It was a local election that was meant to mark the first milestone in the EU-brokered plan for integrating the Serbian minority into the rest of Kosovo. Instead it resulted in tear gas and smashed ballot boxes after masked men attacked polling stations at three locations on the Serb side of the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica in Kosovo. The fate of the election remains unclear.
Though this tale is seemingly about men with hoodies and ski masks, it is not complete without three crucial players: Belgrade, Brussels and Pristina. None of these three can afford to lose momentum in the implementation of the plan agreed upon in Brussels. So for the first time, the three sides were working together to present these election as a success story, regardless of the violent incidents which could reappear in the future to affect the process of integrating the Serbian minority population into Kosovo.
For Brussels, “failure is not an option”, as a high European Union diplomat told me commenting on the election. As the first step in the implementation of the EU plan for Kosovo, the election should demonstrate the success of an EU led diplomatic mission, something that -until now- eluded the EU. For this reason Brussels will not allow this rare possibility for a positive spotlight in the international arena to be compromised by failure.
The participation of Serbs from the northern part of Kosovo would demonstrate that Pristina has finally achieved control over the whole territory which was declared an independent state in 2008. Kosovo institutions -until now- never really covered this area, and Serbian institutions continued to function. Kosovo’s self-proclaimed independence has been recognized by 106 of 193 UN member states and 23 of 28 EU countries. Pristina expects that the process of recognition will be accelerated with the integration of the Serbian minority in Kosovo. Though the Serbian government pledgednever to recognize Kosovo as independent, Dacic’s coalition government has practically recognized, through these elections, the authority of Thaci’s government over the north. In return, Belgrade wants autonomy for the Serbs living there. Some of the voters in Kosovo feared this might lead to partition. For this reason Hashim Thaci and his party did not fare well in this election.
Belgrade, on the other hand, went out of its way to convince Serbs in Kosovo to vote in the election while maintaining that they are status-neutral. In exchange, Brussels would give the green light to accession talks and send a much needed message of stability to foreign investors.
Under the masks
Sunday’s incident was a product of a number of sharp U-turns in Belgrade’s rhetoric. Following decades of patriotic speeches about Kosovo as the cradle of Serbian statehood, politicians started shaking hands with Pristina leaders. Serbs are now being told, “let us once do something that is in our interest and not in the interest of our enemies,” as Ivica Dacic, prime minister of Serbia, and former inflammatory spokesman of the Milosevic regime described, at the time, “Little Sloba”. This is hard to swallow by a great number of Serbs in the north of Kosovo and in Serbia, since, for years, the myth of Kosovo as the heart of Serbia was nurtured and formed a large part of the political platform of politicians who are now saying just the opposite.
Mr Aleksandar Vucic, vice prime minister and the leader of the largest party, recognized both nationally and internationally as the most powerful person in Serbia, was, in his youth, a hardline proponent for a Greater Serbia which included not only Kosovo but also parts of Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro. His Party recruited groups of thugs and soccer fans as volunteers for armed fighting in the Balkan wars of the 90s. Both Vucic and Dacic were banned from entering the EU at the time.
“I was part of a government that tried to resolve the question of Kosovo by war. Perhaps there is some justice today that I should be the person most responsible for finding a peaceful solution,” Dacic recently proudly wrote in the Belgrade weekly NIN. For a large number of people, who followed the drums of war for years, this U-turn equals treason. The hardliners among these went to Kosovo in masks to prevent the elections by force and fear.
Common wisdom in Serbia is that there is still a hidden link between these masked gangs and some high-ranking politicians. These gangs, however, cannot adjust easily to political U-turns, and to being dubbed hard to control hooligans instead of patriots. Just a month ago Serbian authorities-for the third consequtive year- banned the gay pride march in Belgrade over alleged fears of violence by these right-wing thugs. How could they have hoped to prevent violence by these thugs in Kosovo, if they do not control them any longer in Belgrade?
Similarly, just a day before the Kosovo local elections incidents, these hooligans were throwing smoke bombs and lighting fires at a football match in Serbia’s capital. Two years ago masked men were encouraged by the current ruling coalition – in opposition at the time – to build barricades, use arms and prevent the implementation of another EU-brokered plan.
Treason or patriotism?
Who should be considered a traitor and who a patriot is confusing to the Serbian public today as politicians change their discourse. Until recently Belgrade called for a boycott of all elections in Kosovo under the jurisdiction of Pristina. Those who participated in the elections were labelled traitors. Serbs in the enclaves in the south of Kosovo surrounded by majority Albanian population participated in the Kosovo elections since 2007 and had representatives in the Kosovo parliament. Belgrade held this against them. Now, when Belgrade did its utmost to promote Serb voter turnout in the elections, Serbs in the south were hailed as those who listened to Belgrade. They are now the patriots while Serbs in the north who insisted on an election boycott are labelled traitors.
Brussels also contributes to the confusion regarding Kosovo. During the negotiations leading to the Brussels agreement Belgrade had to constantly remind EU officials to uphold the principle of status neutrality. Five of the 28 EU member states did not recognize the self-proclaimed Kosovo independence. According to EU rules all crucial decisions have to be consensual so no document can mention explicitly or implicitly an independent Kosovo. Just before the elections Pristina printed ballots with Kosovo state insignia which created additional disquiet among the Serbs. Brussels did not react to this fast enough and Hashim Thachi boasted that the participation of Serbs in the election was a clear sign that their goal of statehood has been reached.
There is hardly a person today in Serbia who considers it possible for Kosovo to remain a part of Serbia. However no ruling politician, with few from the opposition, call Kosovo an independent state. It would be highly unlikely for anyone to win elections if they said this out loud. The loudest opponents of Serbia joining the EU are now the biggest supporters of a modern European Serbia. The international community that is now full of praise for the current Serbian leadership ignores the past but most Serbs cannot forget.
Zorana Suvakovic is a Belgrade-based journalist, columnist and editor, working for the Serbian newspaper Politika.