Can Kosovo Vote in Peace?

November 5, 2013
By Elizabeth Pond

Some 100 or 200 militant Serbs are trying to hold two million Kosovars and seven million Serbs hostage. They oppose the majorities in both Serbia and Kosovo that long to start on the road to European Union membership and benefit from EU financial aid and know-how in modernizing their economy and governance.

Diehard Serbs in the Serb-majority northern tip bitterly oppose this process because of the price the EU demands for it—the first Serbia-Kosovo reconciliation since 1999, when Serbian armed forces expelled three-fifths of the 90 percent Albanian majority from their homes in what was then Serbia’s province of Kosovo, and were stopped from more drastic ethnic cleansing only by NATO intervention. For 13 years the EU has made “normalization” of relations between Serbia and Kosovo a precondition for giving Serbia EU candidate status and a starting date for accession talks, now scheduled for next January.

The ultranationalist Socialist and Progressive parties in Serbia—led today by one-time followers of strongman Slobodan Milosevic—used to share the views of Serb extremists in north Kosovo. When the two parties suddenly won both the presidency and a parliamentary majority for the first time in Serbian elections a year and a half ago, however, they turned pragmatic. They recognized that the Serbian economy was even more desolate in 2012 than in 1989, before the Balkan wars. They dropped their earlier resistance to joining the EU, said there was no alternative to this course, and abandoned the nationalist ideology that refused to acknowledge the fact that Kosovo finally declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

As long as they did not have to say formally that they recognized Kosovo’s independence, the ex-ultranationalists in Belgrade were even willing to cut their loss of Kosovo and normalize relations with the new country, as the EU required. Last April they agreed in a landmark EU-brokered pact to accept the authority of Kosovo law—and elections—even in Kosovo’s northern tip. They agreed to dismantle Serbia’s illegal “parallel” security structures that kept Kosovo government authorities out of the northern tip for the past five years. And they bluntly told the Serbs there that they would now have to abide by Kosovo law and forego the subsidies Belgrade had previously given them (which remarkably exceeded Serbia’s annual pre-candidacy grants from the EU).

The about-face by the ultranationalists in Belgrade left Serb ultranationalists in Kosovo with the feeling that they had been betrayed. They would now have to give up their accustomed luxury of getting two salaries—one from Pristina and one from Belgrade for the same job—without paying taxes to either country. They would have to stop the lucrative smuggling of cigarettes and other contraband across the Kosovo-Serbia dividing line. They would have to submit to the indignity of voting in Kosovo elections if they wanted a political voice.

Last Sunday, as all of Kosovo voted in municipal elections for the first political test of the April agreement, masked Serb malcontents armed with staves gathered outside polling stations to scare away fellow Serbs in the Kosovo north who wanted to vote. Many were intimidated by the extremists and turnout was low in northern Kosovo—22 percent, according to Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci.

By contrast, the larger Serb population in the main part of Kosovo south of the Ibar River has from the beginning of independence accepted the Kosovo constitution’s decentralization and generous guarantees to Serbs of a political voice that exceeds their percentage of Kosovo’s population. The Gracanica community around a famous Serb monastery just south of Kosovo’s capital, for example, continued this trend and even turned out an impressive 52% of registered voters on Sunday, seven percent above the Kosovo average for both Albanians and Serbs.

In northern Kosovo the ultranationalists turned violent at about 5 p.m., two hours before the polls were to close. They suddenly trashed three polling stations in the northern (Serb) half of Mitrovica city, menaced would-be voters at a dozen other polling centers in Mitrovica and Zvecan, beat one woman with a chair, forced both Kosovo and international monitors to flee their posts, and threw one grenade, which did not explode. One reason for their action may have been just to show their muscle. Another reason may have been to deter those north Kosovo Serbs who might dare to vote as the evening grew darker and they could hide their identity from the cameras of the “hooligans,” as a United Nations official called them. NATO peacekeeping forces had to intervene to restore order in both Mitrovica and Zvecan.

Kosovo authorities closed the polls in the north an hour early. Various Serbs are calling for a re-vote in the north. The Serbian government’s chief power-holder, First Deputy Prime Minister Alexandar Vucic, proposed sending Serbia’s old security forces back into north Kosovo again to establish order, but the EU rejected the idea.

The EU will hold Belgrade responsible for any further violence by north Kosovo Serbs and could conceivably postpone the planned January start of formal EU accession arrangements in Serbia if peace is not restored in north Kosovo. The 100 or 200 hooligans may not be able to hold Serbs and Kosovars hostage after all.

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of Endgame in the Balkans.

World Policy Journal
© Elizabeth Pond

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