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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 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.

Kosovo elections – chilly weather, feverish campaigning and high stakes

imageI have just arrived in Kosovo’s capital city Pristina ahead of Sunday’s local elections.

While much of the international attention is focussed upon the conduct of the elections in the ethnic Serb areas in North Kosovo, there are a number of key races taking place across the country – most notably in Pristina itself.

For the first time since independence, election for Mayor of Pristina is genuinely competitive with the incumbent Isa Mustafa of the centre-right Democratic League of Kosovo locked in a very tight race with Shpend Ahmeti, the nominee of the hard line nationalist Vetevendosje (self-determination) movement. Polls suggest that former Prime Minister and current Security Forces Minister Agim Çeku, the nominee of Prime Minister Thaçi’s Democratic League (LDK) and associated allies is trailing in third place.

As is so often the case in young democracies, the city is plastered with gaudy election posters touting the policies of each of the main candidates. Across the city, messages of support for individual candidates have been spray-painted on walls by overzealous campaign workers, stickers touting political party lists cover lampposts and posters advertising last-minute rallies are plastered everywhere.

The stakes are very high. For each of the main challengers, the outcome of the election could have profound personal and political consequences.

imageA loss for Mustafa, who also serves as leader of his party and will be its Prime Ministerial nominee next year, would be personally devastating with less than a year to go until the general election. A victory – however narrow – over the insurgent Vetevendosje movement would seal his reputation as a steely if uninspiring campaigner and would embolden him ahead of next year’s elections.

Victory for Vetevensodje would have implications that go much further than Pristina’s city limits. The party is openly hostile towards many of the international institutions operating in Kosovo and advocates pan-Albanian nationalist ideals. To see the capital city fall into their hands would be an international embarrassment for the government – particularly in light of the recent breakthroughs that have been made in respect of relations with Serbia.

While a type of “cordon sanitaire” (see Belgium and Vlaams Belang) appears to be forming amongst Kosovo’s mainstream political parties in order to keep Vetevensodsje away from the levers of power, the Kosovan electoral system effectively mandates coalition governments meaning it may be hard to keep them out of power forever. A victory in Pristina would give the party a tremendous shot in the arm ahead of the general election in terms of increased publicity and the power of political patronage.

imageIf Çeku finishes in third place it will be a powerful rebuke for a man who can rightly claim to be one of the “fathers” of Kosovan independence, having led the Kosovo Liberation Army to victory in the 1999 war. From an outsider’s perspective it appears that Çeku has struggled to find a niche in Kosovan politics in recent times given the strength of Hashim Thaçi’s hold on the political apparatus of the LDK and the return to frontline politics of his KLA ally Ramush Haradinaj after his acquittal from war crimes charges at The Hague. His nomination by the party for the Mayor’s race may have been an attempt to find him a more prominent political role. His likely loss will do much to advance the perception that his political career faces diminishing prospects.

I’ll be up early tomorrow to look around the city on the eve of poll, including searching for any examples of last-minute campaigning.

Until then, I’m off for some traditional Albanian food at Pi Shat, just off Mother Theresa Boulevard – an absolute must-try if you are ever in town.

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”.