Something Completely Different in Northern Kosovo
The United Nations ended Serbian administration on Kosovo territory in 1999, but local Serbs quickly reestablished it north of the Ibar river. Since then Kosovo’s two halves largely went their separate ways, and the river became an informal and porous border. In 2007 Martti Ahtisaari, the UN Special Envoy charged with finding a solution for Kosovo’s final status, recommended it become an independent, decentralized state with strong protections for minorities and a limited role for Serbia. Belgrade rejected Ahtisaari and all his works. Pristina declared Kosovo an independent republic on 17 February 2008. In response Serbia defied the UN and held municipal elections in Serb areas of Kosovo in May 2008. South of the Ibar, this set up parallel Serbian institutions that administered monies coming from Belgrade for construction, health care, education and other tasks. In the North, Serbia’s institutions were the only game in town. Over the years Serbia pumped considerable funds into Kosovo through construction projects and especially jobs; the archipelago of Serbian institutions is full of sinecures and overstaffing. Much of the population depends in one way or another on money from Belgrade: salaries, pensions, social security payments, health insurance and education. Belgrade’s control began to slip during talks mediated by the European Union. Under pressure from Brussels, Serbia accepted a series of agreements that amount to its acceptance of the non-status parts of the Ahtisaari Plan. This meant ceding authority over Kosovo territory to Pristina and removing Serbian institutions. On 19 April 2013, Kosovo and Serbia agreed to cooperate in implementing the substance of Ahtisaari throughout Kosovo’s territory, starting with local elections to be held on 3 November.3 The officials elected from Serb-majority municipalities are expected to set up a “Community of Serb Municipalities” after taking office. To prepare for the elections and drive home the message that there was no alternative, the Serbian government dissolved the municipal assemblies and dismissed the mayors of the four northern municipalities, replacing them with interim councils.
Northern Kosovo urgently needs elected political representation. The 3 November local elections are likely to produce a flawed and unstable leadership body with little popular support. That is due to decisions taken by stakeholders in Belgrade, Brussels and Pristina more than to any failings of the candidates and parties involved. The search for Northern leadership does not end on 3 November; it may not even pause. Widely accepted standards define free and fair elections.63 The electoral process in northern Kosovo and to a lesser extent throughout Kosovo Serb majority areas fails to meet several key standards: • Voters outside Kosovo did not have access to an effective means of registration and too many were disenfranchised. • Access to the media has been heavily biased in favor of the Srpska list. • Candidates in North Mitrovica do not enjoy security of person or property, and no parties are effectively free to campaign in northern Kosovo; notably the territory is not open for campaigning by members of SLS • Public sector employees do not have an effective right to express political opinions without interference and many are coerced into supporting the Srpska list. Apart from these violations, the strong boycott campaign means that the views of a majority of northern Kosovo citizens will not be reflected in the election results at all, even if the process were otherwise flawless. While no one of these violations appears serious enough to render the whole process invalid, taken together and in context these issues point to an election process that is not free and fair. The elections in northern Kosovo should be delayed. This is unlikely to happen. There is still time to improve the process. Above all, the Kosovo and Serbia governments need to explain what the elections mean for the citizens, honestly and in terms of local interests. Goran Bogdanović, former Serbian minister for Kosovo and Metohija and a candidate in Leposavić, argues that citizens “are not well informed about what has in fact been negotiated, what’s been signed in Brussels. Because the government of the Republic of Serbia has one position, officials here in Pristina have another position, the international community has a third position … the essence of the Brussels agreement is not clear.” For that reason, we don’t know “what do citizens in Kosovo and Metohija gain from the Brussels agreement, and what do they lose.”64 Specifically, the government of Serbia should state that:
- It will honor its obligation to support the Serb people in Kosovo through whatever local representatives they elect; support will not be conditional on election of the Srpska list.
- Whatever the results of the elections, Serbia will not offer municipal or administrative services on the territory of Kosovo after 3 November.
- Whatever the results of the elections, citizens’ rights to medical care, education, pensions and other social services in the Serbian system will continue, and the government will work with local representatives to ensure the best outcome for those employed in the public sector.
Meanwhile northern Kosovo community leaders, whether taking part in the elections or calling for boycott, should work together to curtail violence against candidates and their property. These commitments will still be relevant in the months following 3 November. Whatever the voter turnout, the process has been deeply flawed. There will likely be a need to repeat the local elections, having first explained what is at stake to the local population, created a level playing field and ensured what is needed for genuinely free and fair voting. There are several legal ways to repeat a local election.65 With good will from Belgrade and Pristina, that process need not take more than six to eight months. The citizens of northern Kosovo could then be offered the chance to vote anew for their local representatives, perhaps at the same time as the 2014 general elections in Kosovo. The interim period between the November elections and the establishment of a broadly supported local government will place a burden on those who boycott. They enjoy the support of a large segment of the population, probably a majority. Without affirmation at the ballot box, their legitimacy will diminish. The former mayors, assemblymen and other key Serbian officials will have to articulate a new role and vision for their region, ideally in cooperation with the winners of the November polls. Part of that vision should be participation in the next local election. Pristina should welcome dialogue with all leaders of the northern Kosovo Serb community, elected representatives and the boycott block alike. It should be patient, accept and support a much-needed community dialogue between future elected and boycott leaders. Strengthening the northern community and its leadership will help build confidence and trust. Respecting the specific nature of the North will go far in improving relations between Kosovo’s communities, between Belgrade and Pristina, and cementing regional security. Outsiders should resist the temptation to sort the people of northern Kosovo into good and bad groups. Belgrade’s version is the split between patriots, who vote for Srpska, and “Hashim Thaçi’s Serbs”. Pristina and many international actors see those who accept Kosovo’s authority as legitimate, and describe the rest as extremists or criminals. The reality is a homogenous community embarking on a period of great stress in which it will need a leadership it can trust, valued and supported by actors in Belgrade, Pristina and Brussels. The building of that leadership is the paramount task for the coming year.