Kosovo: Serbs Threaten Poll Boycott

Serb participation in local elections threatened by dispute over implementation of UN decentralisation plan.

Kosovo: Serbs Threaten Poll Boycott

Serb participation in local elections threatened by dispute over implementation of UN decentralisation plan.

Kosovo Serbs are locked in a confrontation with the UN administrator Michael Steiner over his proposals for decentralisation and self-rule in the northern enclave of Mitrovica that could see them boycott local elections this month.

The Kosovo Serbs, smarting from the failure of the UN to honour a previous agreement, are demanding that the plan, proposed by Steiner at the beginning of this month, be implemented before the October 26 elections. Steiner insists that the ballot take place first.

Local Serbs have long been pressing for decentralisation, which they see as guaranteeing their security. They doubt it will be implemented after the elections.

Mitrovica remains a segregated city three years after the arrival of international troops. The Ibar River separates the Albanian community in the south from the Kosovo Serbs in the north. The latter are mainly refugees who left their homes fearing an Albanian backlash at the end of the conflict.

The bridge dividing the city is controlled by members of an extremist Serbian group called the Bridge Watchers. They are determined at all costs to keep northern Mitrovica under Serbian control and have been involved in clashes with UN police and local Albanians.

The UN Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, has consistently failed to establish effective jurisdiction over the northern part of the city, which is run by an illegal Belgrade-controlled administration. In the absence of any effective international control, human trafficking, prostitution and smuggling are rife.

Steiner's plan would allow the international administration to open its offices in the north for the first time, effectively ending the parallel system of governance.

Steiner proposed decentralisation, joint administration between Albanian and Serb communities and efforts for a quick economic revival of the city. The UN chief called on the latter to join the Kosovo police force and promised to organise a Mitrovica conference of donors and potential investors after a successful election.

Kosovo Serbs are eager to take over formal responsibility for local governance, especially when it comes to their security. But although Steiner's plan addresses their demands for decentralisation and self-rule outlined in a proposal to UNMIK in July, the fact that it comes just weeks ahead of local election causes suspicion.

Local Serbs took part in last year's parliamentary elections only after signing an agreement on cooperation with the former UNMIK head Hans Haekkerup and Nebojsa Covic, Serbian government deputy president and the chief of the Kosovo coordinating team.

But they say nothing has been done to fulfil the main planks of the agreement: improvements in security and the return of Serb refugees and displaced persons.

As a result, there is a growing mistrust of the international community amongst the Serb community, which is now threatening to boycott the upcoming poll.

"Since I am well informed on the situation in the Serb national community in Kosovo and Metohija, I am afraid that their trust in your ad hoc unwritten guarantees is almost at zero-level," Covic said in an open letter to Steiner on October 7.

Marko Jaksic , a Kosovo Serb leader from northern Mitrovica, said he was suspicious of Steiner's intentions and feared a mass influx from the Albanian populated south of the city if his plan was put into effect.

"Steiner is forgetting that since participating in last years' elections, the Serbs have gained only free lodging and food in Albanian prisons," he said this week.

Rada Trajkovic, head of the Serbian parliamentary caucus in the Kosovo parliament, told IWPR that Steiner's aim was to drag his feet over the decentralisation issue and then lay the blame on Serbs for not participating in the election.

She said nothing had been done to improve conditions for Serbs since the Haekkerup-Covic agreement, as there were no institutional guarantees for the protection of the community.

Trajkovic said Steiner's proposals were a form of "political marketing" on the eve of the elections, and doubted that he would put his words into action once the ballot was over.

She said only once the security threat to the Serbs was removed would the community be able to concentrate on the process of reconciliation with the Kosovo Albanians.

Dragana Nikolic is an IWPR assistant editor. Tatjana Matic works for Deutche Welle and Balkan Times in Pristina.

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