Belgrade and Pristina need to work together

Radio Free Europe tells me the Kosovo municipal election went badly today in the north:  voting materials were destroyed at three polling stations, turnout was low and intimidation was high, with one Serb candidate attacked yesterday.  The observers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) withdrew and polls closed early.

This is too bad, even if unsurprising.  Assignment of responsibility for what went wrong will have to await investigations of what happened, but it is clear enough that both Belgrade and Pristina have a problem.  The organized criminal groups in northern Kosovo, supported by nationalist hardliners and elements in the Serbian security services, are able to defy both Belgrade’s desire to see smooth implementation of the EU-brokered April agreement as well as Pristina’s desire to see its institutions recognized as the only legitimate ones in the northern part of the country.

Pristina and Belgrade will find the European Union displeased with what happened.  Belgrade wants to open its accession negotiations next year.  It needs the money that comes with that.  Even if the EU concurs, Brussels’ first demand will be for Serbia to plug the rule of law gap so apparent in northern Kosovo.  Pristina wants a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU, as well as participation in the Schengen visa waiver program.  It can’t expect either one unless it has full control of its borders, which appears to have been wanting in the north.

That said, we shouldn’t exaggerate the significance of a bad election day.  Many in the Balkans think that if they don’t vote the election is invalid.  But that is not how it works.  In democracies if you don’t vote, you are not represented.  Some are worried that low Serb turnout in the north may presage the election of Albanian mayors.  They should have worried about that before election day.

It may still be possible to allow the destroyed polling stations to reopen to permit voting, if not today then tomorrow or the next day.  Of course intimidation will continue.  Law and order cannot be established overnight.  But it has to be established if Serbia and Kosovo are to continue on the European path that their citizens want to follow.   Pristina and Belgrade need to stop blaming each other and work together to defeat an organized, criminal and well-connected group of extremists.

*The statement made by the head of the OSCE observer mission, which I had not seen when I wrote the post above, suggests that the election was proceeding reasonably well when the organized attacks on the polling stations in north Mitrovica occurred.

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25 thoughts on “Belgrade and Pristina need to work together”

  1. One hopeful sign is that the politicians in Belgrade are rushing to cast the blame on somebody – anybody – else, rather than striving to take credit for the disruption yesterday. Some even forget to ritualistically blame the Albanians and move on immediately to their political opponents. (As for Kosovo, if they are forced by an agreement to allow busloads of foreigners in to vote in their elections, the failure to control the country’s borders should not be held against them.)

    According to a B92 article yesterday, the violence in the north occurred after dark fell – when people could approach the polls without being photographed by the troublemakers – and started to turn out in large numbers. Until then, voters had been insulted and threatened while being photographed by unknown persons while the police – all Serbs, in the North – looked on. Even so, the turnout was over 20 percent in two of the three non-Mitrovica northern municipalities when the polls were shut down after 5 o’clock. (In some of the southern Serb towns participation was over 50 or even 60 percent. The Belgrade-approved party is claiming victory everywhere, but there are to be run-off elections in most of the towns.)

    The NGO Democracy in Action called on voters throughout the country to “Vote and Observe” and to SMS any irregularities they noted, and people participated enthusiastically. Most of the irregularities apparently involved people whose names did not appear on the voting lists, especially in the case of Serbs who had moved out 10 years or more ago and now showed up with nothing but a Serbian ID card.

    Zeri is reporting that some ballots from the school that was broken into were found this morning in a container in front of the school by kids who scattered them around the building. I’d be more interested in what happened to the voting lists marked with the names of those who had voted – people entering polling places in the north were being threatened all day with unspecified retaliation. (The police said they could not take action without a specific complaint, and for obvious reasons no one walked up to an officer and complained.)

      1. Over 22% in 2 municipalities, a little over 11% in the 3rd (Zvecan, I think), and lower in No. Mitrovica – it could average 13%, especially since No. Mitrovica was said all day to be low.

  2. B92 reported yesterday that bus loads of Kosovo Serbs were denied entry to vote at the Merdare border crossing. Clearly the Kosovo Albanians were doing their best to try to prevent Kosovo Serbs from participating.

    Second, these aren’t “bus loads of foreigners” or “Serbs who had moved out 10 years ago.” These are people who were driven out by Albanian thugs and are internal refugees in central Serbia.

    Get your facts straight.

    1. Serbian buses don’t have permits to enter Kosovo. (They could probably get them, but they’d have to go to government in Prishtina for that.)

      People who don’t live in a country and who don’t recognize its government and will not be affected by the results of a vote I’d call foreigners. Or, since these were local elections, maybe just “out-of-town-ers.”

      1. Since WordPress doesn’t allow edits, here are the references:

        “Turnout in the four northern municipalities of Kosovo, where around a third of the region’s 120,000 Serbs live, averaged 13 per cent, according to the Central Electoral Commission; in the Serbian part of Kosovska Mitrovica, a divided city, fewer than 10 per cent of the electorate are thought to have gone to the polls. ”

        “He [OSCE mission chief, Claude Schlumberger] noted that despite the boycott campaign, the Leposavic and Zubin Potok municipalities recorded a turnout of 22 percent, while Zvecan recorded 11.2 percent.”

      2. “Serbian buses don’t have permits to enter Kosovo.” That’s a lie, Amer. Nis Express and Lasta (from Belgrade) run daily routes to Kosovo. The Albanians clearly wanted as few Serbs voting in mixed municipalities (like Novo Brdo) as possible. Btw, Amer, have the Kosovo Albanians ever arrested anyone for the Nis Express bombing in Podujevo that killed 11 Serbs?

        “People who don’t live in country…” These people aren’t being allowed to return to Kosovo, Amer. UNMIK reports are ripe with data on the dismal number of Serb returnees. How are these people supposed to return when their property has been illegally occupied by Albanians or they are subject to death threats by Albanian extremists. Why would anyone in their right mind recognize a “government” that turns a blind eye towards these things?

        1. The bus bombing: is this the one where a suspect was tried, but the judges refused to accept DNA evidence from cigaret butts from the scene as not having been reliably identified with the actual explosion? If so: trials don’t always go the way you’d hope.

          On the buses: the problem seemed to be that they went to the wrong crossing point – I don’t have all the details, I admit. (I’ve been without a computer for nearly 3 weeks and I’m reading fast to catch up. I regret missing out on the comments of the new “Party of the Strong” in Prishtina.)

          On the point of outsiders being present, residents of Mitrovice said that most of the trouble-makers were from elsewhere and they didn’t expect them to stay in town long. (There was a picture of the leader of Obraz giving an interview in one of the papers.) These were actually the people I had in mind when I referred to the difficulty of keeping out problmatic persons when large numbers are allowed into the country without any kind of background information. As for the peaceful types who merely wanted to vote, I’d be less unhappy about their presence if I hadn’t just finished reading in Sleepwalkers about the role of the Serbian irredentists in the start of WWI.

          (BTW, do you remember the outrage in Serbia and the Serbian entity in BiH when Bosnians brought in expellees to vote in the Srebrenica election?)

          1. Yes, that bus bombing, where 12 innocents (including women and children) lost their lives on their way to pay their respects to the dead. The same bus bombing where the perpetrators remain free and where the Kosovo authorities have no interest in bringing to justice.

            How would you know that the buses went to the wrong crossing point when you admit you have zero details? Oh yes, you simply lie and make up stuff on the fly.

            You disparagingly refer to Serbs who were driven out of Kosovo as “busloads of foreigners” but then later refer to Bosnians as “expellees”? Why the double standard? In either case these people have the right to cast their votes. Full stop. But no, you then go on to provide the lamest of excuses citing historical bunk. Btw, Sir Max Hastings’ brilliantly written and critically acclaimed book “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War” dismantles the revisionist tripe found in books like Sleepwalkers.

            (Btw, neither Serbia nor Republika Srpska forcibly prevented Bosniaks from voting in the Srebrenica municipal elections unlike what the Kosovo Albanians did to Serb expellees.)

          2. Simon – “lively and opinionated” is another critical opinion of Hastings’ book. But his focus was on the first months of the war, not so much the run-up to it. We’re sure to hear more about the historical background in the next few months – “revisionism” after all is what history is all about.

            I used the term “expellees” as an example of how outlook determines vocabulary.

  3. LOL this site is like a club of Serbophobes coming together venting their rage towards Serbs. Funny how the Serbophobe Serwer talks about the criminal organizations that are apparently active in the north of the province but refuses to ever mention the organ trafficking, heroin dealing gangsters in Pristina. That is because he cannot upset those who pay him to spew hatred.

    Fortunately, Mr. Serwer is not a young guy and its not likely he will have a platform to spew his hatred for decades to come. He then can share a room in hell with Hoolbrooke. lolol

  4. I see that Amer has retreated a bit from his original revealing identification of Serb IDP voters as “foreigners.” All the same, that such a shrewd and knowledgeable commenter, who I take it is a Kosovo Albanian, should use such a term in the first place, isn’t a good sign. The fact is that his original comment was not directed at the modalities of the IDPs’ arrival at their voting places, but at the fact that they had the right to vote at all. The events in northern Kosovo do seem to have set the stage for the more or less vigorous breakage of Serb eggs that back in August I got the feeling that Mr. Serwer believed was needed in order to make the Kosovan multiethnic omelet. But if Amer’s comment is anything to go by–and on the Kosovo Albanian spectrum he seems to be a moderate–the omelet will have only one flavor.
    Gavin Lewis

    1. “… who I take it is a Kosovo Albanian”

      No, I’m American, a descendent of Americans who have been trying to eke a living out of New England’s stoney soil since 1631. (Whoever said that if America had been settled from west to east New England would still be uninhabited had a point, if an unkind one.)

      1. Sorry about that, Amer. I’m only a first-generation, mid-20th-century immigrant from Old England! I do suspect that your views will find a wide resonance (understandably enough) among Kosovo Albanians.

        1. Welcome, and if you intended to farm, I hope you had the sense not to settle in New England. (There’s a good reason what was once farmland has returned to woodlands since Colonial days, accounting for all those stone walls out in the middle of nowhere.)

  5. Dear NK,

    Do you have an address for those who pay for spewing hatred? I myself have been described as doing exactly that on various sites, and I don’t get a penny for my efforts. As a potential competitor in this spewing business, I really can’t expect Dan to share his client list, so I’d appreciate any e-mail addresses that you can confirm are willing to pay what I sincerely hope is good money for comments on the Balkan scene.


  6. The instigators and perpetrators of the electoral violence should be searched within two interest groups: organized crime stakeholders who benefit from a long-lasting institutional power vacuum in northern Kosovo and those who are seeking to derail Serbia’s efforts at EU accession by any means, either out of ideological or business motives. However, they might well have miscalculated, as any deterioration of security in the north can only increase the likelihood that the West will eventually approve a formidable action by Priština aimed at taking full control of the disputed area, potentially with help from KFOR.

    It is even possible that such an operation could be tacitly endorsed by Belgrade, since these de facto paramilitary units, consisting largely of soccer hooligans and with-them-affiliated far-right militants, have begun to represent an ever-growing threat not only to regular public safety in Serbia but also to the state itself. Amid reports of violence in Mitrovica on Sunday, Serbian first deputy prime minister Aleksandar Vučić offered to send security forces from Serbia to the north, which he claimed would have restored order in just “45 minutes” and thus enabled the voting to quickly resume. Vučić’s proposal can be interpreted in two ways: he was either provided with operational intelligence on who were the thugs that had attacked the polling stations, or simply wanted to send a message to the internationals that his government had nothing to do with the incidents; or – why not? – both.

    In a best-case scenario, Serbian and Kosovo authorities will begin to cooperate closely in order to execute a much-needed crackdown on the individuals and groups that have been exploiting the lawlessness in northern Kosovo – as well as other institutional weaknesses of the two countries – to develop powerful criminal networks that operate intensively across borders. Such a cooperation would no doubt serve long-term interests of both sides – and would be warmly welcomed by their Western partners.

    1. Dear Mr. Marinkovic, while I agree with your points let’s not forget about the lawlessness in the rest of Kosovo. The recent shooting death of a Serbian policeman by an Albanian drug dealer on the outskirts of the town Veliki Trnovac and the subsequent escape of the prime suspect into Kosovo demonstrates that lawlessness is not just confined to the north.

      1. Yes, and that’s exactly why I added, quote: “as well as other institutional weaknesses of the two countries”. In this context, the syntagm “institutional weaknesses” denotes lack of a state’s ability to enforce its own laws – and that’s something both Kosovo and Serbia have long been suffering from. By the way, the situation in that regard is not any better in most other Western Balkans countries.

    2. The likelihood of a violent response by Prishtina seems to be decreasing by the hour. In the past, they turned to force only after years of frustrated attempts to break a long-standing deadlock during which they used only peaceful means. Now they are winning, there’s almost no chance of a violent response. While the Albanian population is unhappy with the concessions Thaci is making in their name, VV was unable to capitalize on this in the elections Sunday, meaning the political pressure is still bearable. (Shpend’s showing in Pristina is said to be a personal victory – he did much better than the party nationwide.)

      The latest meeting in Brussels has just concluded, the shortest on record. There will be a re-vote at the three sites that were attacked on Sunday, not throughout the north as the Serbs had asked for. Since two-thirds of those turning out to vote throughout the north were Albanians, rerunning the election at three locations should make little difference to the final outcome.

      In the past it’s been said that the comparative cooperation of Serbs with Prishtina in the south was only because they had no alternative. The same may soon be the case in the north – nobody in Belgrade wanted to be associated with the hooligans’ actions, and except for them there was little active resistance to the vote. The effect of the blockade was only to hold down Serb turnout and probably give Mitrovica an Albanian mayor, suggesting the tactic will likely not be reused. Belgrade has moved on, the fate of some 40,000 (a third of the population of Nis) was only important as long as it could affect the vote in Serbia itself, and that seems no longer to be the case. There’s even less response from the population than from their representatives in government to what’s going on in Kosovo.

      And now, the Albanians are beginning to work for similar rights for the Albanians in Serbia to the rights they’ve been pushed to grant their ethnic Serbian citizens, apparently with the blessing of the EU (which provided an escort for a “private visit” to Presevo Valley town officials by Vlora Citaku sometime in the past week or so).

      No, the Albanians in Kosovo have no need to turn to violence these days.

  7. “The fate of some 40,000 (a third of the population of Nis)”.

    Even less, Amer. Niš has the population of between 250.000 and 300.000, so the 40.000 “northerners” actually constitute just about a seventh of Niš citizenry.

    1. Will you compromise on 184,635 (2010)? The number probably depends on what is included – the core city, the “metropolitan area,” or whatever. (I simply took the first number Google offered.) If Nis is actually substantially larger than I thought, good for it, and not so good for the residents of northern Kosovo, politically speaking.

      Are you encouraged by the rapid agreement today in Brussels? Just as well to get the elections over with as soon as possible, I’d think, and move on to setting up the Council, whereupon everybody can start setting up their offices and planning their reelection campaigns.

      1. You may well be right. It is quite possible that the number I mentioned includes suburban areas and nearby villages that virtually adjoin Niš, while the core town probably has no more than between 150.000 and 200.000 residents.

        Am I encouraged by the rapid agreement in Brussels yesterday? Well, I am generally encouraged by political maturity that the current Serbian administration has demonstrated thus far, compared to all of its predecessors. This is particularly true for top government figures such as Dačić and Vučić, and, albeit to a lesser extent, President Nikolić, as well.

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