Kosovo elections key in Serbia EU entry talks

Key local elections in Kosovo on Sunday will be closely watched for the turnout of its minority Serb population and as a vital step in Serbia's bid to join the European Union.

Kosovo, the territory which sparked a war between Serb forces and ethnic Albanian rebels in 1998-1999, remains the main stumbling block in Serbia's membership process.

There are some 120,000 Serbs in Kosovo. The 40,000 living in the north, which has maintained a certain control of institutions, are torn over whether to vote in the elections, backed for the first time by Belgrade.

"By taking part in the elections organised by Pristina, Serbs from the north will recognise the existence of the institutions," Belgrade-based political analyst Dusan Janjic told AFP.

"This is their main dilemma since so far they have lived under Serbian institutions and do not know what life under Pristina authorities will look like," he said.

Serbia still officially rejects Kosovo's independence but it has encouraged the minority Serb community to vote in Sunday's elections as part of a series of concessions on the breakaway province.

Serbia has been a candidate to enter the EU since 2012 but was given the green light to begin membership talks with Brussels only following an EU-brokered deal in April with Kosovo to normalise relations.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton labelled the elections "a key moment in Kosovo's future and an important element in the process of normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia."

"The EU will be following closely the conduct of the elections," she said in a statement.

Some 1.7 million people across the territory are eligible to vote in the elections for deputies and mayors of 36 Kosovo municipalities.

In northern Kosovo, particularly in the key town of Kosovska Mitrovica, the electoral campaign has brought visits from Belgrade officials, notably Serbia's Minister for Kosovo, Aleksandar Vulin.

Serbia's Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic visited Kosovo Friday and made a final appeal for ethnic Serbs to go to the polls.

"Vote for your own good. The elections are important for your future in Kosovo," Vucic told a rally in the Serb-populated enclave of Gracanica, near Pristina.

But Serbian hardline nationalists have actively campaigned for a boycott of the polls. The streets of Mitrovica are decked with posters while a van has roamed the streets blasting from a loudspeaker Serb nationalist songs and calls not to vote.

Several employees of Serbia-controlled institutions -- schools, hospitals and administrative offices -- have said on condition of anonymity that Belgrade has used barely veiled pressure to get them to vote.

"I have to vote," said Petar, a man close to retirement. "My boss and several colleagues informed me that it was a Belgrade order and that it would be monitored who cast ballots," he told AFP.

"I'm ashamed, but I'm too scared to lose my job by doing otherwise."

Miroslav, a man in his thirties, also said he had received orders from his employer to vote. "People are threatened with being fired if they do not vote," he said.

For Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, the elections will be a test of his decision to negotiate an agreement and improve relations with Belgrade.

The deal brokered by Brussels has been strongly criticised by the nationalist opposition in Pristina which rejects any dialogue with Serbia until it recognises Kosovo's independence.

Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) is expected to win most of the ethnic Albanians' votes on Sunday.

Belgrade and Pristina have accused each other during the campaign of manipulating electoral lists, in a bid to increase the number of registered voters of their own nationality in ethnically mixed areas.