North Kosovo Serbs boycott referendum on removing ethnic Albanian mayors

By Thomson Reuters Apr 21, 2024 | 9:06 AM

BELGRADE (Reuters) – Most Serbs in volatile north Kosovo boycotted a local referendum on Sunday on whether to remove ethnic Albanian mayors in four municipalities whose appointment led to violence last year, the country’s election commission said.

Kosovo is predominantly ethnic Albanian but around 50,000 Serbs in the north reject Pristina’s government and see Belgrade as their capital. A former Serbian province, Kosovo declared independence in 2008 a decade after a guerrilla uprising.

By around midday, less then 100 out of around 46,000 registered Serb voters had cast ballots in all four predominantly Serb municipalities – Northern Mitrovica, Zvecan, Zubin Potok and Leposavic, the commission said. Polls opened at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and were scheduled to close at 7 p.m.

Last September the Pristina government agreed to annul local elections in Kosovo’s north and hold new ones, bowing to Western patrons’ pressure after local Serbs overwhelmingly boycotted the vote in April 2023.

But Pristina’s plan for a pre-election referendum asking whether the four mayors should be dismissed was rejected by the leading local Srpska Lista (Serbian List) party, saying the mayors should have simply resigned before a vote.

The Srpska Lista said the referendum’s integrity was undermined by a campaign of pressure and intimidation of local Serbs by the Kosovo government, accusations Pristina denied.

It further said the referendum was not part of an initial deal between Pristina, Belgrade and international mediators aimed at resolving the standoff over governance in north Kosovo.

Srpska Lista also urged local Serbs to boycott the mayoral by-elections, stoking tensions between Belgrade and Pristina.

Serbia, backed by allies Russia, China as well as five European Union member states, has never recognised Kosovo’s statehood.

The spat over the four mayoralties escalated in late 2022 after Serbs quit all official posts, including police and local administrations amid a dispute over Pristina’s decision to introduce Kosovo car number plates for local Serbs.

Belgrade and Pristina have spent years in mediated talks to normalise their relations but progress has been slow and marred by flare-ups of violence between north Kosovo Serbs and Kosovo police and, occasionally, NATO peacekeepers.

Regular local elections in the rest of Kosovo are scheduled for October 2025.

(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; editing by Mark Heinrich)