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Tag Archive for Mitrovica

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.

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 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.

Kosovo: cultural ghetto?

There’s a piece in today’s English-language version of Deutsche Welle which examines the challenges faced by Kosovan artists in promoting their work internationally.  Rather provocatively, the piece describes Kosovo as “Europe’s cultural ghetto“.

While it is true that many young Kosovars working in the creative industries are currently struggling to participate in international film festivals and art exhibitions as a result of the fact a significant number of countries including Russia, China and Brazil do not recognise Kosovo’s 2008 unilateral declaration of independence and will not issue visas to those living in the country.  In the case of those countries that do recognise Kosovo (including the United States, UK, France and Germany), the visa regime for Kosovar nationals is complex and inaccessible.  While all other states in South East Europe now enjoy visa-free travel to countries in the Schengen Area, Kosovars remain isolated from the rest of Europe.

So, until Kosovo’s culture can come to us, I’d urge you to go to Kosovo.

As anyone who has visited will tell you, Kosovo is a country of contrasts; from the chaos of Pristina’s central market and their soundtrack of Turkish Europop to the quiet solemnity of rural Istok and historic Prizren.  While the pluri-religious nature of Kosovo has taken a serious knock in the years following the late 90s conflict, the influence of both the Serbian Orthodox Church and Sunni Islam lives on; most notably in the southern city of Uroševac where an imposing church stands only a stone’s throw from a mosque.

Give Kosovo a go.

Annoyingly, British Airways has cancelled its direct flight from London to Pristina as a result of a fuel dispute with the airport’s Turkish owners – but flights routed through Zagreb and Budapest continue to be cheap at roughly £250 return and take less than five hours, including changes.  Direct flights remain in place from Brussels, Geneva and most large German cities and cost no more than £150.

Accommodation in Pristina can be expensive but I find the Hotel Begolli close to the main market to be an affordable, comfortable and immaculately clean alternative to the Tito-era monstrosity that is the Grand Hotel, which was once the hang-out of Serbian war criminal Arkan who rather perplexingly served as one of Kosovo’s Members of Parliament in the 1990s.

Anyone considering a visit to the country should start by reading the excellent WikiTravel article on Pristina which contains some excellent tips on things to do when in town.  My number one piece of advice, however, is just to grab a map of the city and go for a wander.  You’ll get lost in the city’s winding streets but you’ll never be unsafe at any time of the day or night, with the city’s residents being amongst the friendliest of any on earth.

From a “tourist” perspective, you can see Pristina in a day or two, taking in famous sites such as the golden statue of Bill Clinton and mosques on Nazim Gafurri Street while sampling the city’s excellent coffee shops and surprisingly good restaurants (Pi Shat on Qamil Hoxha Street is a must if you want to try some traditional Albanian food).

Pristina is undoubtedly an interesting city, buzzling with life and populated by permanently-smiling people – but it’s not a beautiful one.  If you want to sample the best in Kosovan architecture, then take the bus from Pristina two hours south to Prizren where you can visit scores of historic mosques, a historic castle and the town’s impressive main piazza.  At the top of the hill you can visit the remains of the Serbian quarter, most of which was sadly destroyed in the 2004 uprising against Serbs.

Around an hour north of Pristina is the town of Mitrovica, a place often described by the press as “Europe’s most dangerous city“.  While most of the rest of Kosovo is almost-entirely populated by Albanians, Mitrovica remains ethnically divided with Albanians living the southern part of the city and Serbs in the north, the two communities divided a bridge over the River Ibar.

While occasional violence flares up between Serbs and Albanians (often sparked by cross-bridge taunting about each other’s sporting defeats), both areas are safe for foreigners to visit.  Those living in the south of Mitrovica will tell you the north is too dangerous to visit – but feel free to ignore they warnings.

Travelling from Pristina’s main bus station, you’ll be able to take a bus to the Mitrovica’s main square and will then have to walk across the bridge, passing a mass of Serbian flags and graffiti of the ultra-nationalist variety.  You can also take a taxi right up to the bridge (just ask for “Mitrovica mosh’t” and the driver will understand where you’re after) for about €25.  After a few days in Pristina, you’ll immediately feel as if you are in an different country in terms of language, music and  architecture. (On a political level, I’ve long argued that the northern parts of Kosovo should be partitioned and transferred to Serbia).

If, as is likely, your time in North Mitrovica is limited, simply follow the road up to the imposing Orthodox church on the hill for some of the best views of the Albanian and Serb parts of the city.  If you have time to stop for food, you’ll find a range of excellent restaurants serving a range of Serbian and Western food and scores of friendly bars and coffee shops.  Do spend a few moments speaking to local people you come across, most of whom speak excellent English.  They have a very different take on political issues to those living south of the Ibar but are endlessly courteous and welcoming of foreigners.

Kosovo isn’t a typical tourist destination – but it is a fascinating and rewarding one.  And it’s not a cultural ghetto.

Correction – Petrit Selimi, Kosovo’s Deputy Foreign Minister has been in touch to say; “Brazil and China do issue visas to Kosovars as they have recently recognised Kosovo passports. Indeed, a young Kosovo film director Arzan Kraja just participated in a festival in Rio, supported by joint project supported by British Council Kosovo and Kosovo’s MFA. One can also travel with a tourist visa to China with Kosovo passport (ironically, its easier for Kosovars to travel to Beijing nowadays then Bruxelles).”