By Ivana Jovanovic and Linda Karadaku
It will be a low budget affair, costing just 1,000 euros for ballot printing, but its impact could be sky high. In all, about 40,000 citizens — overwhelmingly Serbs — will be asked whether they accept Kosovo’s institutions.
That simple question is straining ties between officials in Serbia and northern Kosovo.
Serbian State Secretary for Kosovo Oliver Ivanovic tells SETimes that his ministry does not agree with holding a referendum, but won’t try to block it.
“This can have serious negative consequences, since Serbs refuse to obey the government of Serbia, for which they contend that is only power they respect. They already said ‘no’ to the Pristina institutions by their boycott of the Pristina elections.”
“This referendum is completely unnecessary because the result is known in advance. It is obvious this is a political act of certain political parties,” Dejan Radenkovic, vice-president of the parliamentary committee for Kosovo, told SETimes.
“The referendum is advisory, not executive, so it won’t have any legal effect,” Marko Prelec, International Crisis Group director for the Balkans, tells SETimes.
Most of the concern, he notes is coming from Belgrade, “which is treating the referendum as a threat to its chances of getting EU candidate status. But if it takes place and the results are as expected, it will have a political effect, a kind of wake-up call, reminding people of how northern Kosovo Serbs see things, how opposed to integration they are.”
Kosovo Interior Minister Bajram Rexhepi agrees that the referendum will produce no “judicial effect”. Yet, he adds, “It is illegal.”
“The results will be designed the way it is convenient to the organisers. It is an internal conflict of the political representatives,” which he tells SETimes will damage Serbia’s EU bid.
Krstimir Pantic, mayor of the largest Serbian municipalities, North Mitrovica, says the ultimate goal of the referendum is to convince the international community and others that Serbs do not want to operate in the Albanian institutions, and would never agree to live in an independent Kosovo.
“The Albanians, in this case, have neither their own courts nor control territory; [nor do they have] clearly defined boundaries since administration lines [at the crossings] Jarinje and Brnjak do not work because people are using alternative routes.” The referendum, he tells SETimes, is an “obstacle” to establishing authority in northern Kosovo.
Mentor Vrajolli, senior researcher in Kosovo Centre for Security Studies, agrees that it will have “negative consequences” for Kosovo.
“Holding this referendum only polarises the situation that has been created in this part of Kosovo,” Vrajolli tells SETimes, adding that it would create further inter-ethnic tension, escalate the security situation, and jeopardise the future of Kosovo-Serbia technical dialogue. Talks could collapse, he says “if Serbia in a direct or indirect way tries to legitimise this referendum”.
Kosovo analyst and university professor Belul Beqaj says the referendum is an attempt to keep that part of the territory under the control of the Serb state, “as much as it is a battlefield, which will define the Serb electorate in [Serbia’s] future elections”.
“The best chances to win are for [Tomislav] Nikolic with the Serb opposition, as they control three out of the four northern municipalities,” Beqaj tells SETimes. Though non-binding, the referendum will express “the de-facto political will, which will be taken into consideration by the international community”.
Kosovo analayst Ramadan Ilazi tells SETimes that legitmate or not, the referendum “presents a test for the Kosovo state institutions, because the referendum — in principle — is a democratic means”.