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Kosovo elections: reflections on Prime Minister Haradinaj, a strong opposition and a sense of “normality”

ramushOn Sunday, the people of Kosovo went to the polls to vote in the country’s second general election since declaring independence from Serbia in 2008.

While the election results confirmed Hashim Thaci’s position as Kosovo’s most powerful politician and the PDK’s status as the country’s leading political party, it did not hand either the type of hegemonic power needed to rule without compromise or coalition.

In a short blog post I wrote on the morning of election, I wrote that “it would not be beyond the realms of possibility to see the political factions of former Pristina Mayor and centre-right LDK leader Isa Mustafa, former President Behgjet Pacolli and former guerrilla Ramush Haradinaj attempt to forge a governing coalition with ethnic minority parties to force Thaçi from office”.

In that comment, I overlooked two things: the potential of former PDK stalwart, Parliament Speaker and acting President Jakup Krasniqi and KLA guerrilla Fatmir Limaj’s new Nisma party (Initiative for Kosovo) to cross the 5% electoral threshold or the ability of Pacolli’s New Kosovo Alliance (AKR) to fall under it.

Nevertheless, a deal appears to have been done that will force Thaci and the PDK from power.

According to a statement issued by the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) late yesterday, a deal has been done between themselves, Haradinaj’s Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) and Krasniqi and Limaj’s Nisma to share power.  As part of the deal, Haradinaj will hold the position of Prime Minister, the LDK will nominate the President, Parliament Speaker and bulk of the ministers and Nisma will hold the Deputy Prime Minister’s office.

Electorally, speaking the coalition just about works.

results2The LDK will have 30 seats in Parliament, the AAK 13 and Nisma seven.  Of the “Albanian parties” alone, this takes the coalition up to 50 seats.  This still puts it eleven seats shy of a working majority of 61 seats.

However, the coalition will undoubtedly be able to do a deal with the ethnic Serbian Srpska List (which includes the outgoing Deputy PM in the last coalition government, Slobodan Petrovic) who are guaranteed under the constitution to hold ten seats in the National Assembly.  Add in several representatives of the Turk, Gorani, Bosniak, Roma and Ashkali community, whose support for a governing coalition can often be secured on the basis of transactional promises revolving around investments in minority schools, housing in isolated rural areas and community facilities, then the coalition could conceivably hold up to 70 of the 120 seats in the National Assembly.

While it would be a departure from the status quo in which Thaci, as the leader of the largest party, has been Prime Minister, it would appear to possess a relatively sound basis for government.  Indeed, the last administration Haradinaj led between 2004 and 2005 was also constituted with the support of the LDK and with his party holding only a small number of seats – the deal ultimately resulting in his government holding 72 of the 120 seats in the chamber.

So, what would a Haradinaj administration look like?

Well, firstly, it’s worth reflecting on what a tremendous personal and political triumph it would represent for Haradinaj if he were to return to the office of Prime Minister after having seen his last term abruptly halted by him being carted off to International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to face war crimes charges.  Having spent the bulk of the past decade in The Hague beating off charges of crimes against ethnic Serbs and political opponents during the late 90s, Haradinaj will understandably feel a sense of vindication.

In the days ahead, it is likely that we will see many commentators question whether the Haradinaj administration will remain committed to rapprochement with ethnic Serbs across Kosovo.  I have already read several comments from observers of the region questioning whether his election marks a shift towards an aggressive form of nationalism.

I’d urge them to hold off on the rhetoric – for now.

During his previous administration, Haradinaj was marked out by members of both the Serbian community and international administration for his determination to try and engage with minority communities.  Indeed, a former British Ambassador to Pristina once described how Haradinaj had to be “calmed down” in this respect, for fear of destabilising his administration by offending Albanian ultra-nationalists with his overtures to minorities.

Haradinaj is no saint – no former KLA man could ever be – but there is no evidence that a government led by him which will be constitutionally forced to include Serb ministers will pursue a policy contrary to the interests of minorities.

The second point that lends credence to the view that a Haradinaj government is unlikely to deviate too far from the current path of “normalising” relations with ethnic minorities and the Serbian Government is the failure to include the ultra-nationalist Vetevendosje movement in the proposed coalition.

Had Haradinaj, the LDK and Nisma struck a deal with Vetevendosje, the coalition would have been able to hold as many as 85 to 90 of the 120 seats in the National Assembly.

For that support, Vetevendosje would likely have demanded a package of constitutional reforms that watered down minority representation, a halting of economic liberalisation measures and remaining privatisations and an end to the Pristina-Belgrade shuttle diplomacy which has seen both Kosovo and Serbia inch closer towards EU membership.

Vetevendosje will, instead, continue in opposition – and the international community will breathe a sigh of relief.  The failure to include them in the coalition speaks to a degree of maturity on the part of Haradinaj, Mustafa, Krasniqi and Limaj.

Reviewing the election results and integrity of the balloting process on Sunday night, many commentators remarked how “normal” the elections had seemed.

The appointment of the new, Haradinaj-led coalition allows for this new-found sense of democratic “normality” to continue.  Why?

Since independence in 2008, Kosovo has operated on a “cartel politics” basis.  Elections have been fought but the result has usually been the same – a “grand coalition” between the two major parties and a few piecemeal, yet not particularly important smaller parties bought off my minor ministerial posts.   There has effectively been no real choice for voters.

With the PDK and Vetevendosje, two substantial, distinctive and vocal political movements seemingly shut out of the incoming administration, Kosovo could finally have the chance to experience what it is like to have both a stable government and a strong opposition.

Kosovo’s general election – things to watch our for

imageIt’s Election Day in Kosovo.

Unlike the last set of elections which took place in the darkness of a bitterly cold November day, the temperature today is set to soar as high as the mid 30s. On the street, the gritty smell of coal that tends to hand over Kosovo through then winter months has given way to the enticing smell of fresh bread and barbecued meats from qepabtores. The doors of every business – from cafes to garages – have been flung open, allowing music to fill Pristina’s broad boulevards.

While it’s a loaded term to use; Kosovo feels really rather “normal” today. Kosovo is a young country but it’s one that has grown very used to elections – and contentious ones at that.

A total of 1,235 candidates from 30 different political movements are running in today’s elections with 100 seats being allocated proportionally, 10 reserved for ethnic Serbs and a further 10 allocated to Turks, Roma, Ashkali, Gorani, Montenegrins, Bosniaks and Egyptians.

Polling will run until 17:00 this evening with results due to start filtering out some time around 20:00 this evening. In Pristina, a clear first indication of the likely winners will be the sound of car horns honking and political party flags being manically waved through the sunroofs of party supporters zipping up and down the Bill Clinton Boulevard. Those faring badly in the polls are likely to be conspicuous in their absence from the electoral circus.

Here are some things to look out for today…

A referendum on Thaçi

Nobody has dominated politics in post-independence Kosovo more than Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi. A product of the Kosovo Liberation Army who has courted international controversy for his alleged links to corruption and organised crime, he has successfully managed to hold together a coalition government since 2008. His record is a mixed one; with a number of perceived successes in “normalising” relations with Serbia and strengthening relations with the European Union, yet a lack of progress in eliminating corruption and cutting the country’s crippling unemployment rates.

Given his longevity in the Prime Minister’s office, it is not surprising that many Kosovans are viewing this election as a referendum on Thaçi himself – and he knows it. Like every good centre-left politician worth their salt, he has sought to engage in a bout of pre-election spending; jacking up public sector salaries, welfare benefits and state pensions by 25% in March and promising to do the same again every year for the next four years if returned to office.

While Thaçi’s fiscal profligacy may be foolhardy from an economic perspective, it is likely to fire up his base in the towns and villages of impoverished Central Kosovo while appealing to state employees in the capital city – an area that hasn’t traditionally been too favourable towards him or his PDK party.

As loyal as Thaçi’s base may be to him, however, there is also a sense of fatigue in the country after being ruled for so long by one person. Even if the PDK were to emerge from the election as the largest party, it would not be beyond the realms of possibility to see the political factions of former Pristina Mayor and centre-right LDK leader Isa Mustafa, former President Behgjet Pacolli and former guerrilla Ramush Haradinaj attempt to forge a governing coalition with ethnic minority parties to force Thaçi from office.

Vetevendosje’s vote share

One of the big surprises of the last Kosovan general election was the strength of the nationalist Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) movement which made waves with their fiery denunciations of domestic corruption and critiques (some of them fair) about the ineffectiveness of the myriad international organisations operating in Kosovo. Significant fears existed that the growth of Vetevendosje could fuel a rise in ultra-nationalism that could threaten regional security – yet this does not appear to have happened. Instead, Vetevendosje has become a much broader platform for “anti-politics” sentiment.

The election of party member Shpend Ahmeti as Mayor of Pristina, where he has taken an uncompromising approach to eliminating crime and corruption, has lent the party a degree of respectability. As such, I expect to see Vetevendosje’s vote share shoot up this evening to as much as 18-20%. While the established political parties may still attempt to operate a cordon sanitaire when it comes to Vetevendosje, it would seem to me impossible to fully shut them out of coalition-building talks.

LDK’s performance in Pristina

The LDK – the Democratic League of Kosovo – has long dominated politics in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital city and wealthiest settlement. The first chink in their armour showed last year when the party’s leader Isa Mustafa lost the Pristina Mayoral election to Shpend Ahmeti, who is widely acknowledged to have already done a far better job than his predecessor. With Mustafa again leading the LDK’s election campaign (and the party’s presumptive nominee for Prime Minister), it will be interesting to see how the party performs in the capital. From a British perspective, it would be odd to envisage votes for the Conservative Party (the LDK’s closest comparator in temperament) transferring in great numbers an insurgent student-fuelled protest party in the space of just one election cycle, yet it is possible that the combination of Mustafa’s dullness and Vetevendosje’s hard line on corruption could well appeal to Pristina’s frustrated middle classes.

Electoral fraud in Drenica

Drenica is Thaçi country – the birthplace of the Kosovo Liberation Army and home to the country’s hardiest souls. At the last election, widespread voter fraud occurred in support of the PDK and many polling stations were forced to conduct re-votes – which still resulted in Thaçi picking up 90% of the vote. While balloting procedures have been improved, it will be interesting to see if Drenica can pull off an election that is not mired in fraud.

Collapse of the Serbian Liberal Party

The majority of Serbs living in Kosovo have, since the end of the war in 1999, refused to participate in elections to the country’s interim Parliament and (since 2008) National Assembly.

A small faction that did, however, was the ethnic Serb Independent Liberal Party (SLS) who took advantage of the constitutional requirement that 10 of the 120 seats in the Kosovo Parliament go to Serbs to secure a political foothold in Pristina. While SLS MPs were elected with only around 1200 votes nationally on a truly dire turnout, they have played a fairly influential role in Government with Slobodan Petrović having served as Kosovo’s Deputy Prime Minister since 2008 and the party controlling the Local Self-Government, Communities and Return and Labour and Social Welfare Ministries.

There are signs, however, that ethnic Serbs are likely to participate in today’s elections in greater numbers than previously. Many more Serbs than before want a piece of Pristina’s pie. This is likely to see the end of SLS’s near-monopoly on Serb political power in Kosovo – and the end of a little-known but nevertheless significant force in post-independence politics.

Another North Kosovo electoral brownout

No discussion about elections in Kosovo would be complete without a quick mention of the situation in North Kosovo, a self-contained territorial unit divided from the rest of Kosovo by the River Ibar and home to roughly half of the country’s Serbs.

Unlike ethnic Serbs south of the river who live cheek by jowl with Albanians and recognise the benefits of engaging in elections to secure political power, the 95%-Serb north feels comfortable in ignoring Pristina’s institutions and elections. Indeed, even a series of Mayoral elections in November that were guaranteed to be won by ethnic Serbs had turnout rates of less than 25%. If turnout tops 10% in North Kosovo today, I will be stunned. With the exception of some ethnic Albanian and Bosniak areas of the city of North Mitrovica, posters and other electoral bumf is non-existant.

Happy Kosovo

Happy” is not the word most people would use to describe the divided city of Mitrovica in Kosovo.

Despite an EU brokered agreement, the city remains ethnically split between Serbs living on the northern bank of the River Ibar and Albanians on the south.

The worst of the clashes between the two communities have gradually dissipated over the last few years but tensions – many of them exacerbated by cack-handed policies handed down by foreign governments and international organisations with little practical knowledge of the reality of the situation on the ground - remain very much in evidence.

Against that backdrop, it’s surprising to see an amusing video coming out of North Mitrovica put together by young people who live in the town:

As my friend Milos said on Twitter last night, “finally, something positive from North Mitrovica“…

I’m sure it won’t take long for someone to allege that the video has “secret nationalist overtones” or that its creators have a “hidden agenda“ - but I think they’re looking for something that simply isn’t there.

Kosovo’s local elections: an anti-incumbent wave (and other quick observations)

eulex_kosovo-ethnic-1Voters in Kosovo went to the polls today to vote in the second round of the country’s local elections.  While it will be a number of days until the full political fallout from the elections is clear, it’s already possible to make some key observations about the elections.

Overall, the counting was speedy and transparent.  The results from each of the municipalities where run-offs were necessarily were counted extremely quickly, with reports on the progress of the counts updated online in “real time”.  It is testament to the level of interest that these elections have sparked both inside and outside of Kosovo that, at times, the download speed of the Central Electoral Commission’s website was reduced to a snail’s pace as people logged on to check the results in their own municipalities.

Across the country, turnout was a fairly solid 40.3%, which puts Kosovo roughly in-line with many European Union countries when it comes to participation in local elections.

The elections were a stunning rebuke for the Kosovan political classes – regardless of their political party.  Powerful incumbents have been unseated in the capital city of Pristina and key cities of Peja/Pec and Ferizaj/Urosevac.  Initial calculations from Kosovo’s Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi indicate that roughly two thirds of municipalities have opted to back opposition candidates over incumbents.

imagesOverall, the most surprising result was in the capital city of Pristina where incubent Mayor Isa Mustafa was unseated by a 51%/49% margin by Shpend Ahmeti from the nationalist Vetenvendosje movement.

The result in Pristina will be analysed more than any other given the political party Ahmeti represents.  I would caution against over-analysing the result and seeing it as a popular endorsement of Vetevendosje’s rather controversial manifesto but rather as a personal victory for Shpend Ahmeti, whose profile as a Harvard University Kennedy School of Government-educated economics professor saw him make big inroads amongst middle-class voters in the city.  Indeed, the professional backgrounds of both Ahmeti and the man he beat Isa Mustafa are almost identical, other than Ahmeti is not devoid of charisma.

Rather than Ahmeti’s victory serving as a boon for the party, it could perversely spell trouble for the broader Vetevendosje movement.  While the party is officially led by the tup-thumping MP Albin Kurti, Ahmeti’s victory seals his position as the most powerful figure inside the party.  Kurti is unlikely to be willing to hand over control of the movement to Ahmeti and his supporters, regardless of this new reality.  As such, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ahmeti take advantage of Kosovo’s famously fluid party system and instead launch a new, broad-based party that fits his persona better than the rather shrill Vetevendosje movement.

images2Isa Mustafa’s loss will likely mark the end of his political career.  Aside from being Mayor of Pristina, he also seved as the leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) and would have been expected to be the party’s Prime Ministerial nominee next year.  After being defeated in the LDK’s former Pristina heartland, this will now impossible and his resignation as party leader ought to be forthcoming in the coming hours.

In another significant results, Ali Berisha from Ramush Haradinaj’s Alliance for the Future of Kosovo was unseated by a 56% to 44% margin in their heartland area of Peja.  These elections were the first to take place since Haradinaj’s acquittal from war crimes charges and, as such, it was important for him and his party to make a big splash nationally in order to “relaunch” his career.  He and his party failed in that respect.

kusariIt is also interesting to note that, despite his personal unpopularity amongst the Kosovan public, former President Behgjet Pacolli’s New Kosovo Alliance has performed strongly with victory for the articulate former Deputy Prime Minister Mimoza Kusari-Lila in Gjakove and Agim Bahtiri in South Mitrovica – two key population centres.

Throughout the campaign, I have been surprised by the lack of attention that has been paid to the race in the municipality of Novo Brdo / Novoberde.  At the time of the last OSCE census, it was found that the municipality was home to 3,524 Albanians, 3,122 Serbs and only a small handful of other ethnicities – making it one of the very few truly multi-ethnic communities in Kosovo.

Unsurprisingly given the mixed population, the first and second placed candidates who progressed to the run-off were Serbian and Albanian whereas in all other areas with large Serb populations, the run-off was between two Serb nominees.  As such, the contest was a unique study of the effectiveness of the “get out the vote” operations of the Serb and Albanian communities. The turnout battle was well and truly won by the Serb community, whose nominee Svetislav Ivanvoic was elected with 54% of the vote over Albanian Bajrush Ymeri.

7155991417_a76eb6f1c8_zAt the time of the last election, the only Serbian-dominated communities that turned out in large numbers were the enclaves of Gracancica and Strpce – largely in order to ensure that the elections were not won by candidates from the tiny local Albanian community in the area on, say, a 100 vote turnout.  It seems that this message got through in Novo Brdo/Novoberde this time, with Serbs demonstrating a remarkably high level of civic engagement in order to ensure a member of their community was able to win control of the Town Hall.  Going forward, this could well become a regular example of the way the Serb community organises itself inside the Kosovan state.

Despite the psephological significance of the result in Novo Brdo/Novoberde, the real race of significance for the Serbian community was in the municipality of North Mitrovica.  In a relatively close race, the election was won by the incumbent Mayor Krstimir Pantic who defeated the former head of the Serbian ‘Coalition for Return’ Oliver Ivanovic by a 55% to 44% margin.

In my experience – which in no way relates to the comparative abilities of either man to exercise the core mayoral functions of keeping the streets clean and schools running efficiently – Ivanovic has always been the savvier operator in dealing with and charming the international community while Pantic has been a more “under the radar” operator.

Church_in_Northern_Kosovska_Mitrovica,_KosovoAs a fairly regular visitor to North Kosovo (and North Mitrovica in particular), it will be fascinating to watch how Pantic uses the increased funding and political access that will be provided to the city by Pristina, Belgrade and international organisations now that the local elections have been successfully concluded.  From an economic development point of view, the number one priority must be working with Pristina to devise a workable plan to re-open the Trepca mining complex – a facility that could bring vast economic benefits to the entire region.

There are many holes that can be picked in the way in which the elections were conducted in both ethnic Serbian and Albanian areas.  Voter rolls were too often out of date, political parties focussed too much on personalities rather than policies and turnout remained a big problem in the Serb community.  It’s difficult, however, to argue that they weren’t generally a success. Ethnic minorities in Kosovo are genuinely now better represented than in the past, while losses for incumbents suggest a strengthening of Kosovan willingness to challenge their leaders and hold them to account.  That’s progress.

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.

Election Day in North Mitrovica in photos

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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: eve of election in Pristina in photos

I’ve just wandered around Pristina for a couple of hours, taking in the sights ahead of the local elections tomorrow. All in all, despite the huge number of posters plastering walls around the city, the atmosphere feels incredibly calm and relaxed – much like it does in any other European city on Election Day.

Here’s a few photos of the campaigns and ordinary goings on in Pristina today…

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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.