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

Kosovo Serbs Hail Election Boycott as Triumph

While hardliners crow, moderates fear they may pay price for failure to cooperate with poll.
By Jeta Xharra

Rada Trajkovic, president of the Serb National Council, gave a thumbs-up to the television set in her office on Saturday as news came in that by 11 that morning only 82 Serbs had voted in Kosovo’s parliamentary elections.

Surrounded by five mobile telephones “to avoid being secretly listened to” by KFOR surveillance, she exulted, “Bravo! Well done”, going on to explain why the extremely low Serb turnout was such an astute political move.

“We are showing most Serbs don’t want to legitimise whatever decision will be taken by the international community and the local Albanian leadership in the [next parliament’s] mandate,” Trajkovic told IWPR.

Trajkovic’s logic was the predominant thinking behind the Serb boycott of the elections in which the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, said less than 1 per cent of the minority’s electorate voted.

The boycott received powerful backing in Belgrade from the Serbian prime minister, Vojislav Kustunica, and the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Leaders of the boycott argued that Serb participation in the election would have created a false picture of a multi-ethnic Kosovo, and might have been used to justify ethnic Albanian demands for independence.

Kosovo’s Serbian Orthodox bishop, Artemije of Raska and Prizren, said Serbs had nothing to lose by not participating in the election, as their security situation had not improved after they took part in the previous ballot in 2001.

“Since we haven’t succeeded in making life more secure for Serbs with our words and participation in institutions,” he told IWPR, “maybe we will be able to attract more international attention with silence.”

Security remains a major worry for Serbs in Kosovo. A bout of ethnic rioting in March drove 4,000 Serbs from their homes. Some 800 houses and churches were burned.

Branislav Krstic, an analyst in the Serb-run northern half of Mitrovica, said the boycott was Serbian punishment of the international community for its failure to protect the community in the March riots.

“Let’s be clear on this, the Serbs are boycotting UN elections – rather than Albanian elections,” Krstic told IWPR.

“This is because of the bad job done during the March riots,” he added. Krstic went on to say that since March, many Serbs had started to view KFOR as “a fire extinguisher which you have in the locker but which never works when you need it most to put out the fire”.

Dejan Todorovic, 36, a doctor in Gracanica, a Serb enclave near Pristina, echoed the view that the boycott was meant as punishment for both Kosovo’s international and Albanian leadership.

“Nobody from the local or international police resigned after they failed to protect us during March riots,” he told IWPR on election day. “Why should I do them a favour by going out to vote when they didn’t do anything for us?”

Todorovic added that in future, ordinary Serbs were likely to weigh up what concrete benefits they had seen done for them before casting their votes.

“The Albanians need to do us a favour first, like start the process of decentralisation, and then it is more likely we will go out and vote,” he went on.

But if most Kosovo Serbs believe they have scored a minor victory by refusing to endorse the poll, a minority fears the community may have scored an own-goal.

Among them is Oliver Ivanovic, a political moderate who urged Serbs to take part in the elections.

“This boycott was a consequence of Serbian fear and dissatisfaction,” Ivanovic said, “but although they consider the boycott a solution, it may well create an even bigger problem.”

Ivanovic, who represented the Serbian List for Kosovo and Metohija, said one likely consequence was growing mistrust between Albanians and Serbs and the further isolation of the latter.

“It is a primitive Balkan thing to believe that by isolating yourself and building ever higher fences, you are likely to be more protected,” he added.

Branislav Krstic worries that Serbs may end up paying a high price for appearing so uncooperative towards the international community.

“When the Serbs said ‘no’ to the international community in 1999, they got bombs,” he said, adding that “saying ‘no’ again may result in the sight of even more Serbs packing their bags and leaving.”

Ivanovic believes UNMIK must now act to boost its credibility and re-establish its authority among both Serbs and Albanians, by punishing extremists on both sides.

As for the future plans of his community, Ivanovic’s prognosis was bleak. “Those who called for the boycott and got the boycott must now say ‘what next’,” he said. “If they haven’t got a plan - which I fear is the case - this is terrible. The [Serbian] government should fall because of this.”

Jeta Xharra is IWPR project manager in Pristina.