considerably better than last time, with a noticeable military presence lining the streets to prevent voter intimidation. While I wasn’t on the ground yesterday, I was shocked by the lightweight OSCE team in North Mitrovica two weeks ago – many of whose staff appeared to have limited knowledge of the political, cultural and security realities in the ground in North Kosovo. This time, it seems they requested the security back-up they needed to supervise the elections.

The results of the election are broadly as expected.

The incumbent Mayor of North Mitrovica Krstimir Pantic placed first in North Mitrovica with 37.06% of the valid votes, followed by former Serbian State Secretary of the Ministry for Kosovo and Metohija Oliver Ivanovic with 28.53%. Placing third was Agim Deva of the Albanian PDK with 20.29% followed by independent Bosniak candidate Adrijana Hodzic with 11.9% and Dimitrije Janicijevic of the Serb Liberal Party with 2.15%.
Pantic and Ivanovic – who are both ubiquitous presences in North Mitrovica – will now go to a run-off. My personal view is that, despite the Pantic getting the most votes in the first round, Ivanovic may well score a second round victory due to his willingness to engage with Albanian and Bosniak parts of the community. It may also be that the perception Pantic has the backing of the Belgrade administration undermines his appeal in the staunchly individualistic and nationalistic city where nobody is happy taking orders from “outsiders” – whether in Belgrade or Pristina.

A number of mistakes were made in respect of this election.

Firstly, the decision to transport the ballot boxes from the city of Mitrovica to Pristina for counting was a spectacular own goal on the part of EULEX and the OSCE. While they argued that it was necessary to count the votes in Pristina in order to ensure a safe count, the tallying of (predominantly) Serb votes from a controversial election in an overwhelmingly Albanian city only lent credence to conspiracy theorists who argue the vote was rigged.

preporuka1Secondly, I was concerned to hear about the climate of intimidation many Serbian state employees were subjected to in the run-up to the vote. A few hours before the polls closed yesterday, a friend living in North Mitrovica sent me a scanned copy of the communique that had been circulated to all civil servants informing them what time they would be expected to go and vote and which official from their department would lead them there to do so. Amongst local Serbs, these written “recommendations” – or “diktats” as they became known – entirely undermined the legitimacy of the elections. In future, Belgrade and Pristina ought to remember that in a democracy people have a right not to vote as well as to vote.  (That said, even with the “encouragement” to vote, turnout was only 22% – which further casts doubt on the solidity of the process).

preporuka2Thirdly, the administrative preparations for the elections were shambolic – and again undermined faith in the voting process. For one, voter lists were hugely out of date. The majority of Serb women appeared on the voter rolls twice, with entries for both their married and maiden names. I have also heard of several examples of where people who died many years ago were still listed as current voters. Confusingly – given the large number of duplicate and out of date names on voter rolls – a number of those who did wish to participate in the elections were not listed as registered to vote which led to roughly one in six votes being cast provisionally. Efforts to improve the quality of the electoral register must now be a priority.

A few weeks from now, the people of North Mitrovica will go to the polls for the third time in in two months for the run-off election to pick their next Mayor.

The successful candidate will no doubt be feted by the majority of international observers as evidence of Serb participation in the democratic institutions of Kosovo.

I’m less optimistic.

From the tear gas attack two weeks ago to the poor electoral rolls to the threats to vote this Sunday, the successful candidate is already severely handicapped in their ability to govern. Public trust simply is not there and even the seating of an ethnic Serb Mayor will do little to convince locals in North Mitrovica to engage with Pristina.

In short, the North Kosovo mayoralty is what we, in England, call a “poisoned chalice”.

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.

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”.