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Serbian Nationalists Disrupted Kosovo's First Local Elections

On November 3, Kosovo saw its first nationwide local elections since its independence in 2008.

by Igor Pakovic
Nov 18 2013, 6:40pm

On November 3, Kosovo saw its first nationwide local elections since its independence in 2008.

Despite quite publicly seceding from Serbia five years ago, Kosovo still isn't recognized by the Serbian government as a sovereign state, so the fact that Kosovar Serbs took part in the polls is something of a breakthrough. Mind you, they were pushed into voting and cooperating with their Albanian countrymen by the Serbian government in Belgrade, which is maybe why a select, militantly stubborn section of Kosovo's Serbian population weren't too enthused about heading to the polling stations.

Nationalists at a polling station.

As people made their way toward the polling centers, Serbian nationalists insulted and threatened local Serbs who dared to cast their vote. Soccer hooligans, clero-fascists, separatists, and pro-life Nazis had all united to boycott the elections, with some of them filming voters with their phones in a bid to intimidate them.

That evening, a squad of 30 men in balaclavas broke into some polling centers in the northern city of Kosovska Mitrovica, an area close to the Serbian border. "They first stormed 16 polling stations in Sveti Sava primary school in Mitrovica North," said Mr. Schlumberger, head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) mission, which was supervising the elections. "They trashed ballot boxes and destroyed other election materials. They assaulted our staff and threw tear gas."

A bomb was also found in a technical school in Mitrovica that was being used as a voting center. As a result, the polling station was closed early and the OSCE mission withdrew 60 staff members from three other polling stations in northern Kosovo.

A poster denouncing a Serb collaboration with Albanian authorities, which reads: "I Won't Dirty My Hands." (Photo by Adam Jones)

Petrit Selimi, the deputy minister of foreign affairs for Kosovo, said, "OSCE has already confirmed that, in the rest of [the] north, results were acceptable, although voting was cut short by 20 minutes. Journalists saw the bad scenes that became news, but elsewhere the scenes were good and told a story of vibrant participation by the population in democratic discourse and the electoral process."

Overall, according to rough figures from the Central Election Commission, 47.83 percent of eligible voters in the youngest European republic turned out to cast their ballots. The attendance in Serb-populated municipalities was, on average, between ten percent and 22 percent, which doesn’t sound great, but—given the circumstances—is enough to be considered a success.

Unfortunately for Kosovar authorities, the elections weren't quite successful enough; even though nobody initially wanted to declare the elections invalid, as doing so would be admitting that the ski-masked fascist contingent had won, Prime Minster Hashim Thaçi announced on Wednesday that the vote would be repeated in three northern municipalities.

Graffiti that reads (in case you can't figure out the code) "EU equals Nazi". (Photo by Adam Jones)

Regardless of whether the elections were a success for Kosovo, Serbia, and EU, the incidents at the polling stations didn't come as much of a surprise. Ever since Serbia and Kosovo reached a historical agreement in April—where Serbia recognized ethnic Albanian authorities in the northern province and gave them control over certain services, like healthcare, education and the judicial system—some local Serbs had been threatening to thwart the next local elections.

In the video of the attack at the polling center in Mitrovica, you can hear people cursing the name of the first deputy prime minister of Serbia, Aleksandar Vu?i?, who was involved in the agreement, calling him a traitor and a siptar—a derogatory term used for Albanians. To cut a long story short, some Kosovar Serbs—like the ones at the polling center—think the Serbian government gave up Kosovo in exchange for a future EU membership.

And it's not just Vu?i? getting flak; in September, the family of Oliver Ivanovi?, a candidate for the mayor of northern Mitrovica, was attacked by a man who broke into his apartment—reportedly because Ivanovi? had been calling on northern Serbs to take part in the local elections. Later that month, an EU police officer was shot dead in Zve?an, also in northern Kosovo. In October, abomb was thrown on to the terrace of an apartment belonging to a council candidate in Mitrovica.

Krstimir Panti?, a candidate for the Civil Initiative Srpska list—the only candidate list in Kosovo supported by Vu?i?’s Serbian government—was beaten up by two masked men on the Friday before the elections. Later, Panti? told the press that it was an "execution attempt." On top of all those attacks, some patriotic Serbs gathered together before the elections to start a morbidly nostalgic action called "Cleansing Northern Kosovo," in which they tore down election posters, verbally abused people, and cheerfully waved flags of the motherland.

A banner urging the boycott of the municipal elections. (Photo by Adam Jones)

Then election day came and some masked goons managed to intimidate voters, despite the 5,000 policemen who were deployed to guard polling centers.

So who exactly are these people? As yet, only a member of an ultranationalist organization called "Nasi 1389" have been arrested, according to Serbian newspapers. Another 20 people have reportedly been identified, three of whom are allegedly Red Star Belgrade soccer hooligans. Panti?—the candidate who was subjected to an "execution attempt"—accused Marko Jakši?, a Kosovar politician well known to the Balkan media, of being behind the attacks.

Jakši? is an MP in the north for the Democratic Party of Serbia and has pedigree in the field of hating on people of other ethnicities. The International Crisis Group reported that, in 1999, he was responsible for expelling Albanian patients and doctors from the hospital he was director of. Currently, he's making his name as one of the so-called "hardliners" who pushed people to boycott the elections. At a Serbian parliament session following the elections in Kosovo, he said, "April’s agreement is a sign of surrender. People rejected that separatist plan and sent a message."

A nationalist mural in the Serbian area of Mitrovica. (Photo by Adam Jones)

There's also the small possibility that the hooligans were deployed by gangs worried about improved cooperation between Serbia and Kosovo, and the repercussions that might have on their operations. Serbian and Albanian gangs are far more amicable than their governmental counterparts, and it's been said that it's the organized criminals running Kosovo, not the country's politicians.

Improved relations between Serbia and Kosovo threaten to establish the rule of law more firmly in the region, so could it be that the criminal underworld is pulling some strings to help the election disrupters on their way?

Whether they’re being supported by gangsters or not, a number of Serbs living in Kosovo clearly want to stay Serbian, and tensions are flaring again in a region once torn apart by ethnic acrimony.