Serbs in Kosovo reject independence, Pristina's governance

Serbs living in northern Kosovo overwhelmingly rejected the state's independence in a referendum, voting against accepting rule from Albanian-dominated Pristina.

A man casts his ballot at the polling station in Zvecan, Kosovo, Tuesday, Feb.14. Defiant Serbs in northern Kosovo voted Tuesday in a referendum that overwhelmingly rejected Kosovo's ethnic Albanian rule, further hindering Serbia's attempts to join the European Union.

Serbs in Northern Kosovo rejected the fledgling state’s independence in an overwhelming vote this week. The vote indicates the frustration and alienation felt by the Serbian minority in Kosovo, which they see as part of Serbia.

A remarkable 99.7 percent of voters voted “no” to accepting rule from the ethnic-Albanian dominated institutions of Pristina, the Kosovan capital, with fewer than 70 ballots in favor. But despite the unequivocal result – reminiscent of a North Korean “election” but almost certainly fair – the vote is extremely unlikely to move this frozen conflict any closer to resolution. The Serbian government, anxious to move closer to the European Union, opposed the vote. This has drawn criticism from the international community (including the EU), which fears it could ramp up tensions in the region.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia four years ago this month, having been administered by the UN since 1999, when international efforts ended war between the then Yugoslav military and the Albanian insurgents of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Serbia has refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence, a position backed by Russia, China, and several EU member states. The predominantly Serbian north of Kosovo continues to be ruled de facto from Belgrade, with little influence from Pristina. The poll was held in the four Serbian-controlled provinces, where 40,000 of Kosovo’s 120,000 or so Serbs live.

Belgrade-based political commentator Bratislav Grubacic says the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina is likely to continue, with both governments having too much at stake to escalate diplomatic tensions. 

But it is nonetheless indicative of Serbs’ hostility to the prospect of being a minority in an Albanian-dominated independent Kosovo. Opposition to the Pristina government, dominated by former KLA figures and tainted by allegations of criminal activity, is understandable.

Grim past

Memories of the war and the atrocities committed by both sides are fresh. Last year, local Serbs clashed with NATO troops attempting to establish border posts between northern Kosovo and Serbia. General Erhard Drews, the commander of the alliance’s force in Kosovo, has warned that the referendum could trigger attacks by ethnic Albanians on Serbs, though that prediction has so far proven wide of the mark.

“People in Northern Kosovo feel cheated by the Belgrade authorities, the international community and almost everybody,” Grubacic said. “They wanted to express their political will.”

The vote came at a delicate time - not only close to the fourth anniversary of Kosovo’s “independence,” but also as Belgrade and Pristina are moving to restart negotiations. Restarting talks is a prerequisite for Serbia becoming an official candidate for EU membership: in December, the EU turned down Serbia’s candidacy bid due to the country’s stance on Kosovo.

Furthermore, Serbia is gearing up for an election in which both Kosovo and EU membership will be hot-button issues. The Western-leaning government of President Boris Tadic must therefore steer a path that appeases Brussels while not alienating the substantial body of the Serbian electorate which will not countenance the loss of Kosovo, which is seen as the cradle of the Serb nation.

Tadic’s course is already angering nationalists and Serbs in Kosovo, who suspect that the government has privately decided to sacrifice the province in order to gain EU membership. This suspicion is probably well- grounded.

Kosovo or EU

Serbia is set to return to the negotiating table with Kosovo in the hope that EU candidate status can be confirmed before the spring elections. But Grubacic expects progress to be very slow, given the political realities. He asserts that Belgrade will not formally recognize independence for a long time to come.

Meanwhile, within Serbia, the reality is that corruption and low living standards are more of a concern for most voters. “Most Serbs know that Kosovo is a done deal, but few dare to say it,” Grubacic says.

Resolution for the Serbs of Northern Kosovo, stranded in a diplomatic no-mans land, will be a long time in coming, and the end result is unlikely to be the one they seek.

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