Kosovo may be gearing up for polls on June 8, but there is no sign of election activity in the northern, Serbian half of the town of Mitrovica.
Days ahead of the general elections in Kosovo due on June 8, the atmosphere is quiet but tense in the divided northern town of Mitrovica.
Locals say that the northern Serbian half of the town always feels fairly tense – and a mere look at the streets reveals what they mean.
It is a poor, dangerous-looking place, in some ways resembling a miniature version of divided, post-war Berlin.
Drivers without any license plates on their cars hurtle along the streets, probably doing illicit business between ethnically separated parts of Kosovo.
The northern part of Mitrovica is awash with Serbian flags. One or more hang from every lamppost. On two large billboards are large-scale portraits of Serbia’s Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vucic.
For Serbs coming to town for the first time, the Serbian insignia signal that this a safe zone for them, where they can speak their language and air their opinions without constraint.
The Serbian flags and the nationalistic graffiti also serve as an immediate reminder that this local community powerfully resists the push to recognize Kosovo as an independence state.
The larger Albanian southern part of the town is only yards away across the bridge over the river Ibar.
Although the conflict in Kosovo ended more than a decade ago, for the Serbs in the north it is still associated with danger and fear.
Their great aim is to preserve a Serbian way of life that is no longer supported by any clear, visible system.
Ignoring the election:
Notably, amid all the fluttering Serbian flags, not a single poster refers to the elections, approaching in less than ten days’ time.
Most of the people of northern Mitrovica who BIRN spoke to said they had no intention of voting on June 8.
For some, voting would be a betrayal of their years-long campaign against recognition of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. Others simply feel no interest in the political situation.
Some say that the only people who will vote will be those whose jobs depend on the Serbian state.
These include employees of Serbian public companies and teachers and doctors, all of whom receive their salaries from Belgrade.
Aleksandar Kostic, 23, a student from Northern Mitrovica, said some people feel forced to take part in the elections because they work for state companies, and could otherwise lose their jobs.
‘I worked for a company six months ago, on the eve of the [last local] elections, and my colleague got fired because he refused to vote,’ he said.
‘You must understand these people, because they live from what Serbia provides, and if it stops financing them, that is the end for them,’ he told BIRN.
Kostic fears that the EU-led Brussels agreement, which Serbia and Kosovo signed in 2013, means that Serbia has now effectively recognized Kosovo as an independent country.
‘The elections, the police and the military forces that are being formed’ only confirm this independence, he maintains.
‘Poor people do not know what to do. They cannot be against their country [Serbia] because they do not have another option,’ he said.
‘But for myself and for others that have nothing to do with Serbia, we will never go to vote in these elections,’ he added.
Kostic said he understood the different perspective of Serbs who live in the southern parts of Kosovo, in de-facto enclaves.
They have had to accept the euro as their currency, instead of the Serbian dinar, and have had to obtain Kosovo documents as well.
But Kostic said they did so because they had no other choice. It would be a shame if the Serb-majority municipalities in the north did the same, he added, because, ‘there was no need to do so.
‘A man must have Kosovo ID in order to be employed in the Kosovo Police, for example, and he also needs it if he wants to vote,’ he noted.
‘There is pressure coming from all sides, and Serbia is nowhere to be found,’ Kostic added.
Miljana Bulatovic, a 28-year-old artist in Northern Mitrovica, said she had boycotted all the votes in Kosovo for the past 12 years because no election was going to change life significantly for the Serbian community.
‘If I believed that after the elections there would be some kind of a positive change for the Serbian community, I would surely vote,’ she said.
Bulatovic maintains that Serbs in Kosovo still lack basic rights such as physical security, freedom of movement and a fair chance of employment.
‘I am sure that [change] will never be possible this way [through voting] because for a long time now we have heard the same repeated story and with no results,’ she said.
‘These elections demand that we recognize independent Kosovo, and accept living by their laws,’ she added.
‘The reality is that we do live under those laws and have done so for a long time already, but whether we recognize them fully still remains to be seen.’
Another local, 27-year-old Milena Zaporozac, who comes originally from Pristina but moved to Mitrovica back in 1999, said she would ignore the elections on June 8 because she was not at all interested in politics.
‘I have nothing to do with this, and don’t know what to say. I will not pay the slightest attention to the elections; it is as if they were not being held,’ she told BIRN.
Many other locals in Mitrovica did not want to talk to us at all. They just waved a hand and mumbled about not wishing to discuss anything about elections.
Others said they did not wish to give statements because it might compromise their position at work.
Always fearful that both domestic and foreign enemies are trying to trick them, the people of northern Mitrovica seem to want only one thing: to preserve the status quo, and for as long as possible.