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Bullying Among Serbs Sours Kosovo's Democratic Gains

Members of the Srpska Lista party at a meeting in Belgrade on September 9.
Members of the Srpska Lista party at a meeting in Belgrade on September 9.

MITROVICA, Kosovo -- When her father reached for the phone at around 6:45 p.m. on election night, he'd been content to sit out the October 6 voting along with the majority of Kosovo's 1.9 million registered voters.

But within moments of hanging up, he was hurrying for the door, along with his wife, to the polling station in their majority-Serb community south of the Ibar River that remains a powerful symbol of Kosovo's ethnic divisions.

They had just 15 minutes before polling stations closed, the caller had told him bluntly, and he had to "do his civic duty."

It was further evidence, said his daughter, who asked to remain anonymous, of the kind of pressure that they and other ethnic Serbs face across the country.

The pressure, she said, comes not from the ethnic Albanian majority but from other Serbs.

"He [rushed out to vote] because he works for Serbian institutions and fears jeopardizing his job because he didn't go to the polls," she told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "My mother did the same."

Punching Above Its Weight

By hook or crook, the party that has controlled nearly all of the 10 seats in Kosovo's 120-seat parliament reserved for ethnic Serbs following each of the last two elections, Srpska Lista, punched above its weight again last week to take 6.6 percent of the national vote.

The result reflects strong turnout among ethnic Serbs, who are most densely concentrated north of the Ibar and are thought to make up some 1-2 percent of the national population.

By virtue of its place within each of Kosovo's last two governing coalitions and open support from the government of neighboring Serbia, which still doesn't recognize Kosovo's independence, Srpska Lista's influence extends well beyond mostly Serb communities.

But its methods have been publicly questioned by rival Serb politicians and by election monitors from the European Union, who warned on October 8 that campaigning had been "marred by intimidation, which targeted non-Srpska Lista candidates and supporters."

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The three other ethnic Serb parties in the running -- the Kosovar Serbs Party (0.2 percent), the Freedom coalition (0.12 percent), and the Independent Liberal Party (0.06 percent) -- failed to reach parliament by wide margins.

"In the Kosovo Serb community, parties seeking to compete with Srpska Lista were unable to mount effective campaigns due in part to intimidation of candidates, their families and voters in general," the EU election-observation mission said in its preliminary statement. "Srpska Lista-controlled municipalities, as well as the government of Serbia, directed Kosovo Serbs to vote only for Srpska Lista, while their opponents were denounced as anti-Serbian."

It was the bleakest aspect of a vote that was otherwise lauded as a major step forward for a still-partially recognized state and an example for others in the turbulent Balkans and beyond.

As a result, the EU observers said, "the electoral process for Kosovo Serbs fell short standards."

Rival Serb parties have repeatedly accused Srpska Lista itself of thuggery.

Freedom (Sloboda) coalition leader Nenad Rasic, at a debate alongside two other Serb party leaders in Caglavica, alleged Srpska Lista intimidation that included the "interrogation" of the wife of a coalition activist and a warning that she would lose her job.

He told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that the intensifying tactics to boost Srpska Lista's support -- including from Belgrade -- since that party's creation six years ago was an attack on self-determination for Kosovar Serbs.

"They have imposed the standard that 'whoever is not with us is against us, and whoever is against us is our enemy,'" Rasic said, calling it "a step further" than past behavior.

Elsewhere, Rasic suggested his own life might be in danger.

Alleged Intimidation

Prosecutors in Kosovo were said to be looking into a number of cases of alleged intimidation. Srpska Lista declined to respond to RFE/RL's Balkan Service questions about such allegations.

In 2018, a prominent entrepreneur and influential political voice for Serb-Kosovar dialogue, Oliver Ivanovic, was shot dead outside his party's offices in the predominantly Serb portion of the northern city of Mitrovica.

The killing hasn't been solved, but reports say a senior official within Srpska Lista is wanted for questioning.

Meanwhile Ivanovic's former party, the SDP Citizens Initiative, announced in September that it was teaming up with Srpska Lista for the October 6 elections.

Based in Mitrovica, Srpska List was created ahead of national elections in 2014, when it garnered about 38,000 votes. In this month's balloting it received more than 52,000 votes, upward of half of the best estimates of Kosovo's entire ethnic Serb population.

Its results are watched eagerly in the Serbian capital, where President Aleskandar Vucic has unapologetically stumped for Srpska Lista.

Speculation that the party somehow takes its marching orders from Belgrade are difficult to prove, but the relationship is clearly close.

The EU observation mission noted that "the government of Serbia and the local authorities in the Serb-majority municipalities strongly directed Kosovo Serbs to vote only for Srpska Lista."

The observers cited reports of Serbian officials being turned away at Kosovo's border during the 10-day campaign ahead of the snap elections.

Isidora Stakic, a researcher at the Belgrade Security Policy Center, told RFE/RL recently that their research from February "shows that Serbs living in northern Kosovo are more afraid of representatives of the Serbian authorities than of Albanians."

The "greatest pressure," she said, is from Srpska Lista and its Serbian government allies.

Serbia's president, Aleskandar Vucic, welcomed the October 6 results by saying Srpska Lista had "won its most convincing victory in its history," according to Balkan Insight, adding, "This is one of my favorite wins because it happened under the most difficult conditions."

Many international observers are keen to see any new government in Pristina beat a speedy path to renewed talks with Serbia over normalizing relations between the two ex-Yugoslav neighbors.

Those negotiations have been on hold since Vucic abandoned them after Kosovo announced a 100-percent tariff on Serbian imports in November.

Their outcome could clear the way for UN recognition for Kosovo, whose statehood is recognized by more than 110 countries but not by Serbia, Russia, China, or Spain, for instance.

The two leading parties in the October 6 elections -- the pro-Albanian Self-Determination party and the Democratic League -- kicked off talks on a possible coalition on October 10.

The EU election observer's mission urged Kosovo's parliament to give the Serb intimidation and other problems "serious soon as possible."

Written in Prague by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan Service in Mitrovica and Belgrade
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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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    RFE/RL's Balkan Service

    In 2019, RFE/RL's Balkan Service marked 25 years of reporting in one of the world’s most contested regions, championing professionalism and moderation in a media landscape that is sharply divided along ethnic and partisan lines.

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