Kosovo's local elections offer hope of Serb-Albanian reconciliation

PRISTINA, Kosovo — The image of mayoral candidate Nebojsa Peric stares down from a billboard on the main drag in Gracanica, a suburb of Pristina, Kosovo. “It’s up to us,” the sign reads in Serbian. It's a common enough political slogan, but here it hints at a potential first step toward solving one of Europe’s most intractable diplomatic problems.

Peric wants his fellow Kosovar Serbs to vote on Sunday in Kosovo’s first local elections since the tiny Balkan country declared independence from Serbia last year. “This is a sensitive moment for the Serbian community,” he said. “We want to take part on the local level.”

It’s a brave stand. Memories of ethnic strife between Albanians and Serbs still linger in Gracanica and other Serbian enclaves, where Albanian mobs torched Serb homes and Orthodox Christian monasteries in 2004 out of frustration with the international community’s dithering over Kosovo’s status.

Belgrade has called on ethnic Serbs to boycott the polls, arguing that participating would recognize Pristina’s authority. Serbian leaders have opposed Kosovo’s independence since they ceded control of the then-breakaway province to the United Nation in 1999 after a NATO bombing campaign ended a war that claimed 10,000 Albanian lives.

But Peric and others’ candidacies suggest that relations between Kosovar Albanians and Serbs have thawed as the 2004 riots and the 1999 war recede into the past, experts said. Contrary to past elections, when practically no Serbs voted, many believe a small but symbolically important portion of Kosovar Serbs are now ready to cast ballots.

“Some Serbs are slowly starting to realize that participating is important if they want to better their communities,” said Shpend Ahmeti, executive director of the GAP Institute, a Pristina-based think tank.

Peric said he was running for Gracanica mayor because it was increasingly clear that Belgrade couldn’t improve the quality of life of the 125,000 Serbs — about 7 percent of Kosovo’s population — who live in segregated communities. Belgrade funds parallel government offices in the new republic, but they amount to a fig leaf of authority.

“Serbian institutions have no real power in the field here,” said Peric. “Ten years after the war, there is no job market. People are leaving. Young people see no potential. We have to work with Kosovo institutions so we can find jobs.”

The elections are part of a plan negotiated by ex-Finnish president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari. In exchange for independence, Kosovo promised to create several new Serbian-majority municipalities with expanded powers, including Gracanica, now technically part of Pristina.

“It’s the first time after 10 years that we have a real offer from Kosovo institutions and the international community,” Peric said. “They’re giving us their hand.”

It’s unclear if Serbs will turn out in great numbers. Polls surveying Kosovar Serbs throughout the country haven’t been conducted, but a Kosovo NGO, Kontakt, recently released a survey that found that 28 percent of Gracanica voters intended to case ballots.

Forty percent of Gracanica voters hadn’t decided, the survey found, while 32 percent opposed Serbs voting — a position Belgrade has encouraged. Most observers believe turnout will be negligible in northern Serbian enclaves like Mitrovica, which are officially part of Kosovo but where the Serbian government holds sway.

''Those Serbs who would take part in the elections should ask themselves whether they are helping the state of Serbia save Kosovo or weighing down on our fight to preserve our sovereignty and territorial integrity,'' Serbia's Minister for Kosovo, Goran Bogdanovic, told Belgrade’s B92 television news on Tuesday.

Milan and Bilijana Stemkovich, a 30-something couple, were representative of the divisions in the Serb community. Walking in Gracanica on Nov. 8, Milan said he would vote because it was time to turn a new page in Kosovo’s history. Bilijana was more cynical. “My house was burned in the war,” she said. “I’m disappointed. Therefore, I won’t vote.”

Many Kosovar Albanians aren’t happy about the election, either. Critics say Ahtisaari conceded too much to Serbs, who will never pledge their loyalty to Kosovo. “We’re giving all the rights to the Serbs and they don’t give back,” said Rame Saliha, a Pristina taxi driver. “After six months in the new municipalities, you’re going to see their flags waving.”

Arben Gashi, an adviser to Pristina Mayor Isa Mustafa, said he understood why Kosovar Albanians were leery of Serbs gaining more power, but he added that nobody would reverse the process. “It’s the price you pay for Kosovo independence,” he said.

The expected Serb turnout reflected a new atmosphere in Kosovo, Gashi added. Ethnic Albanians have achieved sufficient security to be more accepting of their ethnic-Serb neighbors who previously were associated with Belgrade’s repression. Serbs can feel it, he said.

“A Serbian can come into the city with illegal license plates, old Serbian license plates,” he said. “You knew he’s a Serb. No one cares.”