The violence that marred the local elections in northern Kosovo on November 3, which were supposed to have been a major step in bringing the ethnic Albanian majority and Serb minority communities together, was what many had feared. But while the outcome might force a rethink by the international community in its approach to the Serb-dominated north of the Kosovo, few believe it will have major repercussions for Serbia and Kosovo's bid to join the bloc.
At around 5:00pm local time, masked attackers stormed all three polling stations in the Serb part of Mitrovica, the pivotal town in the divided north of Kosovo, spraying tear gas and smashing ballot boxes. A short time later, police found and removed an unexploded bomb outside the city's technical school.
Speaking at press conference in the evening of November 3, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) confirmed that 60 members of its mission responsible for the election had withdrawn from three areas due to security concerns.
Tensions had been mounting throughout the day as boycott protesters - backed by the hardline Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and ultra-nationalist groups Obraz and Dveri - surrounded polling stations to film and jeer at Serbs who showed up to cast their vote. Boycott banners and posters hung in almost every shop and restaurant window and anti-election graffiti even adorned the inside walls of polling stations.
Both the local and international preparation for and response to security concerns has been heavily criticised. "The police didn't react at all to the intimidation of voters," claims Oliver Ivanovic, former state secretary in the Serbian Ministry for Kosovo and leader of the citizens' initiative Serbian Democracy, Justice in North Mitrovica. "When an individual walks past to check the security situation and sees extremists on the door, they will not bring their family to vote, because they do not want their family to be attacked."
The perpetrators of the attacks on the polling stations have not yet been identified. But Krstimir Pantic, a mayoral candidate of the Belgrade-backed Citizens' Initiative Srpska, who the night before vote was assaulted by attackers wearing 100% boycott insignia, has claimed there is evidence to implicate local politician Marko Jaksic - a member of nationalist opposition party DSS and a leader of the boycott campaign. Speaking at a press conference on November 3, Jaksic strongly denied the allegations, claiming the attacks were the work of "special operations police" designed to "hide the success of the boycott."
According to a report from Serbian media outlet Tanjug , 16 arrests have been made for impeding the election process in North Kosovo.
Reputations at stake
Many North Kosovo Serbs feel betrayed by Belgrade. Marko Jovanovic, from North Mitrovica, told bne he did not vote because, "there is no good option here. Politicians in Belgrade are selling us to the EU. But people who live here will not give in to this. We will fight until the end".
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and Deputy Premier Aleksandar Vucic, all staked their reputations by agreeing to an EU deal struck in April that stipulates both sides must work towards the normalisation of relations in order to progress their EU membership bids. On Serbia's part, this required taking steps to ensure smooth elections on November 3 as part of a commitment from Belgrade to relinquish its de facto control over pockets of North Kosovo - its former ethnic Albanian-dominated province that seceded in 2008. Serbia has said it will never recognise Kosovo's independence, but has accepted the reality in all but name.
Speaking on polling day, Prime Minister Dacic told North Kosovo Serbs that they must vote in order to protect their own interests. "The fate of Serbs in Kosovo-Metohija has to be in their own hands", he told Tanjug. "For once, we should act in our own interest, rather than to the joy of Serbian enemies."
Yet the violence and that pervasive sense of betrayal largely did its job. Voter turnout amongst Serbs was low in Kosovo's north, with only 3-4% of Serbs voting in North Mitrovica. At present it is unclear whether the halted vote in North Mitrovica will be re-run. The Central Election Commission in Kosovo has stated "it will decide on the matter after reviewing the course of the election". The Economist noted that the halt in voting might've actually saved North Mitrovica from producing an unworkable result, because thanks to the votes of the small number of local Albanians it was heading toward having an Albanian mayor.
Bernd Borchardt, chief of the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (Eulex), condemned the actions by the unnamed groups, which he said were clearly designed to intimidate voters. "Attacking a polling station is something, it is one of the worst things you can do in civil life. We are very glad that we have been able to bring the people back without major damage to health or life, and that we were able to bring the ballot boxes back," said Borchardt.
"Rule by thugs must never be accepted," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted on November 4.
But all sides are putting their best face on the elections. Although the turnout in North Mitrovica was massively affected by the intimidation, turnout was up to 22% in ethnic Serb areas in the north and consistently around 50% in the southern Serb-dominated municipalities of Kosovo. For the rest of the country, it was a healthy 60% - a boost for democracy in this fragile new country. The OSCE mission chief, Claude Schlumberger, declared the vote a "success."
James Ker-Lindsay, senior research fellow focusing on Southeast Europe at the London School of Economics, tells bne that the comparatively high turnout in Serb-dominated municipalities south of the Iber River in Kosovo - all above 50% - indicates a need for the international community to consider rethinking its approach to the defiant northern enclaves. "The Serbs in the north are not in a credible position to reject both Serbia and Kosovo in the longer term... However, trying to force Pristina's authority on the north will be dangerous as it could lead to further violence. A long-term strategy of gradual integration will therefore need to be developed, perhaps involving an even greater degree of autonomy."
And few believe the hiccup should have any lasting impact on Serbia's drive to start accession negotiations on joining the bloc, which are expected to start by January. Ker-Lindsay says it would be "disastrous" if Serbia's EU talks are derailed or delayed. "There will have to be some very sensitive discussions by all the relevant parties in the period ahead" he adds.