Polls opened yesterday in key local elections in Kosovo, which are being closely watched by the EU amid fears of a boycott by minority Serbs, voting for the first time since independence in 2008.
The election of deputies and mayors in 36 Kosovo municipalities is seen as a key test of relations between Pristina and Serbia after an historic EU-brokered deal to improve ties.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but the Serb minority living in the north of Kosovo still refuses to accept the government in Pristina.
Serbia also rejects Kosovo’s independence, but has urged the ethnic Serb community there to vote as part of the April deal brokered by Brussels.
The turnout of the 120,000 Serb voters, especially in the north where they make up the majority and enjoy control over some institutions, is seen as crucial to the poll’s success.
Yet many Serbs fear that voting in the election gives legitimacy to the Kosovo government.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton called the elections “a key moment in Kosovo’s future and an important element in the process of normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia.”
“The EU will be following closely the conduct of the elections,” she said in a statement.
Kosovo, the territory that sparked a war between Serb forces and ethnic Albanian rebels in 1998-1999, remains the main stumbling block to Serbia’s bid to join the EU.
The deal with Pristina had helped Serbia secure the green light to begin membership talks with Brussels, and holding up its end of the accord is vital for Belgrade.
For Kosovo, a free and fair vote with a significant Serb turnout would be a positive mark in its own push for negotiations on an EU membership bid.
Kosovo’s independence is recognized by most EU states.
However, the election got off to a shaky start in the north, with Nenad Rikalo, the Serb representative in the Kosovo electoral commission, telling reporters that in many polling stations there “the vote has yet to start.”
However, hardline nationalist Serbs have campaigned heavily against the vote, calling for a boycott.
This campaign seemed to be having an effect, with 43.5 percent of northern Kosovar Serbs saying they would not vote, according to an survey conducted last month by the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
“By taking part in the elections organized by Pristina, Serbs from the north will recognize the existence of” Kosovo as an independent territory from Serbia, Belgrade-based political analyst Dusan Janjic told reporters.
Yet Belgrade has strongly backed the polls, with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and powerful deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic issuing a joint appeal to the voters to cast their ballots.
“Only a high turnout will secure the Serbs’ survival in Kosovo... Every other result is a defeat,” they said in a joint statement.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has raised concerns about the nationalists’ campaign, with secretary general Lamberto Zannier warned against “intimidation of candidates and voters.”
Overnight on Friday, two masked men attacked Krstimir Pantic, a Serb candidate for mayor in Kosovska Mitrovica, the key town in the north.
Pantic said he would “urgently” seek an explanation from the OSCE “in order to have all conditions met for the vote to be held properly.”
Silvana, a 40-year old Serb woman, said voting was “the best thing to do,” despite the problems.
“I will vote definitely,” she said.
Konstantin Stijovic, 82, described the casting of his vote as a “duty.”
“I was born here and I want to show my family what they should do,” Stijovic told reporters.
For Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, the elections will be a test of support for improving relations with Belgrade.
Thaci has come under fire from the opposition for entering into negotiations with Belgrade, but his Democratic Party of Kosovo is nevertheless expected to win most of the ethnic Albanians’ votes.
About 1.7 million people across the territory are eligible to vote in the election. Polling stations opened at 6am GMT and are set to close 12 hours later. Preliminary results are expected during the course of next week.