by Marija Ristic
Serbs in northern Kosovo headed to the polls for a second day to vote in a controversial referendum, which both the international community and the authorities in Belgrade had hoped they would abandon.
Local Serb leaders who oppose Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence are asking voters whether they accept the Albanian-led “institutions of the so-called Republic of Kosovo”.
A total of 48 per cent of the electorate had cast their ballots in three of the four municipalities of northern Kosovo by 7pm, the referendum commission announced on Tuesday night.
Kosovo Serb representatives say around 35,500 people have the right to vote in 82 polling stations in the four mostly Serb northern municipalities of Zubin Potok, Zvecan, northern Mitrovica and Leposavic.
Three municipalities are voting over two days, while the fourth, Leposavic, is voting only on Wednesday.
On Wednesday morning, 33 polling stations opened in Lepsovic and 11,000 people there are eligible to vote, according to the referendum commission. Krstimir Pantic, the Serb mayor of the town of Mitrovica, said the referendum would strengthen the position of Serbs in the north, as well as that of Serbs south of the Ibar river in Kosovo.
“I believe they [the Serbs elsewhere in Kosovo] will soon organise a referendum too and show that none of us has given up on Kosovo and Metohija,” Pantic told local media. But the initiative does not have the support of the Serbian government, even though Belgrade strongly opposes Kosovo’s declaration of independence.
Serbian President Boris Tadic said on Tuesday that holding the referendum was harmful to the interests of Serbia.
Tadic said he understood the need of Serbs in northern Kosovo to express their political will but added that local governments could not do more than the state to tackle the issue of Kosovo’s status.
“This move by leaders of the municipalities in northern Kosovo can only reduce the possibilities of the state, and is not in the interests of Serbs in the province,” Tadic said in a statement.
Serbian officials also fear the referendum may damage Serbia’s prospects of becoming a candidate for European Union membership.
“The referendum diminishes our credibility and capacity for negotiations with the international community,” Goran Bogdanovic, Serbia’s Minister for Kosovo, told parliament last week.
The European Union also views the vote in a negative light.
“The European Commission believes that the referendum is not a solution for the ‘special situation’ in northern Kosovo,” said Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for the High Representative Catherine Ashton on Tuesday.
She said a solution could only come through consultations and dialogue.
Kosovo’s government also dismissed the referendum, saying it was illegal and invalid and violated the sovereignty of the Republic of Kosovo.