Fresh elections are to be held in ethnic Serb areas of northern Kosovo on Sunday after violence and intimidation marred voting two weeks ago. The government urged voters to go to the polls and avoid more violence.
During local elections on Sunday (03.11.2013), polling stations were attacked on the Serb side of the town of Mitrovica, the de facto boundary between Serb-majority north Kosovo and the much larger, Albanian-dominated south.
Masked men burst into schools being used as polling stations, firing teargas and smashing ballot boxes.
Kosovo's electoral commission annulled results for local elections from three polling stations in north Mitrovica and ordered that the voting be repeated.
"The date for a repeat vote in these three polling centers will be determined later," the commission said. However, November 17 has been identified as the most likely date.
The local elections were held as part of an April peace deal brokered by the European Union between Kosovo and Serbia. Under the terms of the agreement, Serbia would recognize the authority of Kosovo's government over the police and the courts north of the Ibar River in return for greater autonomy for Serbs in the north. Successful implementation of the accord is widely seen as crucial to Serbia's EU integration ambitions.
Peace deal prevails
On Wednesday, the Prime Ministers of Kosovo and Serbia, Hashim Thaci and Ivica Dacic, said the deal would survive despite the violence in the north.
"I am pleased that the prime ministers agreed today on the way forward for completing successfully the electoral process in northern Kosovo," said EU diplomat Catherine Ashton, after hosting the two premiers in the latest in a series of EU-sponsored peace talks in Brussels.
Serbian premier Ivica Dacic urged ethnic Serbs to turn out in numbers for the re-run and to peacefully cast their votes.
"We cannot expect millions of people to sacrifice for those who have such imprudent stance," he said. "Nobody can expect (Serbia's) seven million people to sacrifice for 20,000 or so in Mitrovica."
"The vote must be peaceful,” the Serbian Prime Minister said.
His Kosovan opposite, Hashim Thaci, said the elections had been "an important European test for Kosovo, and we have successfully passed."
Last weekend's unrest focused attention again on the ‘frozen conflict' in north Kosovo. Since the war ended in 1999, the region has been governed by Belgrade, not the Kosovan capital, Pristina.
In the run-up to the vote, Serbian politicians had called on the 50,000 ethnic Serbs in the north to participate. But on the streets of north Mitrovica, huge ‘boycott' banners flew alongside Serbian flags and a campaign calling on people not to vote was clearly visible. Many Serbs argue that voting equates to treason, as it would validate the existence of Kosovo, a former Serbian province. On Friday, Krstimir Pantic, a Belgrade-backed candidate for mayor in north Mitrovica, was attacked on the street by two masked men.
"The situation here will not change. The election will bring more legitimacy, but we are still looking to Belgrade. We recognize that Pristina exists, but this is Serbia,' said Oliver Ivanovic, an ethnic Serb candidate for mayor in north Mitrovica, said ahead of Sunday's vote.
But fears of a low-turnout in north Kosovo were largely realised, with many staying away, particularly in urban north Mitrovica, where youths in bomber jackets and Serbian nationalist insignia stood outside polling stations in an effort to intimidate would-be voters.
‘I didn't vote and I won't vote. We were not asked about this, and we don't want it,' one man, who asked not to be named, told DW.
In the other three Serb-dominated municipalities in the north, Leposavic and Zubin Potok recorded a turnout of 22 percent, while Zvecan recorded 11.2 percent. Kosovo's electoral commission confirmed that there will not be a re-run in these areas.
Threat of instability
Ilir Deda, from Pristina-based think tank Kipred, warned that accepting results based on such low turn-out could see ‘half-legitimate leaderships' emerge in the northern municipalities.
‘This will lead to further instability in the north in the years to come and create a permanent crisis of legitimacy, governance and ultimately lead to non-functional municipalities,' he said.
In the rest of Kosovo, the election was largely hailed as a success, with ethnic Serbs in the south voting in large numbers and few reports of the voting irregularities that marred the general election in 2010.
The biggest winners were the opposition Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), who polled strongly, largely at the expense of the ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and their junior coalition partner, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK).