The local elections that took place in Kosovo towards the end of 2013 were celebrated by the international community as a historic event and a turning point in the conflict over the status of the former Yugoslav province. They were also hailed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as a milestone for the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo and a clear sign that the Serb-dominated north of the disputed territory was finally prepared to become part of the Kosovar political system. Alongside the encouragement of ethnic Serbs to participate in the elections, Belgrade also committed to abolish its parallel political institutions. In return, Serb majority municipalities were granted the right to create a community with autonomy in areas such as economic development, health, education, urban and rural planning. Such initiatives helped to allay fears that the Serb minority would be dominated by an overwhelming Albanian majority.
Less than perfect conditions
However, the elections were far from being smooth, especially in the northern part of Kosovo. Voter turnout in Serb dominated municipalities was low and hovered between 15% and 20% of the electorate. The first round of elections had to be repeated in three polling stations after they were stormed by masked men. In the second round, ballots were transported to Kosovo Polje for no obvious reason instead of being counted at the polling station. In all rounds, employees of Serbian state-run enterprises were practically “ordered” to the polls. Whereas these circumstances would have warranted a critical assessment elsewhere, there seemed to be no appetite to engage in a prolonged discussion about the legitimacy of the elections – as long as they produced a result that everybody could live with.
This begs the question why the international community was so enthusiastic about the elections, and why they turned a blind eye to the manifold irregularities that took place. The events have to be seen in the context of the ongoing negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, facilitated by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security Affairs, Catherine Ashton. The so called “normalization of relations” between the two has been set as a precondition for both Serbia and Kosovo to enter accession negotiations with the European Union. As both actors are in dire straits economically, the importance they attribute to full membership cannot be exaggerated. This, in turn, leaves Brussels with ample opportunity to twist the arms and wring out compromises of the respective leaders. The agreement they reached on 19 April 2013 must be seen as a direct consequence of this. As the recent local elections formed part of that agreement, neither Pristina nor Belgrade could afford any major disturbance. And since the EU’s credibility as a mediator is on the line in Kosovo, its interest was mainly in getting the elections over with, rather than finding legitimate representatives for all municipalities.
What about the local population?
Against this backdrop, the local population is left behind with a sobering insight. Their concerns and hopes for the future – which were at stake according to all politicians urging them to cast their ballots – never really seemed to matter. Whereas they may have been (and still are) the bone of contention of negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, they have never really been part of the process themselves.
Notwithstanding all difficulties, the elections did produce results. Not surprisingly, all but one of the Serb-dominated municipalities picked the respective candidates from the Belgrade-backed “Citizens’ Initiative Srpska” as their new mayors. They are now expected to create the community of Serb majority municipalities – the next step in the process of the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. However, due to the enormous amount of creative ambiguity in the agreement as to what exactly this community will look like, it remains to be seen whether the community will in fact integrate itself into the Kosovar system. The fact that most of the elected mayors were chosen thanks to the backing of Belgrade, this seems at least questionable.
Jury’s still out
It is certainly too early to judge the long-term impact of these elections. Optimists will undoubtedly rate it as an achievement that elections took place at all. On the other hand, pessimists will counter that elections can only be legitimate if they truly reflect the will of the people. After all that this region has been through in the last 20 years, the sheer fact that Serbia’s Prime Minister Ivica Dačić has sat in the same room as his Kosovar counterpart Hashim Thaçi is certainly a success in itself. And where other conflicts simply drop off the lists of priorities of the global powers, it is encouraging that the EU appears to remain committed to resolving the Kosovo dispute. What all actors still have to work on, however, is gaining and enhancing their legitimacy on the ground. If one thing has become clear, it is that any solution has to be found with those affected most – not for them. Unfortunately, decision makers in Belgrade and Pristina did not use the elections as an opportunity to get a better picture of the needs of the local residents of Northern Kosovo. Until they start listening to them, they never will.
Mathias Zeller is a program officer in the mediation program at swisspeace.
“Mediation Perspectives” is a periodic blog entry provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts.
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