As locals were catching some sunshine in the cafes near the Prince Lazar monument in North Mitrovica, they left the improvised voting centers mainly to the journalists and staff of the Central Electoral Commission (CEC).
It was Sunday, April 23, Election Day in the north, though out of 45,095 eligible voters in the four northern Serb-majority municipalities (North Mitrovica, Zubin Potok, Leposavić and Zvečan), only 1,532 people bothered to cast their ballot. Interest in voting was low.
Part of this may have been due to logistic difficulties related to the ballot boxes being placed at unusual and seemingly arbitrary spots for security reasons. Some of the few voters who came out to cast their ballot had to wander from place to place to find the few polling stations.
Near the “Bosnian Mahala,” taxi driver Hetem Peci was waiting for passengers. He lives in the north, inhabited mainly by Serbs, while the majority of Albanians live in the south. With his old Volkswagen Jetta he drove up the winding roads leading to Miner’s Hill.
He hadn’t voted yet.
“Now I will send you further up and I’ll try to vote,” said Peci, who often drives journalists. On the way to Aziz Sylejmani Elementary School, an Albanian school in the north, there are still the remains of burnt-down houses. “This one belongs to Albanians, this one too,” Peci said, pointing out houses as we passed. “This one belongs to the mayor of the south, Bedri Hamza,” he said, pointing out another.
Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
Here at the school there were more voters. Peci found his voting center and did his civic duty.
The voters were Albanians. Some live nearby, others came up from the southern part of the city where they now live. Serbs were there only as observers. Srpska Lista, the Belgrade-backed Serb political party in Kosovo, has governed these municipalities since 2013. They did not participate in these elections. Voters had mainly Albanian parties to choose from. Out of 10 candidates for mayor, only one was a Serb.
Local Albanians who were near the voting centers reported in hush-hush tones that there were Serbs who were monitoring which Serbs would vote. This seemed to be the case at other voting centers as well.
The offices of Srpska Lista were quiet, and no one seemed to be entering or leaving.
Mayors with low legitimacy
It didn’t take long for the CEC to publish the results of the April 23 elections. There were few votes to count. Of those few votes, most were for Albanian parties.
According to CEC results published on April 25, Vetëvendosje (VV) candidate Erden Atiq won the mayorship of North Mitrovica with 553 votes (66.9%). His opponents Taulant Kelmendi of the Democratic Party of
Kosovo (PDK) received 193 votes (23.4%) and Betim Osmani of Mitrovica Civic Initiative received 80 votes (9.7%).
In Zvečan, Ilir Peci of PDK with 114 votes (59%) followed by Fetah Peci of VV with 72 votes (37.3%). The single independent candidate from the Serb community was Slađana Pantović who received seven votes (3.6%).
In Zubin Potok, PDK won with Izmir Zeqiri, who received 197 votes (52.2%) against Flatron Hasan of VV with 180 votes (47.7%).
Lulzim Hetem of VV won in Leposavić with 100 votes (73.5%), followed by Albulena Behluli-Hetemi from PDK with 34 votes (25%) and Aleksandar Jablanović of the Kosovo Serb Party with two votes (1.5%) ). Jablanović had withdrawn from the race prior to the elections.
Srpska Lista expressed gratitude to Kosovo Serbs for the low turnout in the elections.
“On behalf of Srpska Lista and on my own behalf, a big thank you to my compatriots from Leposavić, Zvečan, North Mitrovica and Zubin Potok, who, who knows how many times, are showing patriotism, dignity, honor and unity. For those who think that with one or two percent of the votes they can lead the northern municipalities, I have to tell them that the Serbs will never allow this,” said Milan Radoičić, the party’s vice president, who is blacklisted by the U.S. government.
The day before the elections, Radoičić had called on Serbs to not participate in the election.
Prime Minister Albin Kurti described the low turnout in the April 23 elections as due to “the atmosphere of intimidation and blackmail” and said that the boycott of the elections was imposed by “the threatening campaign of official Belgrade.”
According to political analyst Agon Maliqi, a victory for Kosovo in these elections would have been if Serbs participated. But with the low turnout, they have “poor legitimacy,” he said.
“Legally, Kosovo was within its rights [to organize the elections] and the main obstacle was Belgrade,” siad Maliqi. “Today’s situation shows how necessary it is to reach the normalization agreement. At least to remove any kind of pretext from Vučić to sabotage the north.”
Srpska Lista’s election boycott was preceded by a saga of events that started in November 2022 when the mayors of the northern municipalities resigned.
Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
These resignations were part of a mass resignation of Serbs from Kosovo’s institutions in protest of the arrest of Nenad Đurić, the police director in the north who had refused to implement the government’s recent decision on license plates.
In early December, when Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani announced December 18 as election day in the four municipalities in the north, the local CEC offices were attacked. The arrest of a suspect related to this attack led to the erection of barricades for three weeks. On December 10, President Osmani postponed the elections to April 23, 2023.
In Ohrid on March 18 of this year, Kosovo and Serbia reached an agreement on the normalization of relations as part of an European-led plan. Some saw this as a new opportunity to get out of the political impasse between the two states.
Serbia and Srpska Lista have renewed their demands for the creation of the Association of Serb-Majority Municipalities, which is a central topic of ongoing negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia.
But the boycott of the local elections by Srpska Lista seems to be creating a new political deadlock.
According to Maliqi, the election boycott is a political strategy to strengthen Serbia’s negotiating position in the dialogue, precisely around the issue of the Association.
“This boycott together with Vučić’s increasingly aggressive rhetoric, through which he denies the validity of the Brussels and Ohrid agreements, show that Vučić is afraid that he is losing his escalating monopoly in Kosovo due to pressure from the West. Now he is trying to regain it by threats,” he said, adding that the failure of the Serbs to vote shows how necessary the normalization process is.
Branislav Krstić, a journalist from North Mitrovica, thinks that the government of Kosovo and the international community missed the right moment to take on Srpska Lista’s power among the Serbs of Kosovo. According to Krstić, if they called on opposition parties to participate in the elections or even on independent Serb activists of the north to vote, it would have been an opportunity to defeat Srpska Lista.
“Unfortunately, at the moment when the Srpska Lista lost the trust of the citizens, Prishtina officials did not seize the moment,” said Krstić. “With the ‘take it or leave it’ conditions, the government only unified the Serbs, so even those who for years were against Srpska Lista and the policies of the Serbian President Vučić’s cabinet, gave up on the electoral process.”
Krstić believes that the boycott was a result of direct instructions received by Srpska Lista from Belgrade. Along with the boycott, Kosovo Serbs were told to ignore “any possible provocation by the Albanians.”
In Krstić’s eyes, these elections have brought together Serbs in the north, a wish of Vučić’s fulfilled. The journalist believes that Vučić is demanding the establishment of the Association and the support of all Kosovo Serbs for Srpska Lista in order to pave the way for the recognition of Kosovo by Serbia.
“‘Zajednica for Serbs, independent state for Albanians’ and more than 80% of Serbs are aware of this epilogue,” said Krstić, who laughingly added that “the Association is the heart of Serbia,” changing the nationalist Serbian expression: “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia.”
Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
The CEC has not yet announced when it will certify the results. After the certification, it is expected that the elected mayors will go to the facilities of the respective municipalities to start work, facilities where the flag of Serbia currently flies. Taking the oath of office within 30 days of the certification of the results and then exercising power in municipalities where hardly 3% of eligible voters cast a ballot will not be easy.
Srpska Lista Vice President Radoičić said that the Serbs will never allow such a government
Even if everything goes well and the elected mayors start work, Maliqi said they will never have any authority over the local population. Krstić also predicts a period of general civil disobedience ahead of the new mayors.
“Time will tell what the security challenges will be,” said Krstić, who fears that now there is also a risk of the revitalization of Serbian parallel institutions in the north.
Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
Some are concerned about the implications for the security situation.
“The security situation has a high risk of escalating if the dialogue in Brussels does not move forward. Ultimately, the fate of the north depends on the course of this process, but also on the role of the international community as a guarantor of security,” said Maliqi.
In the spirit of these public discussions, Kosovar Minister of Internal Affairs Xhelal Sveçla has said that the new mayors will go to work and no one will be able to stop them, adding that they will respond to Radoičić’s threats by protecting the mayors with police assistance if necessary.
“From the moment the results are certified, they are the legitimate mayors of municipalities and they will definitely go to their place of work, and of course they will lead with those municipalities and they will definitely have successes but also failures, as each municipal leadership has throughout Kosovo and I don’t know why this is controversial,” said Sveçla.
Though the Kosovo government is acting like the newly elected mayors will serve their mandates in a normal way, the EU does not see it as a long-term solution.
EU Spokesman Peter Stano has stated that the return of Serbs to Kosovo’s institutions and the establishment of the Association is the path to a resolution.
“Vote in the north offers no long-term political solutions for respective municipalities. Permanent return of Kosovo Serbs to institutions & establishment of the Association/Community are urgent as is serious dialogue between Kosovo government & Serbs in the north,” wrote Stano on his Twitter account.
Any hopes that the two governments could find a workable solution were temporarily dashed after an EU-mediated meeting on May 2 which Kurti and Vučić left seemingly further from common understanding than ever.
Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.