Monday, May 12, 2008

Election in Mitrovica

Yesterday around 115,000 Kosovan Serbs voted in the Serbian parliamentary and local elections despite Kosovo declaring its independence from Serbia three months ago. The Kosovan government said that for Serbia to hold elections within its borders is illegal. In reply the Serbian government maintained that it is in fact Kosovo’s deceleration of independence which is illegal and that it remains part of Serbia. UNMIK, the real authority in the region, seemed to come down on the side of Kosovo’s independence. Under UN resolution 1244 Serbian local elections are banned and their spokesman has made it clear that they have ‘no legal validity.’ However, UNMIK also said they will not stop voting taking place in the 295 polling stations all over the region.

Local Serbian elections have not been allowed to take place since the UN took over the security and administration of the region after the war in 1999. Since then the Albanian Kosovan population waited patiently for independence. In February of this year Kosovo declared independence unilaterally and it has given much joy to the Albanian population. However, as unquestionable as their newly acquired statehood is to Kosovan Albanians, Kosovan Serbs still firmly believe that Kosovo is part of Serbia. Just as Albanians think that the Serbia elections have violated their sovereignty, Kosovan Serbs believe they had the right to vote for Serbian candidates in Kosovan municipalities.
The problem seems to stem from the lack of clarity surrounding Kosovo’s independence. The legal argument for independence is tied up in the wording of resolution 1244. This document was agreed upon by the UN Security Council after the war in 1999. The resolution gave UN control over the region and outlined its peace-building role. Under 1244 the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) is an interim administrative structure, aimed at facilitating a sustainable solution which both Kosovo and Serbia are content with. Once this job is done UNMIK leaves. But this has proved impossible. Kosovo (with its 90% Albanian population) wanted independence. Serbia, and Kosovan Serbs did not. Neither side would budge.

Basically, this stalemate is used as legal justification for independence. UNMIK’s mandate is to facilitate progress but because the stalemate blocks any progress, it is argued that a sustainable solution which only one party agrees to is justifiable, as long as that solution is compatible with resolution 1244. An independent Kosovo was considered the most compatible solution.
The argument against Kosovo’s independence, the argument Serbia follows, is that because the UN Security Council has not agreed on a resolution granting Kosovo independence, it is still part of Serbia. Legally, this argument seems much stronger, but that doesn’t appear to concern those who have backed independence. George W Bush, in an out-of-character flagrant disregard for international law, supported the declaration almost immediately. The UK and much of the EU joined in. Generally the nations which have not supported Kosovo’s unilateral declaration, like Russia, China and Spain, have issues with their own separatist regions. Outside Serbia, Russia is the biggest champion of the Serb cause in Kosovo and promises to use its veto in the UN Security Council to block any resolution to grant the region independence. Without such a resolution it seems as though Kosovo’s statehood will continue to be questionable, and Serbia’s claim to the region will be based on more than just its nationalistic pride.

In theory UNMIK had both the legal right and the power to shut-down the polling stations. When we asked their spokesman Russel Geekie about the situation he said that the local elections were illegal under resolution 1244. But UNMIK made it repeatedly clear that it would do nothing to enforce this part of the resolution. Joachim Ruecker, the head of UNMIK, said that the results of the election will not be recognised. But at the same time he warned that the elections could strengthen a Serbian administrative structure which parallels the Kosovan authorities. To have two opposing government structures in the same region, split down ethnic lines, would be dangerous and seriously impede any progress.

On Friday the Kosovan Albanian movement for self-determination, Vetëvendosje, rallied an estimated 1000 people to march in protest against UNMIK’s and the Kosovan government’s weak response to a blatant violation of Kosovo’s sovereignty. One of Vetveendosje’s criticisms of UNMIK is that its policies have deepened the divide between Kosovan Serbs and Kosovan Albanians. By allowing the local elections to take place they are proving these criticisms right. Albin Kurti, the leader of Vetëvendosje, estimated the election will establish 23 Serbian municipal presidents in Kosovo, paralleling the Kosovan government’s local administrative system and giving the Serbs their own governing structures. Furthermore, the most likely winners in these parallel seats are the more radical candidates.

Perhaps there is hope if the region’s economy picks up. Speaking to Albanian’s living in south Mitrovica, they seemed to suggest that work was the way out of the tension which causes the region so many problems. To them independence is won, and it is time to begin improving the economy and infrastructure. The quality of the roads is poor and there are regular power cuts throughout the region. In Mitrovica the water is turned off from 6pm to 6am every other dayas well as the electricity. I spoke to one man from the town who works for the United Nations Development Programme. He said ‘If more people had jobs to go to, and less time to sit and think, then maybe they could move on’. However, this attitude might change if Joachim Ruecker’s warnings prove correct and the Serbian local elections result in parallel governmental structures strong enough to rival the Kosovan government.

Overall there seems to be a lack of clear and consistent action over the status of Kosovo. Its sovereignty is debatable. The structures which are supposed to uphold the integrity of its independence have failed it. If there was no argument over Kosovo’s statehood there would be no argument over Serbia’s local elections. Similarly if UNMIK had been willing to put a halt to the local elections, then the risk of strengthening Belgrade’s influence in the region would diminish. Allowing the elections to take place but pledging that their results will be ignored successfully avoided the possibility of violent disturbances. To deny Kosovan Serbs the vote would have resulted in isolating them further from the Kosovan government. However, by UNMIK’s own admission, the parallel administrative structures the election will consolidate in Kosovo may end up having the same effect.

In Serbia itself the pro-EU coalition headed by Boris Tadic has won the majority of votes in the parliamentary election, but he faces tough negotiations to ensure that his coalition oppose a coalition of nationalist parties which has the potential to claim 51% of the parliamentary seats. In Mitrovica it seems as though the radicals have won the local elections. Only time will tell what kind of impact this will have on the town.

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