The 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.