Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Kosovo Serbs' Own Goal

The low Kosovo Serb local election turnout means they will only have token representation outside municipalities where they form the majority.
By Simon Haselock

Following the successful October 26 municipal ballot in Kosovo, commentators have been divided about what the results mean for Kosovo. The majority of observers hailed the poll a success, stressing that the entire campaign and election day itself were free of violence and that its conduct was up to European standards.


Some critics pointed out that percentage turnout had fallen since previous elections and that Kosovo Serbs had boycotted proceedings in northern Mitrovica. But the most important fact is that the ballot has laid the foundations for reinvigorating a local government that deals with practical matters of greatest importance to most constituents.


Turnout by the Kosovo Albanian majority was about average for local elections in most mature democracies and high by regional standards. If the important mid-term elections in the US had attracted as high a percentage of eligible voters as Kosovo's polls, American pundits would have heralded the result as a revolutionary resurgence of civic spirit.


The real problem, as all observers realise, was not among Kosovo Albanians but the poor turnout of Kosovo Serbs. In five enclaves where Serbs constitute a majority, voting was a way to elect representatives to municipal assemblies they could expect to dominate. Of the 82 seats won by Serb entities, 68 were in these five municipalities.


At four polling stations in northern Mitrovica, by contrast, only 113 votes were cast. The main explanation appears to be confusion about the divergent signals sent by Serb leaders in the run up to the poll.


The leadership in Belgrade, as well as Kosovo Serb leader Rada Trajkovic, made a robust call for broad participation. But three well-known Serb leaders from northern Mitrovica still wedded to dreams of separating the area from Kosovo called for a boycott at four polling stations.


The low Kosovo Serb turnout will have the following consequences. First, it means that outside the municipalities where Serbs are in the majority, they will have only token representation.


Second, it means that in northern Mitrovica they will have no representation whatsoever, which will require modifying the seven-point United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, plan for Mitrovica outlined on October 13.


Kosovo Serbs, in common with members of other communities, need to defend their legitimate interests through political competition. But that can only happen effectively within Kosovo's institutions, in which, unfortunately, many Kosovo Serbs will not be represented. Competition means participation; non-participation means self-marginalisation. By boycotting, the Serbs of northern Mitrovica cut off their nose to spite their face.


The claim by some Serbs that there are no defense mechanisms for non-majority communities is simply untrue. The charter for Kosovo's provisional institutions, the Constitutional Framework, includes an elaborate mechanism for the defense of interests of vital importance to minority communities. The Serb Povratak coalition has used this mechanism to protest a majority parliamentary decision not to include a Serb-language university in the Kosovo education system.


UNMIK head Michael Steiner has now sent the bill back to the assembly, saying he will not sign it unless it reflects the recommendations of a three-person panel convened in accordance with the Constitutional Framework, which also guarantees Kosovo Serbs disproportionate representation in parliament.


While it is true that the assembly has not yet passed any legislation proposed by the Serb caucus, it must be noted that it has only passed two pieces of legislation altogether.


A final consequence of the Serbs' poor turnout is that plans for decentralisation will have to be modified. But at a dinner soon after the election, the leaders of all Kosovo's legitimate political parties and coalitions agreed on the need to move ahead with it. To this end, Michael Steiner asked Walter Schwimmer, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, to send a mission to discuss decentralisation alternatives with the institutions and communities in Kosovo.


Alexis de Tocqueville described the importance of local government in a youthful America thus, "In Europe, the absence of local public spirit is a frequent subject of regret to those who are in power; everyone agrees that there is no surer guarantee of order and tranquility, and yet nothing is more difficult to create.


“If the municipal bodies were made powerful and independent, it is feared that they would become too strong and expose the state to anarchy. Yet, without power and independence, a town may contain good subjects but it can have no active citizens."


The aim of decentralisation is to strengthen democracy by bringing government closer to the people. As Michael Steiner has said, "This will improve the delivery of public services and provide equal benefits and services to all. To bring Kosovo in line with the principle of subsidiarity, there is a need to consider the competencies of central and local authorities and redefine them where necessary. There is also a need to consider the establishment of administrative units below the municipal level."


Decentralisation of power was envisaged by the regulation on municipalities in 2000, "With the approval of the municipality, villages, settlements and urban quarters, singly or in combination, may carry out activities that are within the responsibilities and powers of the municipality? Where approval has been withheld by the municipality, villages, settlements and urban quarters may apply to the Central Authority for approval to carry out such activities." (Reg. 2000/45, Article 5.2)


Some have argued that UNMIK should have introduced the decentralisation concept earlier. While there may have been advantages to doing so, it would have been impossible to justify talking about the process before Kosovo Serbs had demonstrated their willingness to integrate in Kosovo's existing political institutions.


Before the elections, UNMIK had placed high hopes on decentralisation, believing that we could develop a plan that would raise all communities' confidence in local public services without undermining the municipal or central institutions. On the basis of the poor Serb turnout, we do not have the basis on which to proceed as intended.


By choosing to opt out of political life for the next four years, those Kosovo Serbs who declined to vote have thrown away a golden opportunity to advance the integration and multi-ethnicity on which their future in Kosovo depends. As explained before the elections, UNMIK has no plans to appoint anyone to municipal assemblies to compensate for seats lost through low turnout. Still, we will urge Kosovo's elected assemblies and other institutions to consider the interests of all communities even where they are under-represented in elected bodies.


This will be a real test for politicians from the majority community, who must understand they have a duty to protect the interests of all their constituents.


Now that the central parliament and the municipal assemblies are all in place, support and pressure from an informed citizenry is required for them to work effectively. That means a media which presents objective information that citizens need to understand public policy issues. It means groups of interested citizens who establish channels for communicating their desires and concerns to their representatives. And it means people from all communities recognising that ultimately Kosovo's destiny is in their own hands.


Simon Haselock is director of public information at the UN Mission in Kosovo.