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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”.

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.

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”.