Comment 08 Dec 10

Will Serbs End Tradition of Kosovo Election Boycotts?

A growing number of Serbian political actors, both in Kosovo and Serbia, realise that the policy of boycotting Kosovar institutions is in fact a denial of reality on the ground.

By Apostolis Karabairis

Snap elections in Kosovo, planned for 12 December, will be the first parliamentary race after Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence. Similar to previous electoral cycles, the event has rekindled the debate about Serbian participation.

Should Serbs claim their own share of power in the Kosovo administration by competing in the elections? Or should they boycott elections, since the posts at stake belong to the institutions of the self-proclaimed Republic of Kosovo, which they do not recognise?

If they opt for the latter, they contradict their refusal to recognise the independent Kosovo state, whereas if they opt for the former they totally exclude themselves from the bodies that exercise de facto power on issues that immediately concern them.

To date, the official Belgrade line has been that the only legal institutions in Kosovo are those of the Serbian state, which exist parallel to the Kosovar ones in certain Serb-inhabited areas.

Therefore, those who remain loyal to their homeland must boycott all institutions of the Kosovar state, including elections. Serbs north of river Ibar, in North Mitrovica, Leposavic, Zubin Potok, and Zvecan have generally followed Belgrade’s directives.

After all, they themselves contributed in shaping this policy. Adjacent to Serbia proper, Northern Kosovo remains a de facto extension of the Serbian state. Apart from the international presence there, nothing else binds the area to the rest of Kosovo.

The Serbian state retains its own structures in these areas despite Pristina’s persistent efforts to establish Kosovo institutions there.

The intransigent Serbs of the territories north of the Ibar will most likely continue the policy of boycott. Institutions, such as the Serbian National Council and the Assembly of the Community of Serbian Municipalities, have officially called on Serbs to abstain in the forthcoming elections and have persistently sought an assertive statement from Belgrade against participation in the process.

However, south of the river Ibar things are different. Serbs there live scattered in confined enclaves within Albanian-dominated areas, so retaining their parallel structures is much more difficult.

Physical isolation renders contact with their Albanian surroundings necessary in order to address their everyday needs. In this light, it is obvious that they cannot normalise their lives unless they come to terms with the Kosovar institutions.

As a result, Serbs south of the Ibar often tend to deviate from Belgrade’s official line and make deals with institutions that are not officially recognised by their top leaders.

Serbian leaders south of the Ibar have been increasingly geared toward a pragmatic policy of focusing more on practical issues. They advocate Serbian participation in Kosovar elections, so that they have their own representatives in the public bodies that decide their fate.

The most prominent actor in this direction has been the Independent Liberal Party, a Serbian party founded by Slobodan Petrovic in Gracanica, the biggest Serbian enclave in central Kosovo.

Since its foundation, this party has effectively integrated itself into the Kosovar party system and, thanks to extensive application of ethnic quotas and its status as one of the few participating Serbian parties, had its representatives elected or appointed in several public bodies. It is also perhaps the party that cooperates best with the other major Kosovar Albanian parties.

The Independent Liberals are not alone in supporting Serbian participation in the elections. Many Serbian politicians south of the Ibar believe that their inclusion in Kosovo’s institutions will enable them to deliver more to their fellow Serbs.

They maintain that, since real power lies with the Kosovo institutions, only by engaging with them can they ensure the survival of their community.

This policy, though, does not mean that they favour Kosovo’s independence or that they do not honour Serbian parallel structures.

The leading figure among the Kosovo Serb politicians is Rada Trajkovic, former president of the Executive Board of the Serbian National Council, the political steering and coordinating body of the Kosovo Serbs. Trajkovic served in this post up until last year, when she was expelled following her running in Kosovo’s local elections.

In these elections she launched the United Serbian List, an all-Serb list, in order to maintain the Serbian constituency undivided and hence stronger. Her aim is to gather the most prominent and active members of the Serbian community in Kosovo from across the political spectrum, irrespective of their party affiliations in Serbia proper.

She is a fervent advocate of Serbs’ massive participation in the upcoming elections, because, as she claims, they must elect not only more deputies to the Kosovo parliament, but also those that are not Pristina’s puppets but genuine representatives of Serbian interests.

Similar views are shared by several other Serbian leaders south of the Ibar, many of whom have staffed the Pristina-sponsored municipal authorities in central Gracanica, east Novo Brdo, Ranilug, Klokot-Vrbovac, Partes and south Strpce.

Among the most active of these Serbian leaders is Randjel Nojkic, president of the provincial branch of the Serbian Renewal Movement, a small right-wing Serbian party, known for being an ardent champion of concessions and compromise on the Kosovo issue.

In Belgrade, parties that have previously championed uncompromising stances on the problem of Serbian participation have this time adopted an ambivalent or lukewarm posture. Such stances were observed among all parties of the Democratic Party-led governing coalition and even among the opposition Serbian Progressive Party.

To these parties one can add the Serbian Renewal Movement and the Liberal Democratic Party, which have unreservedly supported Serbian participation in the elections. In the end, only the Democratic Party of Serbia, the Serbian Radical Party and New Serbia remained adamant in strongly opposing any Serbian participation in the elections.

The Serbian government for its part hesitated before issuing a final statement regarding the Kosovo elections. This delay spoke volumes about Belgrade’s apparent shift of tactics. In previous Kosovo elections, Serbian governments quickly called for boycotts.

This time, the government spokesperson again stated that the conditions for the Serbs’ participation in Kosovo elections have not been fulfilled. But he did so only one day before the deadline expired for the registration of candidates.

This slow reaction was described as mild and lacking resolve, especially in light of Belgrade officials’ clarifications that any deviation from its line will not be sanctioned, but instead will be met with consideration, given the difficult predicament of the Kosovo Serbs.

Kosovo Serbs have interpreted the signals coming from Serbia proper in various ways. Advocates of election boycotts north of the Ibar hailed the negative assessment by the government and asked it to demonstrate more resolution against the Pristina-organised electoral process.

In the rest of Kosovo, though, Serbs who submitted their candidates’ lists a few hours before the expiration of the deadline focused on the change of course: for them, Belgrade’s statement that the conditions have not been fulfilled constitutes merely an assessment of the situation; it is not a prohibition or discouragement for Serbs to participate.

All told, it would be unrealistic to expect the Serbian government to contradict its standard policy of non-recognition of Kosovo by calling on the Kosovo Serbs to participate. But its mild and irresolute reaction could be interpreted as a silent endorsement of its Kosovo brethren’s participation in the elections.

A growing number of Serbian political actors, both in Kosovo and Serbia proper, realise that the policy of boycotting Kosovar institutions is in fact a denial of the reality on the ground, and it leads to a stalemate, which comes ultimately at the expense of the Serbian presence there. The position on Serbian participation may mark a broader, gradual change of Belgrade’s policy towards Kosovo.

Apostolis Karabairis is Junior Researcher at the Athens Working Group: Transforming the Balkans, a programme of the Hellenic Centre for European Studies:

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