Ethnic Serbs caught in the crossfire amid Kosovo-Serbia voting row

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By Gresa Kraja, Kosovë Gjoci and Andjelka Chup
Kosovo Serbs take part in a protest in the town of Gracanica on March 25, 2022 against Kosovo's refusal to allow them to vote in neighbouring Serbia's upcoming elections.
Kosovo Serbs take part in a protest in the town of Gracanica on March 25, 2022 against Kosovo's refusal to allow them to vote in neighbouring Serbia's upcoming elections.   -   Copyright  Credit: AFP

Ethnic Serbs in Kosovo have been left frustrated amid renewed tensions between Serbia and the government in Pristina.

They were sparked last week when Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti refused to allow Serbia to organise voting for its presidential and parliamentary elections on Kosovan territory.

The tensions were visible in the Kosovo flashpoint city of Mitrovica, some 40 kilometres north of Kosovo’s capital Pristina. Mitrovica is divided between the Kosovo Albanian south and the predominantly ethnic Serb north and has been a scene of clashes between the two sides in the years since the Kosovo war ended in 1999.

Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, declared independence from Belgrade in 2008. Serbia doesn't recognise this and continues to treat Kosovo as if it were under its sovereignty despite a decade of EU-mediated talks between the two sides.

Amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kurti’s move has been widely criticised by the US, Germany, UK, France and Italy, worried about a potential spillover of the conflict in an area where Russia has sought to establish its influence. Serbia’s pro-Russian government has for years nurtured close political and economic ties with Russia and in recent years the country has received weapons.

“We hope it will be peaceful, always and forever. No one needs a war, absolutely no one,” said one Kosovo Serb.

Hundreds of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo have protested the government’s decision. Kurti has argued his decision defends Kosovo's sovereignty.

According to Kurti, Serbia has failed to ask authorities for permission to organise the vote.

“Serbia’s illegal structures are trying to organise the elections in our territory as if our government did not exist,” he told the EU’s top official in Kosovo last week.

Kurti has reached out to the Kosovo Serbs since to thank them for the peaceful protests but said the demonstrations would not contribute to improving relations between the two.

“I don’t think to protest about this is necessary. I would understand if they were to protest against crime or corruption. But the protests are not the right way. It won’t contribute to better relations between Kosovo and Serbia,” he said.

Credit: AP Photo
Kosovo Prime Minister Albin KurtiCredit: AP Photo

Tatjana Lazarevic, the editor in chief of media outlet KoSSev, expects the ban on Serbia organising its elections in Kosovo will become the new standard.

And Kosovo Serbs feel Kurti's move does not bode well for their future.

“It is a bad feeling, for sure,” said another Kosovo Serb of the decision. “But one gets used to everything, there will be another time.”

Tensions are not expected, according to those familiar with political developments in Pristina.

“Regarding the protests in the parts where the Serb community lives, I believe it is a democratic right. I do not believe that there will be consequences or complications of the nature of violence or the illegal organisation of this electoral process”, said Blerim Gashi, a political analyst from Kosovo.

Political analyst Bardhyl Meta believes that Kosovo Serbs “will never be comfortable if they are guided by the idea that comes from Belgrade. If they do not have a narrative, a mission of their own, for life here (in Kosovo), for their rights here, then they will never be comfortable."

However, according to analyst Bardhyl Meta, this situation will not pass without consequences for Kosovo, having in mind that the international community called for elections to be held.

Both Meta and Gashi agree that an internal dialogue with the Serbian minority living in Kosovo -- promised by PM Kurti -- is missing. They say it is essential for the government to focus on talks with the local Serbs.

In Belgrade, Serbian authorities who don’t recognise Kosovo’s independence viewed Kurti's decision with suspicion.

"I think that Kurti sees the war in Ukraine as an opportunity, and one not to be missed," said Stefan Surlic, a professor at the Belgrade University's faculty of political science. "Initiating a series of small incidents under the excuse of protecting the sovereignty of Kosovo is a part of his strategy to try to provoke a response from Belgrade and Serb representatives in Kosovo and then claim that his warnings that Serbia is a threat to Kosovo were well-founded."

Kosovo Serbs have been allowed to vote within the territory in the past, but Kurti said this time Serbia must be treated as any other foreign country, with voting taking place in embassies or consulates.

Serbia does not have an embassy in Kosovo. Instead, there is a liaison office, which is where Kurti wants ethnic Serbs to vote.

Kosovo Serbs, if they are equipped with Serbian citizenship, can also travel to Serbian cities on the border with Kosovo to vote in Sunday's election.