Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Municipal Elections in Kosovo Attract Serb Voters for the First Time

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Municipal Elections in Kosovo Attract Serb Voters for the First Time

Article excerpt

Since it declared independence in 2008, Kosovo's standing as an independent state has been recognized, at last count, by some 105 nations. For that matter, Facebook, which has almost as many members as China has citizens, just upgraded Kosovo's status from "it's complicated" to "country."

But statehood requires more than recognition by other countries. Also essential for a democracy is the ability to hold orderly, free and fair elections. While Kosovo is making gains in this area, the country-wide municipal elections that took place Nov. 3 were still quite chaotic in some parts.

The recent elections were the first organized by the Kosovo authorities in which Serb residents of Kosovo participated since independence. Credit for this development is due to the April 2013 Brussels agreement between Kosovo and Serbia (see December 2013 Washington Report, p. 32), which is an important step toward Serbia's eventual membership in the European Union: such cooperation demonstrates that Serbia can work with its neighbors in a peaceful and constructive manner. The agreement also opens the door a crack for Kosovo to undertake long-term negotiations with the EU over membership.

"Normalization" is the watchword in the ongoing process of negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia. It is a tricky affair, since no Serbian leader can afford publicly and officially to relinquish Serbia's political control of Kosovo by recognizing its former province's independence-even though most of Serbia's control vanished in mid-1999 as a result of the NATO intervention. However, the Brussels agreement constitutes a de facto recognition of Kosovo's independence.

Given the imperative for normalization, for the first time the leaderships of both Kosovo and Serbia had a stake in cooperating to promote the smooth conduct of the elections, and they made this happen in unprecedented ways. Although there was some obstruction to the orderly implementation of the first round of the elections, the two countries' ultimate cooperation was a firm step in the normalization of their relationship.

As a result of the 1998-1999 war in which Kosovo separated from Serbia, Serb residents of Kosovo came to be concentrated in enclaves in various parts of the country. A number of those enclaves were scattered throughout Kosovo, but a concentration of four Serb-dominated municipalities centered around the northern section of the now-divided city of Mitrovica. That enclave shares a border with Serbia. Over the years since 1999, this Northern Mitrovica enclave has maintained a near-complete political and economic separation from Albanian-dominated Kosovo, and remained under the strong political tutelage of Belgrade.

All this began to change with the Brussels agreement; although Belgrade still aspires to have political influence among Serbs in Kosovo, its overriding ambition at present is to smooth relations with the European Union in the interest of eventual membership.

In the recent elections, the Serbian government supported the main Kosovo Serb party, the Serbian Civil Initiative, which ran candidates in the 10 municipalities where there are still Serb residents. Belgrade actively promoted participation in the elections as a way to enfranchise Serbs within Kosovo's political system. Such a development is necessary in order to protect the political power of Kosovo's Serbs, Serbian leaders warned; otherwise, Albanian mayors could end up running some of the mainly Serb-inhabited enclaves.

In the majority of Kosovo's 38 municipalities-those dominated by Albanians-the entrenched political parties ran their customary campaigns, with the only real opposition coming from Vetëvendosje, a party of young activists that first participated in the 2010 elections. Vetëvendosje has gained popularity by campaigning against the regime of corruption that dominates Kosovo politics. The party also has distinguished itself by stridently opposing negotiations and cooperation between Serbia and Kosovo, at times pointing out agreements that constitute violations of Kosovo's sovereignty in favor of extraterritorial influence by Serbia. …

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