An election in Kosovo designed to help end years of de facto ethnic partition was marred by violence and intimidation by Serb hardliners on Sunday (3 November), undermining a fragile EU-brokered pact between the Balkan country and former master Serbia.
Two hours before polls closed in the ethnically-divided town of Mitrovica, a volatile Serb pocket of northern Kosovo, masked men burst into three schools housing polling stations on the Serb side, lobbing tear gas and smashing ballot boxes.
Participation of the north Kosovo Serbs in the Kosovo-wide council and mayoral elections is central to an agreement reached in April to integrate the 40,000-50,000 Serbs living there with the rest of Kosovo, which is majority Albanian and declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
Serbia had called on Serbs in northern Kosovo to take part for the first time, with the EU holding out the prospect of membership talks – slated to begin in January – as a reward for Belgrade's support for the process.
But on the mainly Serb side of Mitrovica, a former mining town split along ethnic lines since Kosovo's 1998-99 war, turnout was just 7% at 3 pm (9 am ET), compared with 32% Kosovo-wide.
The low turnout and violence was a clear indication of the scale of resistance among north Kosovo Serbs to integration with the rest of Kosovo, and underlined the challenge facing the EU in implementing the April accord.
Voting in north Mitrovica was halted after the attack at around 5 pm (11 am ET).
Election officials fled and European Union police in armored vehicles spread out through the neighborhood as helicopters flew over the town.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is helping manage the election, pulled out 60 of more than 200 staff from the area.
"The election will not resume tonight or tomorrow and the question is whether it will resume at all," said Oliver Ivanovic, a candidate for mayor of north Mitrovica. He said a woman was injured when she jumped out of a window.
Those who had voted were jeered and abused by groups of Serbs, many of whom had traveled from Serbia, gathered outside polling stations and filming those who entered.
Shift in Serbian policy
"These elections are an act of high treason that will ultimately cut Kosovo off from Serbia and lead to a Serb exodus from Kosovo," said 22-year-old student Negovan Todorovic. "Belgrade is betraying Kosovo for the vague prospect of … so-called European integration."
Krstimir Pantic, a Belgrade-backed candidate for mayor in north Mitrovica, was attacked on the street by two masked men late on Friday, suffering cuts and bruises to his face.
"I am calling on people to come out and vote or we could have Albanians in power," he said on Sunday.
The municipal election is unlikely to bring about much change at the state level, but is the most tangible sign yet of the shift in official Serbian policy towards its former province. Kosovo broke away in 1999 when NATO bombed for 11 weeks to halt the killing and expulsion of Albanians by Serbian forces trying to crush an insurgency.
Belgrade retained de facto control over a small pocket of the north, where Serbs live largely beyond the reach of the Kosovo authorities. Serbia agreed to cede the foothold in April in exchange for EU accession talks that the ex-Yugoslav republic hopes will help lure investors to its struggling economy.
Besides the north, tens of thousands of Serbs live in scattered enclaves across the rest of Kosovo but are far more integrated into the new state.
Milka, a 43-year-old Serb woman who refused to give her full name, said she would not vote for fear of losing her job in a state-run company where she said the manager had threatened to fire any worker he saw voting. Others said they would not be deterred.
"I've been living here for almost 80 years and I came to vote because if we do not take part in elections, Serbs will vanish from Kosovo," said pensioner Milorad Stijovic.
Maja Kocijancic, the spokesperson of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, tweeted on Monday morning (4 November) that the EU has been “following developments closely”.
“We condemn the violent incidents of yesterday in Mitrovica north. Events in Mitrovica north disrupted the otherwise orderly run electoral process in the rest of Kosovo. Our Election Observation Mission will be making its preliminary assessment during a press conference on 5 November”
Kosovo President, Atifete Jahjaga, said the violence against local and international staff "will be met with swift response of the security mechanisms in an attempt to establish rule of law, a necessity in this part of the country” and added that election irregularities will be "thoroughly investigated and prosecuted by the authorities."
Oliver Ivanovi?, the candidate for mayor for Mitrovica North called for a rerun of the elections and said the incidents were acts of “vandalism” and “political violence”.
The head of the OSCE Head of Mission in Kosovo, Jean Claude Schlumberger explained to journalists at a press conference the details of the attack:
“The voting was going on and the electoral process was successful across northern Kosovo up to 17:00. Indications that the elections would be a success were obviously not acceptable news for everybody. At 17:00 a group of masked men began an offensive against the electoral process.
“They first stormed 16 polling stations in Sveti Sava primary school in Mitrovica North. They trashed ballot boxes and destroyed other election materials; they assaulted our staff and threw tear gas. Similar scenarios happened in the Technical and the Medical schools in Mitrovica north. At that point we were forced to pull our staff out of Mitrovica north. We were later informed that an explosive device was found in the Technical school as well.”
“The situation started deteriorating in Zvecan as well where our staff also came under attack, one of our vehicles is parked just outside – it should give you an impression of what our staff went through. Concerned with a spillover of violence we requested from the CEC to authorize us to close polling stations in the other three municipalities by 18:30 and to secure election materials.”
“I want to make it clear that the OSCE never requested cancellation of the elections as wrongly reported.”
“The CEC responded to us with a request to take custody of the materials and return them to the CEC. I can confirm that we are now in custody of the election materials from the three northern municipalities and that they are being transported to the CEC’s Counts and Results Centre.”
Local elections were held in Kosovo on 3 November.
The election also aimed to designate the officials and bodies of the Association of Serb Municipalities, the forming of which is envisaged in the agreement which the prime ministers of Serbia and Kosovo reached on April 19, 2013 in Brussels, with EU mediation.
There were 103 political subjects participating in the elections, of which 50 from the Albanian community and 31 from the Serb, and the rest from other minority communities. Among the Serb candidates participating in the elections, the Serbian government supports the “Srpska” civil initiative.
There are 224 candidates competing for the jobs of municipal mayors in Kosovo, and 7,740 candidates for seats in municipal assemblies.
According to Serbia’s Migration Profile, in 2011 there were around 209,800 displaced persons from Kosovo living in Serbia, who mostly arrived after the NATO intervention and the bombing of the FR Yugoslavia in 1999.
- 5 Nov.: EU Election Observation Mission to make its preliminary assessment
Organisation for security and cooperation in Europe (OSCE)
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