Municipal elections in Northern Kosovo. Is detachment closer?

by Gaetano Massara

Municipal elections were held on Sunday 23 April in Northern Kosovo, where Serbs represent 90% of the population. Kosovo has been de facto independent since 1999, when NATO intervened in defense of the Albanian majority by putting an end to Serbia’s sovereignty, to then declare de jure independence in 2008. Which not only is not yet recognized by Belgrade but also by a hundred states, including Russia – Serbs’ historical protector – China and five EU members. To bring the former Serbian province out of the legal limbo and facilitate the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, in 2013 the EU brokered the Brussels Agreement between the two parties which provides for the establishment of the Association of Serb-majority Municipalities, which should enjoy a large degree of autonomy within the Kosovar state.

Pristina has so far refused to create the Association fearing it would be a re-edition of Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, which threatens to secede from Sarajevo. Out of Kosovo’s 10 Serb-majority municipalities, four are in the North and border with Serbia, which rules them de facto through the Srpska Lista, an emanation of the Serbian Progressive Party led by Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic. To assert his sovereignty over the Serb-majority municipalities, last summer the Kosovar Prime Minister and leader of the left-nationalist party, Albin Kurti, issued a provision which obliges residents to re-register their cars by discarding the KM (Kosovska Mitrovica) license plates still issued by Belgrade to replace them with RKS (Republic of Kosovo) plates. The reaction by North Kosovo’s Serbs was violent, with the blockade of the borders with Serbia and mass resignation of about 3,000 civil servants of Serb ethnicity from the institutions of the former province. Last November, the EU Special Representative for the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue, Miroslav Lajcak, managed to get a compromise agreed under which Serbia will not issue new plates with Kosovo initials, and Kosovo will withdraw the rule imposing the change of license plate to cars in circulation.

However, tension escalated further. When Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani called local elections for 23 April, Serbs responded by raiding the offices of Kosovo’s Electoral Commission. To Pristina’s reaction with the arrest of two former Serbian police officers accused of participating in the actions, Vucic counter-reacted on December 10 with the mobilization of the army. Only the mediation of Brussels and Washington, with the active participation of Italy, managed to produce a de-escalation, which materialized in the Brussels agreement between Vucic and Kurti for the normalization of relations last February, and in the Ohrid verbal agreement according to which Belgrade will not oppose Pristina’s entry into international organizations and the latter will grant an adequate level of self-management to the Serbian community.

But the devil is in the details. Pristina does not want to grant executive powers to the Serbian community and demands that Belgrade preliminarily recognize Kosovo’s independence. Belgrade on its side puts the creation of the Association of Serbian municipalities ahead of any other condition and continues to deny consent to Pristina’s entry into international organizations. It is in this context that the elections of 23 April took place, which gave unequivocal signals. The very low turnout (3.5%) reflects not only the boycott of the vote by Northern Kosovo’s Serbs but also the acknowledgment by Kosovo’s Albanians of the challenge in exercising effective sovereignty over that portion of the former Serbian province. Conversely, Belgrade’s control over the Serbs of that region (only 13 Serbs voted) as well as the fact that Pristina’s authorities had to resort to the use of containers as polling stations due to Serbs’ unwillingness to allow the use of school buildings (where Belgrade’s Ministry of Education’s programs are followed) testifies to who really wields power there.

Two good news for Kosovo and Europe arrived last month: the European Parliament finally granted visa liberalization to Kosovars, the last European citizens who still did not have freedom of entry into the Schengen area. And the Council of Europe has given preliminary approval for Pristina to join the pan-European organization. This progress should lead the international community to accept that Kosovars – of all ethnicities – finally choose their own future through a referendum.

Gaetano Massara

Gaetano Massara is a strategic and financial adviser. Currently he is a Member of the Board of Directors of Ansaldo Energia, and works as a consultant and editorialist. He is an expert in energy, geopolitics and business transformation.

He has worked at GE Lighting-Tungsram for two years, where he was CEO for South Europe. Prior to that, he worked at General Electric (GE) for 11 years, where he covered the roles of CEO for South-East Europe, Sales Executive of GE Power for Central & Eastern Europe and Marketing & Business Development Director for South Europe. Previously, he worked at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), where he was Associate Banker in the Municipal & Environmental Infrastructure team and Analyst at the Transport team. He also worked at the European Commission. Having lived and worked for 20 years in South-East Europe – a region encompassing ex-Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Malta and Romania – he became an expert of the region and its dynamics.

He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics & Business Administration from the University of Rome, an MSc in International Relations funded by Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a Diploma in Macroeconomics from the Yale University, USA. He also undertook part of his studies in France and Spain. Gaetano is fluent in English, French and Spanish and is Italian mother tongue. He can communicate in Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian. As an athlete, he has been Triathlon “Ironman”-distance five times finisher, Italian champion of rowing and competitor in sailing regattas. He currently lives between Belgrade (Serbia), Rome (Italy) and Zagreb (Croatia).

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