Kosovo Elections: The south steps forward, the north moves back
The April 19th Brussels agreement on normalisation of the Belgrade-Prishtina relations represented a symbolic breakthrough in the European and Balkan narratives on Kosovo.
Unfortunately, both the European Union and the governments in the region are in favour of symbols and easily forget that the youngest ex-Yugoslavia state is not necessarily a well-functioning, efficient democracy.
Kosovo itself as well as its bilateral relations with Serbia are still facing enormous political and institutional challenges that cannot be overcome with a change in the discourse. The recent events in the North of the country have not only reminded of its powerful past and difficult future, but they have also re-exposed the indolence of the international community.
As a result of the Brussels agreement, the first round of the municipal elections were held in Kosovo on Sunday November 3rd. For the first time in the history of Kosovo, representatives of the Serbian community participated in the elections, which were to result in a replacement of the parallel institution in the North with organs legitimatised by both the Serbian and the Kosovo party.
The four northern municipalities – North Kosovska Mitrovica, Zubin Potok, Leposavić, Zvečan – were supposed to form an Association of Serb municipalities together with six more municipalities with a significant number of representatives of the Serbian community located in the South – Štrpce, Klokot-Vrbovac, Gračanica, Novo Brdo, Ranilug, Parteš and, possibly, additionally Gora.
As the Serbian government in Belgrade has been encouraging the Kosovo Serbs to participate in the elections in order to ensure the implementation of the Brussels agreement, right-wing parties and national movements called for a boycott as an expression of opposition towards the recognition of Kosovo control over the North.
Mitrovica – a city divided between Serbs and Albanians along the Ibar river – has always been the burning point in North Kosovo. Because of its critical importance for both sides the city became the centre of interest for the Serbian movements opposing the elections, as well as the international community.
On election day, North Mitrovica was covered with boycott posters, stickers and graffiti distributed by such nationalist organisations as Naši 1389 (Ours 1389), Obraz (Cheek/face), Srpske dveri (Serbian doors/gate). The international community was represented by large number of officials from EU Election Observation Mission (EU EOM), EULEX, KFOR, the OSCE and the UN. While the OSCE was responsible for running the elections, EULEX and KFOR were to support the Kosovan Police in securing polling stations and voters.
Initially, the election process was relatively smooth, with no serious incidents reported. A few shortcomings could have been noticed though. According to locals, in some cases the voters who came to the appointed polling stations were sent over to other voting centres. What elsewhere might have been considered a strictly technical issue, here raises a question of possible political abuse. Furthermore, in terms of security, although the presence of international forces in the city was well visible, particularly on the main roads, their distribution among the polling stations was uneven. Moreover, smaller streets across Mitrovica were not covered either by the Kosovo Police, nor by the international officials. Even though EULEX and UN cars could be noticed around the city, and Kosovo Police, KFOR and OSCE representatives were present at some of the polling stations, they didn’t manage to prevent severe irregularities, including at the very voting places themselves.
Initial information on Serbian nationalists threatening Serbs heading to the polling stations appeared relatively early during the day and quickly spread throughout social media. Serbian voters were also intimidated being filmed walking into polling stations. The incidents caused no reaction either on the side of the Kosovo Police nor the international forces.
Polling station closures
The number of international officers was limited during the course of the day, as noticed by the domestic officials responsible for the organisation of the polling stations in North Mitrovica, despite rumours about possible blackouts and concerns regarding security after dusk.As soon as the sun came down, the OSCE suddenly shut polling stations in the northern part of Mitrovica and evacuated the ballots under KFOR assistance. Because no official statement was given on the reasons for stopping the elections, people kept coming to vote. It soon became clear that the decision was made after an attack on a polling station at the Sveti Sava primary school. A group of masked Serbian nationalists broke into the school with tear gas and fled with the ballots and voters’ lists.
Later on it appeared that incidents happened also at the Secondary Technical School and Secondary Medical School in the north of the city. Security forces discovered a bomb at one of the polling stations, reported a hand grenade thrown in front of another, and an EULEX vehicle being stoned in the municipality of Zvečan, also in North Kosovo.
The evacuation was conducted effectively in most places, although the OSCE did not manage to secure all the voting materials from all of the polling centres immediately. The identity of the attackers remains unknown, which has resulted in numerous conspiracy theories both by the media and political organisations.
These theories develop various scenarios regarding political powers standing behind the attacks, as well as their motivations and aims. One of the most probable versions is that, due to low turnout among Serbs, an Albanian mayoral candidate, Agim Deva, from the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), would have won in the Serb dominated North of Mitrovica.
Domestic and international security forces were perfectly aware of the possibility of the outbreak of violence during the elections and defined procedures in the case of their occurrence. The chain of command included the Kosovo Police as the primary institution responsible for the security of the elections, established EULEX as the secondary, and KFOR as the one to react in the most critical situations. The limited mandate of EULEX allowed monitoring of the voting areas, but deprived them of the possibility to take action against violations. KFOR, on the other hand, intervened in easing the situation only after it became serious and the polling stations were shut down.
The inefficient international community
The widespread presence of international forces in Northern Mitrovica on election day did not equal their ability to act. The international community proved inefficient due to a blurred share of responsibility among specific organisations. Failure to prevent incidents is extremely surprising, especially taking into consideration that even though such situations could take place in any democratic country, here they were expected.
Despite the difficulties in the North, the elections ran smoothly in other Serb-dominated municipalities. The Serbian population in Kosovo did not boycott the elections. The turnout in these municipalities was one of the highest in the country and Serbs participated in the democratic process as encouraged by the government in Belgrade.
The Citizen Initiative Srpska (Srpska), the only one of 33 Serb electoral lists in the Kosovo elections backed by the Serbian government, won the majority of polls both in the voting for the municipal assembly and mayor in three of six Serbian municipalities.
Additionally, the party won most of seats in yet another municipality – Štrpce, where the majority of the votes was given to the Independent Liberal Party’s (SLS) mayoral candidate. SLS, supported by the government in Prishtina, gained the greatest success in Parteš, where its candidates won the majority of seats in the Assembly and the highest number of votes for mayor. In only one of municipality, did a non-Serbian party – the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) – receive the majority of votes both for the Assembly and the mayor. In none of the municipalities was the mayor elected in the first round. The second round has been announced to take place on December 1st.
A positive step forward
The November elections constituted “a positive step forward for democracy in Kosovo”, as the EU EOM stated in its report, and the failure of the elections in the North should not be perceived as a failure of democracy as such in the state of Kosovo. To a certain extent the elections represent a positive development in the process of implementation of the Brussels agreement, especially considered the wide participation among the Serbs in the South.
The process of normalisation of Belgrade-Prishtina relations is moving forward; however, the question of the North remains open. It is hard to assess whether the fact that the Serbian community decided to stay at home on election Sunday was a result of their strong discontent with the April agreement or the fears awakened by the nationalists’ actions. An answer to this question is crucial for further normalisation of relations, and both Serbian and Kosovan governments should take all necessary measures to find it.
The elections revealed that each of the countries has serious internal issues which first have to be solved unilaterally, in order to enable the next elections in the North to be orderly and peaceful, ensure stabilisation of the North and the successful implementation of the Brussels agreement, as well as long lasting normalisation of their relations.
The most visible challenges in the election context were the intense criminal activity of nationalist organisations, which Serbia has to deal with, as well as the indolence of the Kosovan police forces. Early cessation of the voting has left the issue of the future of local government in the North open.
According to the Chair of the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), Valjdete Daka, three possible scenarios have been taken into account. The outcome of the elections in the North could be considered valid based on the polling materials secured by the OSCE; the voting could be repeated in the polling stations where the incidents happened; or the local elections could be restaged in all four northern municipalities.
Re-running the elections
The initial statement of CEC members declared re-running the elections in the three polling stations where voting was interrupted by the attackers. The decision concerning the validity of other gathered results was to be made after the OSCE report is published; however, after the trilateral meeting of Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi, Prime Minister Ivica Dačić and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, held on November 6th, the CEC announced the decision that the elections would only be repeated in three polling stations in the North on November 17th. The elections are to be run that soon in order not to delay the second round scheduled for December 1st.
The decision seems to be at odds with democratic standards and significantly questions the role played by the international community in the Balkans. In terms of the effective democratic process, the voting in the North cannot be considered well-conducted.
The early closing of the polling stations, which disabled electoral participation of some of the voters, and the common sense of insecurity as well as inaccurate voters’ lists, significantly questions the legitimacy of the results. The inability to make a quick decision on which action to take reflects the variety of interests represented by different political powers, both domestic and international.
The elections in Kosovo were undoubtedly a landmark in the implementation of the Brussels agreement, leading to deconstruction of parallel institutions in the North. Turnout higher than in previous elections together with the inclusion of the Serbs from the South into a common political system are symptoms of the progress of political culture. Both the state system, in particular its security sector, and the system of international supervision remain ineffective and still have not developed an efficient way of cooperation. As long as the latter does not change, no high-level international agreement can bring the expected results.
All photos are published with kind permission of Ida Orzechowska.
Ida Orzechowska is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Political Science of the University of Wroclaw, Poland, obtaining a degree in political science. Her main research interests relate to international security, the Western Balkans and conflict studies. Recently she has held visiting fellowships at the Institute for International Relations in Zagreb and Centre for the Study of the Balkans in London. Currently based in the Balkans, she is developing her dissertation on the correlation between power relation and stability in the region, and works as a freelance analyst.
Zofia Peplińska is a graduate of International Relations at University of Wroclaw, pursuing her interested in the Balkan region, with special focus on Kosovo.