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Serbs Likely to Vote in Kosovo Elections

Although Belgrade's dithering has confused the Kosovo Serbs, they seem unlikely to boycott Kosovo's parliamentary poll.
By Zoran Culafic

Kosovo Serbs look increasingly likely to take part in the entity's parliamentary elections later this year, though mixed signals from Belgrade and fissures among the minority's politicians may result in a low turn-out, significantly decreasing the number of seats they win, analysts say.

The October 23 poll will be the fourth in the territory since 1999. Serbs boycotted local elections in Kosovo in 2000, the first poll held under international auspices, but took part in assembly and municipal ballots in 2001 and 2002 respectively.

Under the Constitutional Framework, the highest regulatory act in Kosovo, ten of the assembly’s 120 seats will be added to the number of seats won by Serbs, as long as the latter win at least one seat in the poll.

To maximise the effectiveness of Serbian votes, Kosovo Serb politicians in 2001 formed a coalition, named Povratak (Return), as the sole force to represent them in the Kosovo parliament. It took 22 seats in the elections – 12 from the vote and ten more under the terms of the Constitutional Framework.

But in the last three years Povratak has split. At the same time, while insisting it decides its affairs independently, the coalition has been hampered by its reliance on advice from Belgrade, which is frequently contradictory.

For example this July, Serbia’s prime minister Vojislav Kostunica urged Kosovo Serbs not to vote in the poll, shortly after the election was announced.

If Serbs did vote, a government statement read, it would “bury the plans for a political solution to the Kosovo crisis drafted by the Serbian government, which Belgrade will not allow”.

A day later, Vuk Draskovic, foreign minister for Serbia and Montenegro, sent a contrary message, saying Serbs should vote by all means. “One cannot win the game without participating in it,” Draskovic said, claiming that with a strong campaign and a degree of unity, Serbs could win as many as 30 seats.

On August 5, at the last United Nations Security Council session on Kosovo, Zoran Loncar, the Serbian representative, repeated the government line that Serbia opposed Kosovo Serb participation. “At the present moment, Belgrade cannot call on Kosovo Serbs to vote in the parliamentary elections in the province,” he said.

But the following day, Velimir Ilic, Serbian minister for capital investments, signalled a new line, announcing that fresh “consultations” on Serbian participation in the Kosovo elections would take place in Belgrade in the next few days.

Ivan Protic, Belgrade correspondent of Spain’s EFE Agency, who follows Kosovo affairs, believes the Serbian government will change its mind at the last moment, as it did previously.

“The latest government statements are not as strict as the first ones, and now they are announcing new talks within the government,” Protic told IWPR. “The government will realise that Serbs can achieve more by having representatives in the assembly than by remaining outside the official structures.”

If there is a low turnout of Kosovo Serbs, their representatives are likely to win fewer parliamentary seats.

According to the OSCE Mission in Kosovo, which organised the previous elections, there were 7,000 voters per seat gained in the 2001 elections, when 64 per cent of the 1.2 million eligible voters cast ballots.

But, this year the number of votes needed to gain one seat may well be larger, as analysts believe the Albanian turnout will increase.

Shkelzen Maliqi, a well-known sociologist, says many Albanian voters abstained last time, owing to the lack of civic groups or parties contesting the election. This is no longer the case, owing to the appearance of several new political groupings.

“The new citizens’ options could attract more young Albanians to vote,” Maliqi told IWPR, referring to at least three new political options that aim to attract the country’s youth.

Even if Povratak does take part, it will face competition. The Serbian tycoon Bogoljub Karic and Momcilo Trajkovic, a veteran Kosovo Serb politician, have formed their own coalition, which is registered to take part in the poll.

Unexpectedly, the new group withdrew their application on August 10, as the government in Belgrade had still not ruled on Serbian participation. But they have left open the option of participating at the last moment, in case Belgrade changes its position.

Trajkovic has ruled out joining Povratak on one list, even if the coalition participates, claiming two separate Serbian election lists will not make much difference to the Serbs’ position in the Kosovo parliament. “Two or three fewer seats would not mean much to us,” Trajkovic said. “Quality, not quantity, is what counts.”

Meanwhile, the international community is increasing pressure on Serbs. The August 5 Security Council session on Kosovo urged Serbs to take part in the October election. UNMIK spokesperson Georgy Kakuk told IWPR that UNMIK was working actively to persuade Belgrade and Kosovo Serb leaders to take part.

“It is absolutely essential for the Serb community in Kosovo to be full participants in the political process,” Kakuk told IWPR.

“We hope Belgrade will change its mind and that at the end of the day it will ask the Serb minority in Kosovo to vote and the Serb political entity to come into the arena.”

Belgrade’s seeming inability or unwillingness to commit itself one way or the other is already causing disquiet among Serb leaders in Kosovo. Oliver Ivanovic, member of the presidency of the Kosovo assembly, said he feared Serbs may lose out as a result of delays.

“The worst thing to happen is that the Kosovo Serb community remains divided on the issue due to hesitation by the authorities in Belgrade,” he said. “The government should take an informed decision on whether to support the participation of Kosovo Serbs in the election, based on facts – not emotions.”

Ivanovic added that he was concerned that Belgrade was pre-occupied with forthcoming local elections in Serbia proper, and that, in consequence, “Kostunica will not make any clear decision until the end of September.”

Ivanovic warned that 2005 and 2006 would be crucial years for the Serb community, as the international community has said final status talks on Kosovo will begin in the next few years.

In the coming period, he said, Serbs would face “enormous international pressure to appoint people who will discharge very important duties. The Serbs here must be elected by as many votes as possible”.

Ivanovic added, “Only then, with the full support of the Serbian government, can they face these difficult issues. If the Serbian government does not share this view, it must have alternative solutions. At this moment, I am not sure it does have those alternative solutions.”

Dragisa Krstovic, leader of the Povratak coalition in the Kosovo parliament, has also hinted at a possible softening of Belgrade’s hard line against taking part in the elections. On August 6, he suggested an election list might be submitted for registration as a safeguard.

“We should do this as a precautionary measure, as it may well happen that Belgrade decides at the last moment that Serbs should take part in the election after all, and then the Povratak coalition would not be on the election list,” Krstovic said.

While Belgrade slowly makes it mind up on the issue, the Kosovo Serbs await their instructions. Dragan, 30, from Gracanica, spoke for many members of the minority when he said its members should not vote unless Belgrade told them to first.

The international community, he said, had deceived the Kosovo Serbs before, by promising “freedom” if they went out and voted, “There is nothing of that so far, which is why I would not vote this time. Serbs should not vote and follow the instructions of our government in Belgrade.”

Zoran Culafic works for UNMIK radio in Pristina. Tanja Matic is a regular IWPR contributor.

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