North Mitrovica, Kosovo - In this city politics is literally written on the walls. On the main street of this predominantly Serb town in north Kosovo, a brightly painted mural declares, "This is Serbia". Nearby graffiti calls for the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo to "go home".
Once a prosperous, ethnically mixed city, Mitrovica has been divided since the war in Kosovo ended in 1999. A huge mound of earth and stone blocks the bridge connecting Serb-dominated North Mitrovica from the larger Albanian settlement south of the Ibar River.
In recent weeks, new messages have begun appearing on North Mitrovica's walls: "Kosovo is Serbia", "1389" (referring to the year the Battle of Kosovo was fought) and, most prominently, "boycott".
On November 3, local elections were held across Kosovo, in accordance with a peace deal signed by Serbia and its former province in April. Serbia pledged to recognise the authority of Kosovo's government over the north in return for far greater autonomy for Kosovo's ethnic Serbs. Underpinning the deal was both sides' ambitions to join the European Union.
In the rest of Kosovo, the elections passed relatively peacefully but in North Mitrovica, amid a highly visible boycott campaign supported by the right-wing Democratic Party of Serbia and smaller ultranationalist groups, problems quickly arose. By midday, the turnout rate at polling stations in the town was in the low single digits. Outside, groups of nationalist youths held an intimidating vigil.
At around 5pm, masked men simultaneously stormed three polling stations, firing tear gas canisters and smashing ballot boxes.
|Oliver Ivanovic is running for mayor of North Mitrovica [Bojan Slavkovic/Al Jazeera]
Officials from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) were evacuated from North Mitrovica and the voting was suspended. Last week, Kosovo's electoral commission declared that the election in North Mitrovica will be re-run on Sunday, November 17.
The international community was widely criticised for the electoral failure. "There was strong resistance to the election here in North Mitrovica, and everybody knew this. It shows poor planning and understanding of the situation by international organisations, which allowed those elements opposing the elections to organise," Mitrovica-based analyst Branislav Krstic told Kosovan media.
Serbia has refused to recognise Kosovo since it declared independence in 2008. But the Serbian government called on the 40,000 Serbs in the north to participate in the recent elections. For many Serbs living in north Kosovo, this was tantamount to a betrayal.
Even the candidates running in the election were ambivalent about the vote. "From the beginning it was not well prepared. It was not transparent. This process did not include the Serbs in the north, which is a good basis to fail," said Oliver Ivanovic, who was running for mayor of North Mitrovica. "It was a hidden process, hidden from both sides without any involvement of those who are supposed to be involved. What they agree is going to affect our lives. We have to be asked what we think."
Over the past 14 years, north Kosovo has developed in isolation from the rest of Kosovo. Parallel structures funded by Belgrade provide education, health, and court systems, and many in North Mitrovica are wary of any change to the status quo. "A huge majority of the people are against any sort of tight connection with Pristina," said Ivanovic, referring to Kosovo's capital. "Pristina is there, we cannot underestimate that fact. We are part of Kosovo as long as Kosovo is part of Serbia."
Almost a decade and a half of isolation has taken its toll on North Mitroivca. Cars, many without license plates, block footpaths, and drab Communist-era apartment blocks look down on streets that have changed little since the dying days of Yugoslavia. While many shop shelves are half-empty, lucrative illegal trades in everything from fuel to firearms have flourished.
Around 35 percent of North Kosovo's population of around 70,000 is unemployed, said Niall Ardill, a former business lecturer at the town's university. Most of those who do work are employed by the Serbian state.
"Conflict potential is still the biggest barrier to trading," explained Ardill, who was recently involved in a study on private-sector business capacity in north Kosovo. Only about 30 percent of the companies surveyed engage in trade south of the Ibar River - partly because of the prohibitively high cost of insurance levied by the Kosovan government on Serbian-registered vehicles that are the norm in north Kosovo.
|Masked men raid Kosovo polling station
"Economic integration is a good way to get people to talk to each other - you're able to push economic growth but also integration and conflict resolution," said Ardill.
The division of Mitrovica has inflicted social and economic costs on the Serbs living on the north side of the city. "Before the war, the town was organised in a proper way. All the facilities were shared around the town. But by dividing the town, now we just have the general hospital and all the other facilities, two stadiums, sports hall, health centre, railway station. Everything is in the south," said Sinisa, an ethnic Serb primary school teacher who declined to give his last name.
Before 1999, life in Mitrovica "was not perfect but it was good", he said. Now Sinisa seldom travels to the south of the town anymore, "because of the danger".
"We are just waiting for what will happen tomorrow. You have the feeling that everything is normal, but we are always waiting for what politics will bring."
Continually manned by international police, the barricaded bridge over the Ibar River is open only to foot traffic. On the ethnic Albanian side, Aferdita Syla, executive director of Community Building Mitrovica, said both the Kosovan and Serbian governments failed to engage with people on the ground ahead of the recent elections.
"People were not involved in the process at all. Nobody told people what was involved," she said. "It is all between Pristina and Belgrade. You see things going on in the sky and you just hope nothing will fall on us. There are people who don't want to lose their power and they are making a lot of trouble so they don't lose the benefits they have from the situation."
Worry of 'half-legitimate leaderships'
In the other three Serb-dominated municipalities in the north, Leposavic and Zubin Potok recorded a voter turnout of 22 percent, while 11.2 percent of voters in Zvecan cast ballots. Despite reports of intimidation in some of these areas, Kosovo's electoral commission said there would not be a re-run in these municipalities.
Ilir Deda, the head of Pristina-based think tank Kipred, warned that accepting results based on such low turnout could see "half-legitimate leaderships" emerge in the northern municipalities. "This will lead to further instability in the north in the years to come and create a permanent crisis of legitimacy, governance and ultimately lead to non-functional municipalities," he said.
If North Mitrovica's Serbs can be convinced to vote in Sunday's re-run, they will elect a local mayor as well as representatives for the Union of Serb Councils, created to represent most of the 120,000 Serbs across Kosovo under the April agreement. Some in Pristina have expressed concerns that the association's close ties to Belgrade could undermine the state of Kosovo.
In North Mitrovica, Ivanovic supports the new association but is critical of the Belgrade government's calls for Serbs in Kosovo to vote only for members of an approved "Serbia" list.
"For the democratic process, it is important to have a full spectrum [of parties] - not to have this one-party list, like in Communist times," he said. "Now we need a proper campaign, competing on ideas and personalities."