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Kosovo preelection report: Why who participates is more important than who wins

Ethnic composition of Kosovo (Source:

[Joshua Tucker: Continuing our series of Election Reports, we are pleased to welcome the following preelection report on next week’s local elections in Kosovo from political scientist Marko Zilovic, a research and teaching assistant in comparative politics at the University of Belgrade and an affiliate of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies of the Balkans there.]


In April of this year the governments of Serbia and Kosovo, motivated by the prospect of making progress towards joining the European Union, struck a landmark, European Union-mediated deal known as the Brussels Agreement. Although Belgrade insists that the agreement does not imply the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, it does significantly reduce the presence of the Serbian state in Kosovo, and thus shifts the focus of the conflict from one about sovereignty to one about the status of the Serbian minority within Kosovo. However, there is one potential flaw: the deal was negotiated with only token participation and minimal support of the Serbian community in North Kosovo, and its implementation will depend on the ability of Belgrade to cajole and coerce various local factions there to accept it. The litmus test of Belgrade’s success will be the turnout in the North in the coming Kosovar local elections scheduled for Nov. 3, 2013.

Since the end of the Kosovo war in June 1999, the northern part of the divided city of Mitrovica and three other municipalities in northern Kosovo have existed in a state of limbo between Serbia and its breakaway province of Kosovo. Physically adjacent to Serbia and partially separated by the Ibar River from southern Kosovo, these municipalities with an estimated population of 55,000-65,000 have continued to use Serbian institutions and avoided integration in Kosovo’s post-war legal framework. Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 after nine years of U.N. administration changed little for North Kosovo where local government, the courts, the police, health services, education and the economy largely operate under the laws of Serbia. These institutions were kept afloat by support from Belgrade, and were at various points threatened, ignored or pragmatically tolerated by the authorities in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, and by the various international military and civilian missions in Kosovo.

Under the terms of the Brussels Agreement, the Serbian institutions in North Kosovo would be transformed and integrated into Kosovo’s constitutional framework in return for substantial autonomy for all Kosovo Serbs.  This includes the Serbs in the North, and a slightly greater number of Serbs who live south of the Ibar River and (lacking an alternative) already participate in Kosovo’s institutions. Living in scattered and mostly rural areas without direct access to Serbia proper, leaders of the Kosovo Serbs in the South have mostly been hopeful about the Brussels Agreement because it will strengthen their links to Belgrade and also bolster their political position within Kosovo as Kosovo Serbs from the North reinforce them in Kosovo’s political arena. However, the Kosovo Serbs in the North, many of whom have earlier had to flee their houses in the South, have so far shown little enthusiasm for the agreement or for these elections: They stand to forfeit their current status as a local majority of about 90 percent that in many respects lives as if it was within Serbia proper for a new status as a minority of less than 10 percent within Kosovo.

The rule of law conundrum

The resistance of the Serbs in the North to being integrated into Kosovo is sometimes blamed on the presence of Serbian criminal networks that cooperate with their regional counterparts to exploit the usual opportunities created by the ambiguous legal status of the North, turning the area into a hub for smuggling of all kinds of legal and illegal goods, but especially of diesel fuel. Pristina sometimes casts the dispute over the North as the work of a few gangsters, backed by nationalists in Belgrade, holding the local Serb population hostage to their own greed. But the defective rule of law in the North and the dispute over sovereignty are intimately linked. While many locals in the North would love to see the criminals reined in, they also understand that establishing the rule of law begs the question of whose law will be implemented and by whose law enforcement officers.

For many years now, both Kosovo police and covert Serbian police have operated in the North along with local vigilante groups that occasionally enforce their own rules. Kosovo also hosts the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX), the European Union’s largest civilian crisis management mission. In line with its overall less than stellar record, EULEX in the North has at most tried to mediate between the different sides. In theory, the Kosovo police and EULEX police should enforce Kosovo laws and Serbian police Serbian ones, but, in practice, laws have been applied selectively depending on a dense mixture of economic, political and familial ties that only the locals can successfully navigate.

The Kosovo police (KP) is ultimately responsible to Pristina, which makes it unpopular and ineffective in the North. The covert Serbian police has an estimated 800 or more officers that are quietly funded from Belgrade. Some of them have also joined the KP but are believed to be loyal to Belgrade and are thus distrusted in Pristina. They are largely recruited from the local pre-war policemen and other security personnel. But their links with Serbia and application of Serbian laws are in direct violation of the UNSC Resolution 1244 that ended the 1999 war. The local vigilantes grew out of the initially spontaneous ethnic mobilization in 1999 to prevent both returning Albanian refugees and violent Albanian groups from crossing into the North. However, like similar groups worldwide, the “Guardians of the Bridge” or the “Civilian Corps” soon developed organizational and economic interests partially distinct from the interests of the ethnic community they claimed to protect. This has also led to their fractionalization and overlap with different formal and informal local structures.

The promise of the Brussels Agreement and the importance of voter turnout

The Brussels Agreement provides a way out of this conundrum because it gives an unambiguous answer to the question of which laws apply in the North. Local elections on Nov. 3, 2013 will be organized in the North under Kosovo law. These elections are supposed to produce local leaders that enjoy popular legitimacy and that both Serbia and Pristina recognize as legal. So far at the top of the political pyramid in the North stood four mayors who were elected in elections that Serbia organized in 2008 and 2010, and a Belgrade appointed Head of Mitrovica Regional District overseeing all four municipalities. Although Pristina has sometimes found pragmatic ways to cooperate with these leaders, it ultimately deems their mandates illegal and their operations an affront to its territorial integrity.

The new leaders elected in the November elections are supposed to spearhead the work of the Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM) envisioned in Brussels and recently created in the parliament in Pristina to coordinate and represent the interests of the Serbs in Kosovo. Crucially, the ASM is supposed to manage the gradual transformation and integration of the Serb institutions in the North into Kosovo’s constitutional framework. In coordination with Pristina, Belgrade will continue to provide financial support to Kosovo Serbs for health, education and economic development, but not for local politics, policing and judicial matters. Pristina has agreed to an amnesty for the Serbs in the North and to incorporate most local security forces into the Kosovo police.  The ethnic composition of the police force in the North is to reflect that of the four municipalities. The regional police chief in the North will be chosen by Pristina from a list of four candidates proposed by the ASM.

All of this amounts to substantial communal autonomy for the Serbs. Many consequential details of the plan, however, still need to be hammered out:  Will the incorporation of the security services in the North be done through demobilization and re-recruitment, as preferred by Pristina, or through a simple change of wardrobe, as preferred by Belgrade? What will happen with the pensions of covert security personnel in the North? Will there be widespread job losses in the hugely inflated local public sector once financing from Belgrade is scaled down? While Belgrade, Pristina and the European Union will decide in the end, strong input from the new leadership of the ASM could build a valuable sense of ownership of the process on the part of Kosovo Serbs in the North. Such input could also reassure them that the European Union and the United States are committed to monitoring the many details that are essential for a fair implementation of the agreement. But in order to manage this delicate process successfully the local leaders elected in the North on Nov. 3 would first need a strong popular mandate.

What constitutes a strong popular mandate is a matter of dispute. At a recent policy event in Belgrade some have argued that a 15-20 percent turnout would be a good result given that the last local by-elections, organized by Belgrade in 2010 in North Mitrovica, had only a 30 percent turnout. This represents roughly 40 percent of the voters actually residing in the municipality since about a quarter of the registered voters are ethnic Albanians who have not been able to return to North Mitrovica. Still, turnout in Mitrovica in 2010 and in 2008 was much lower than the turnout in the other three municipalities that jointly number slightly more voters than Mitrovica. In 2008 combined turnout in all four municipalities was around 49 percent, or around 56 percent without the Albanian voters. Obviously, the intricacies of demographic and electoral math will leave some room for rhetorical maneuvering on all sides, but in comparison to the 2008 figures 15-20 percent seems unlikely to silence opponents of the Brussels Agreement, especially because a portion of these votes is likely this time to be absentee ballots by the Serbs and Albanians displaced from the North. Moreover, ongoing electoral polarization among the Serbs in the North and the likely exclusion of those factions that are boycotting the elections from the further negotiating process with Pristina may in itself provide additional incentives for risky spoiling behavior.

The campaign in the North

After the Serbian elections in May 2012 the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) that once opposed European Union accession and the European Union-mediated talks with Kosovo came to power and decisively changed its platform to make it E.U.-compatible. This has left the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) as the only parliamentary party in Belgrade (with 9 percent of the seats) that opposes the Brussels Agreement. Predictably, the DSS has for years enjoyed solid support in North Kosovo. However, even the SNS mayors from the North have rejected the agreement and refused to register for the coming elections – as has the Mitrovica district chief from the solidly pro-EU Democratic Party (DS).  In a legally dubious move, Belgrade dismissed the four mayors on Sept. 10 and replaced them with more malleable party members directly selected from Belgrade. Scrambling to find suitable candidates, Belgrade managed to register its preferred electoral list only at the very last moment. Meanwhile, the opponents of the Brussels Agreement had already started their campaign for a boycott of the elections.

Both campaigns featured threats of job losses for the opponents, but it is Belgrade that ultimately has an upper hand in this game. While Pristina has granted amnesty to the North, Belgrade has not. It could still activate some of the stalled criminal cases against the most vocal opponents of the elections or selectively withhold financial support from them. Pressure from Belgrade and resistance by some local actors has created a tense situation. One Lithuanian EULEX customs official was killed on Sept. 19 in an armed ambush by an unidentified group in the North. In what appears like an intimidation campaign against the supporters of elections, a few explosive devices have been detonated in downtown Mitrovica but have resulted in no victims so far. And the campaign could still reach fever pitch in the immediate run-up to the elections or if some of the mayoral races go into the second round.

While violent incidents capture the headlines and stand to undermine the process, it is really the capacity of local Serbs for non-violent mobilization that could yet prove to be the biggest obstacle to implementing the Brussels Agreement. Ever since they were left by Belgrade to fend for themselves in the immediate aftermath of the 1999 war, and even before that in the 1980s, Kosovo Serbs have had a few opportunities to learn that Belgrade can be a fickle patron and that they need the capacity for independent political action. Most recently, in the second half of 2011, local Serbs organized roadblocks to prevent Kosovo’s special units and NATO troops from taking control of the two border checkpoints between the North and Serbia. At first the roadblocks received support from Belgrade, but later, when it tried to call them off local leaders refused and kept the roadblocks up for months. Back then some of the prominent organizers came from the local SNS, which was in opposition in Belgrade at the time. It is unclear how much of this independent mobilizing capacity persists today.

Keeping the momentum

After decades of inter-communal division, violence, and failed negotiations, the mutual suspicion between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs is hard to exaggerate. Among Kosovo Serbs, the international forces on whose watch ethnic riots occurred in 2004 fare no better. This leaves Belgrade as the only actor that can pressure the Serbs in the North without triggering a homogenizing counter-mobilization that could only be put down by force. A closer look at the dynamics in the North over the last 14 years reveals that local actors have a wide range of independent local interests, and that they can temporarily defy Belgrade, shaping its tactics if not its strategy toward Kosovo. However, they ultimately cannot survive without support from Belgrade. In that sense the current actions by Belgrade in the North are more of a race against time than an open-ended process because in the medium to long run the capabilities of local spoilers are modest compared to those of the central government in Belgrade. But in conflict resolution timing matters, and in the current process the ability of Belgrade to get the Serbs from the North to vote in the Kosovar local elections scheduled for Nov. 3 will either give further momentum to the E.U.-sponsored normalization process or prompt a rethinking of strategy on all sides.  How many participate will this time be far more important than who is elected.