Serb politicians in Kosovo are divided more than ever. In Sunday’s election, around 40,000 Serbs will have the opportunity to vote for their representatives in the Kosovo Assembly. They will be able to pick between five electoral lists, which are competing for the 10 seats that are reserved for Serbs out of a total of 120.
This year’s campaign has been marked by ructions between the Kosovo Serb Party (PKS) and the Serb List, as well as by political pressure, withdrawals and the struggle to win Belgrade’s support.
Serb List, has the highest number of candidates being put forward for election, with 12 men and 8 women, and is led by Slavko Simic, while former Serb List member Aleksandar Jablanovic heads up PKS. It is the ongoing animosity between these two men that has grabbed the limelight during the campaign and has largely distracted attention from the issues important to the lives of Kosovo’s Serbs.
Hostilities culminated on Sunday (June 4), when members of the two parties clashed over putting up posters in the center of the Municipality of Leposavic, an altercation that ended with Jablanovic being arrested for possession of a firearm.
Serb List claims that Jablanovic threatened its members with his weapon, a claim denied by the PKS, which claims that its leader has not threatened anyone and that Serb List had staged the incident.
The following day, deputy director of Kosovo Police for northern Kosovo, Besim Hoti, told local media that Jablanovic had been released after providing a statement. “Police do not take statements from people if they are drunk,” he said. “When he was sober, he was released,” Hoti said, adding that the investigation on the incident was ongoing.
Jablanovic later held a press conference at his party’s offices. While he explained his side of the story, Simic led a Serb List protest outside, during which a PKS activist, Milan Radojevic, was beaten and suffered minor injuries.
These incidents just serve to illustrate the chaotic nature of the election campaign. The divide among Kosovo’s Serbs is more emphasized than ever, contributed to by officials in Belgrade who have decided to lend their support solely to Serb List, while saying that all other candidates are working against Serbia and are under the full control of Albanians.
“They are buying our people off so that they can establish the Kosovo army,” President Aleksandar Vucic told media in Serbia last month. “One group is being controlled by [Ramush] Haradinaj, another by [Hashim] Thaci, and one is controlled by an embassy. What is important is to choose as many Serb List deputies [as possible] in order for them to be able to make a decision on border demarcation with Montenegro, and the creation of the Kosovo army. This is the essence.”
The issue of Kosovo’s army is one that has also been raised directly by Serb List, in their campaigning. “It may be that your child, cousin, neighbor will be made to wear a uniform of the Kosovo army that they would like to establish, to give them a gun, and then use another gun to push them to go to northern Kosovo or some other place,” Serb List candidate Branimir Stojanovic told an election rally in Gracanica on June 2. “It is our obligation to tell them ‘no,’ because they haven’t formed the army in the past three years only because of us, and they won’t create it in the future either.”
Failure to secure the backing of Belgrade led this week to the leader of the Progressive Party of Kosovo, Aleksandar Grujic, withdrawing his candidates from Sunday’s election. “We fully believe Serbia and their legitimate elected representatives,” read a Progressive Party of Kosovo statement. “We are convinced that Serbia will be more efficient and protect the interests of the Serbian community in Kosovo.”
PKS’s Jablanovic has said that he thinks it unhelpful that Belgrade has backed just one list and claims that pressure has been applied on some of his candidates. He points to the examples of Goran Milicevic and Zlatko Sekulic, who withdrew from the PKS list at the end of May, with Jablanovic saying that they had been pressured to do so. Meanwhile, Active Civic Initiative, a branch of the Active Serbia Party that was founded ahead of the recent elections in Serbia by political analyst and former civil society activist Dusan Janjic, terminated its coalition agreement with Jablanovic on May 23.
Another of those to withdraw from the election is Gorani candidate Rejhan Zurapi, who was part of Nenad Rasic’s Progressive Democratic Party list. A press release issued by Zurapi on May 26 announcing his withdrawal also hinted that his decision had been influenced by Belgrade’s decision to only back one party. “The Gorani people were never against Serbia, and therefore, I as a Gorani can only support the political option that isn’t in opposition to the vital interests of the Serbian people and the state of Serbia,” it read.
Reports of pressure applied to candidates and parties during the election campaign have also caused representatives of international organizations, as well as Kosovo’s Central Election Commission (CEC), to speak out.
“Kosovo candidates have a basic, democratic right to lead their campaigns on the basis of their highest ideals for the future of this society, and have got to be able to do so without intimidating or threatening anyone,” read a joint press release by the U.S. Embassy and OSCE Mission in Kosovo.
On Tuesday (June 6), the Quint embassies — those of the U.S., U.K., Germany, France and Italy — also raised concerns over the “deeply concerning reports of efforts to influence the results of the election in Kosovo through threats and intimidation.” The embassies called upon local authorities to investigate the threats, saying that such actions are “completely unacceptable.”
The head of EU Office in Kosovo, Nataliya Apostolova, has called upon political representatives who participate in the early elections to refrain from pressuring anybody and using offensive language during the campaign, while the president of the CEC, Valdete Daka, warned that those political parties that do not abide by the rules and legal provisions during election campaigns may be fined.
The poll on Sunday will be only the second Assembly election in which those living in Kosovo’s Serb-majority north will take part. Serbs in the north of Kosovo first took part in municipal elections in 2013, following the signing of the EU-facilitated Brussels Agreement that aimed to normalize relations between Belgrade and Prishtina; the following year Serbs living in the north also participated in Assembly elections for the first time.
Organization of this year’s election process in Kosovo’s north is again being supported by the OSCE. “We have requested from the OSCE that it provides only advice for municipal commissions and technical support for the polling stations committees,” CEC’s Daka recently told BIRN. “In the north we have new officials who have never organized elections previously.”
The other lists competing for the seats reserved for Serbs in Sunday’s election come from Slobodan Petrovic’s Independent Liberal Party and Slavisa Petkovic’s Civic Initiative for Prosperity.K
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.