In north Kosovo

On Sunday November 3, Kosovo held local elections. Across the country
turnout was moderate-to-high — except in four majority ethnic Serb
municipalities north of the Ibar River, the de facto border between
north and south Kosovo. In Zvecan, just 11.2 per cent cast a ballot.
Leposavic and Zubin Potok were a little better – 22 percent of the
electorate turned out in in each – but in North Mitrovica, the main
urban centre in north Kosovo, the poll was a disaster. Serbs refused
to vote. Around 5pm, a group of masked men forced their way into two
polling stations in the town, throwing tear gas and smashing ballot
boxes.

north kosovoThe November 3 violence in North Mitrovica was hardly a surprise. The
Belgrade-backed candidate for mayor, Krstimir Pantic, had been
attacked two days before polls opened, leaving him with a deep gash on
his chin. ‘We expect trouble this evening,’ my Serb fixer said matter-of-factly
the morning before the vote as we drove to my hotel, which overlooked
the OSCE’s gated compound. ‘On the one hand you are quite secure here,
but on the other if there is trouble it might end up here.’ In
September, a Lithuanian officer in the European Union’s Rule of Law
Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) was shot dead outside the town. No one
claimed responsibility, but the killing – which bore the hallmarks of
a professional hit – was widely blamed on organised criminal networks,
which have a lot to lose from any thaw in North Kosovo’s fourteen-year
old frozen conflict.

The north is home to around a third of Kosovo’s 120,000 or so ethnic
Serbs. Unlike elsewhere in Kosovo, Serbs here share a large land
border with Serbia and have, since the war ended 1999, lived in what
is effectively a parallel state, with Belgrade administering (and
paying) for everything from social welfare to health and education. In
North Mitrovica, Yugoslav-era cars, many without number plates,
clutter footpaths, and Serbian flags fly from lampposts outside drab
Communist-era apartment blocks.

I arrived in North Mitrovica on foot – the main bridge spanning the
Ibar has been blocked to vehicle traffic by a huge mound of earth and
stones, since July 2011. A black stretch limousine cruised up and down
the main street. This, I was later told, was a ‘mafia’ wedding. The
bride was the daughter of a well-known local gangster who graduated
from ‘bridge watching’ for interlopers coming across the Ibar to petty
crime and then large-scale drug dealing. Now he lives in Belgrade –
where his wife is a close confidante of Serbian pop singer, and
Arkan’s former wife, Svetlana Ražnatović (better known by her stage
name, Ceca) – but he retains a lucrative foothold in North Kosovo.

The November 3 elections followed a deal between Serbia and Kosovo
negotiated in Brussels, in April, by EU high representative Catherine
Ashton that gave Pristina a greater role in the north in exchange for
more autonomy for ethnic Serbs across Kosovo. Belgrade had called on
Serbs in North Kosovo to vote – warning that they could lose their
state jobs if they didn’t – but in North Mitrovica shop windows
displayed stickers in support of a campaign to boycott the vote. ‘This
process did not include the Serbs in the North, which is a good basis
to fail,’ a rather reluctant opposition mayoral candidate, Oliver
Ivanovic, told me on the eve of the poll. That night, youths stood
drinking outside the local office of the right-wing Democratic Party
of Serbia (DSS). The DSS, headed by former nationalist Serbian PM
Vojislav Koštunica, bitterly opposed the Brussels Agreement.

Next morning I visited a polling station at Sveti Sava school. It was
a Spartan affair: a few Orthodox icons on the walls, a handful of
election observers and even fewer voters with little sign of security.
Outside a dozen or so kept a silent, intimidating vigil. I recognised
a couple from the DSS party the previous evening. I approached one – a
man in his 20s with a Serbian flag patch on his leather jacket – but
all he would say was: ‘Kosovo is Serbia’.

As the day darkened, so did the mood. Reports of the attack on the
polling stations filtered through. ‘Be careful, there’s no police here
to protect you,’ a Serbian photographer warned as we stood on North
Mitrovica’s main street, waiting for the crowd to clear. It did, but
only after the OSCE had pulled out its contingent and closed the
polls, two hours early. Rumours circulated that the Serbian government
had organised the attacks to prevent the ethnic Albanian candidate
winning the mayoral vote in North Mitrovica. ‘Belgrade failed. They
promised something that they couldn’t deliver, so they did this to
stop the voting,’ a man, who had not voted, told me in a local bar.
Subsequent reports suggested that boycott protesters themselves were
behind the attacks.

After almost a week, Kosovo’s central elections commission declared
the vote in three polling stations in North Mitrovica invalid. (The
results in the other three Serb majority municipalities north of the
Ibar would, the Commission said, stand despite accusations of
intimidation and very low turnouts.) Repeat elections in North
Mitrovica were hastily arranged for November 17. Two days before the
vote, Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic paid a visit, telling a crowd
of around 5,000 that “you need to help us in order to help yourselves,
so that we can continue helping you.” Public sector workers were sent
a communiqué telling them what time they would be expected to go and
vote and which government official would lead them to do so. Other
encouragements reportedly included sugar, cooking oil and cash.
Amid a massive security operation, 22.38 per cent voted.

Kosovo went to the polls in run-off elections on Sunday (December 1).
The Belgrade-backed ‘Srpksa’ (“Serbia”) list won the vast majority of
Serb municipalities, including in North Mitrovica. Some in Pristina
fear the power Belgrade could exert on its former province through the
Union of Serb Councils established under the Brussels agreement.

South of the Ibar River Sunday’s vote was a disaster for the
establishment Albanian parties. The ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo
(PDK), led by former KLA fighter Hashim Thaci, lost power in five
municipalities; Ramush Haradinaj, who has twice been acquitted of war
crimes in the Hague, lost his power base in the west of country; and
even the opposition, Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), which won a
number of municipalities, is in turmoil, having seen Vetevendosje
(Self-Determination) wrestle control of the capital, Pristina.

Many of Vetevendosje’s voters are young urbanities that do not
necessarily support their brand of left-wing politics and pan-Albanian
nationalism but they are fed with up the corruption and lack of
opportunities in Kosovo. ‘It’s an electoral earthquake,’ a friend in
Pristina told me on Twitter. ‘I’m hopeful this spirit will continue,
though it’s too early to tell.’