Five Western nations, including the United States, have welcomed Serbia’s upcoming referendum on judicial reforms but expressed regret that Kosovo will no longer allow the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to collect the ballots of eligible Serb voters living there.
The January 16 referendum on amendments to the constitution aims to depoliticize the appointment of prosecutors and judges to help qualify Serbia for eventual accession to the European Union.
The proposed changes are a “key step to strengthen the independence of the judiciary and to enhance the transparency and effectiveness of the country’s rule of law institutions,” France, Germany, Italy, Britain, and the United States said in a statement issued on January 14 by the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade.
The five nations also expressed regret that Kosovo has not allowed the OSCE to collect the ballots of eligible voters living there, which had been the case previously.
“We call on the Kosovo government to allow Serbs in Kosovo to exercise their right to vote in elections and electoral processes in accordance with this established practice,” they said in the statement.
A day earlier, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a post on Twitter that he had discussed the issue with both Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. He said that “people should be able to exercise their right to vote.”
Kurti countered by saying, “A referendum in the sovereign territory of another state is not a practice accepted by any democratic country.”
“Serbs in Kosovo with dual citizenship can vote in Serbia’s referendum by mail or in the liaison office in Pristina”, Kurti said in a tweet on January 12.
Vucic told Serbia’s state-run RTS TV channel on January 12 that there would be "greater and far-reaching consequences than expected" if polling stations were not opened in Kosovo, so Serbs could participate in the referendum.
The Western Balkan country is a candidate for EU membership but to achieve that goal it must strengthen the independence of the judiciary and improve the rule of law.
In November, the Council of Europe, the EU’s rights watchdog, said its constitutional advisory body concluded that most of the proposed amendments were made in line with its recommendations.
The plebiscite will be held under a new referendum law which abolished a minimum 50 percent turnout threshold.
That law was condemned by environmental groups who said it may be used by the government to give free rein to foreign mining companies in the country.