Kosovo – to vote or not to vote?

Belgrade’s position is that the elections must be conducted in a status neutral manner. Though the Kosovo government has said no decision has been made yet on the design of ballots, the US and EU should push Pristina to decide this issue soonest if the case for northern participation is to be made clear.

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By Gerard M. Gallucci

The decision facing the north Kosovo Serbs to participate or not in the scheduled November elections may be an existential one. Though the Kosovo Serb assembly held in Zvecan on August 16 voted against participation, almost everyone else wants them to vote. Belgrade has cautioned northern local leaders not to miss the opportunity. Early September is the deadline for registering lists.

In a August 14 meeting, Serbian President Nikolic told the assembled northern representatives that they should not expect any support or encouragement for an election boycott. He and Prime Minister Dacic have been making clear their belief that participation in the election is the best way to protect Serbs and Serbian interests in Kosovo. A presidential advisor explained to the press after the meeting: “we sent the message that the formation of status-neutral municipalities, that is municipalities established on the principles of status neutrality based on the agreement, should be the way we as a state and a nation will fight for our interests.” Nikolic reportedly warned that “we would only dream tomorrow about what we failed to do today.”

The northern Kosovo leadership seemed to have heard. After the meeting, Zvecan Mayor Milovic said the leaders were told that “the election would take place with us or without us.” Milovic noted that he personally already has made up his mind not to participate in the election. But he also suggested that “everyone alone will have to decide if they will accept the election or not, especially if the Republic of Kosovo is written on the ballot papers.” President of the Serb National Council Milan Ivanovic told the press that “we heard clear stands of the Serbian state leadership and we concluded we should come up with a definitive stand shortly.” He stressed the importance of “valid international documents” backed by UNSCR 1244 “with which all potential solutions must comply” and added that the election should also be discussed with Serbs living in southern Kosovo.

Meanwhile, EULEX and KFOR have been trying to create a sense of pending normalcy in the north. KFOR has stressed its unwillingness to settle political issues through use of force. EULEX has agreed with the northern (Serb) regional commander of the Kosovo Police to pick as a practical issue for joint cooperation one that will have local support, efforts against illegal logging (often done by Kosovo Albanians). Pristina has been making noises about the slow and incomplete process of abolishing Serb “parallel structures” in the north and has set a September 30 deadline for their closing. (There seems to be continuing differences between the two sides over how – and how many – Serbian police and court officials would be integrated into a “Kosovo” structure. There also remains no apparent decision on the boundary of North Mitrovica.) But neither side has done anything significant to provoke the other and Pristina “welcomed” Belgrade’s efforts to implement the election agreement.

There had been suggestions that no more than 20% of northern Serbs would vote. The effect of the Zvecan assembly decision may make it even more difficult for northern Serbs to participate but it may not yet bind the leaders who met with Nikolic. Or, they may choose to sit it out and let others lead the way. It’s interesting to note that after the Belgrade meeting both Milovic and Ivanovic hinted at the importance of conducting an election in a status neutral manner, the position Belgrade has taken as well. The Kosovo government has said no decision has been made yet on the design of ballots. The US and EU should push Pristina to decide this issue soonest if the case for northern participation is to be made clear.

Some in the north may still place their bets on winning the day by refusing to play. But Hamlet’s dilemma (in Shakespeare’s play), may serve too for the northerners: “To be, or not to be, that is the question. In this case, voting in a status-neutral election might mean living to fight another day?

Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He will serve as Diplomat-in-Residence at Drake University for the 2013-14 school year.

To read TransConflict’s policy paper, entitled ‘The Ahtisaari Plan and North Kosovo’, please click here.

To read other articles by Gerard for TransConflict, please click here. If you are interested in responding to this article, please do not hesitate to contact us by clicking here.

To learn more about both Serbia and Kosovo, please check out TransConflict’s reading lists series by clicking here.

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