Serb majority in N.Kosovo shuns vote on ethnic Albanian mayors

Kosovo’s Serbs have been pushing for formal autonomy for years, a prospect held out to them in a 2013 agreement with Pristina brokered by the EU. [AFP]

Ethnic Serbs in Kosovo's north on Sunday boycotted an extraordinary local election on whether to oust their ethnic Albanian mayors in a territory riddled with tension.

The vote could have paved the way for the election of Serbs to the mayoral posts after the appointment of the ethnic Albanians sparked violence in the Belgrade-backed region with a Serb majority.

But only 253 out of some 45,000 eligible voters cast ballots, the Central Election Commission said (CEC).

For the election to be valid turnout has to be above 50 percent.

Therefore the vote has failed, CEC chair Kreshnik Radoniqi said.

"The boycott implies the continuation of the 'status quo'... Serbs in the north continue to be an instrument in the hands of Belgrade for political bargaining," the Koha Ditore daily paper said online.

Tensions in Kosovo's troubled north have been smouldering for months, following local elections won by the ethnic Albanian mayors in April last year.

Ethnic Serbs boycotted the elections and Serb protesters later clashed with Kosovo police and NATO troops as the Albanian mayors tried to take office. Around 30 NATO peacekeepers were injured.

Led by the largest Serb and Belgrade-backed party, Serb List, thousands of citizens of North Kosovo's four municipalities signed petitions in January for the dismissal of all the current mayors in the north by a referendum.

But despite previously favouring the new vote, organising the mass collection of signatures and using the opportunity to take control of the local administration, the Serb List surprisingly called for a boycott.

"The position of Serb List is to not participate in the vote," said the head of the party, Zlatan Elek.

Although he cited a disagreement with Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership it remains unclear why the Serb List decided to shun a vote which had been its target since boycotting the last election.

'Pressure from Belgrade'

"I will not vote. I don't listen to those from the Serb List, but I don't see any point -- we can't replace those mayors, there aren't enough of us," a 53-year-old Serbian man from the north, who asked not be named, told AFP.

Local government administration minister Elbert Krasniqi criticised the List saying it "considers the institutions (belong) only to themselves .... and does not represent the interests of citizens".

President Vjosa Osmani said the boycott occurred mainly "due to pressure from Belgrade".

"Once again, Serbia illegally interfered in another country's election process", she said in a statement.

In addition to the political challenge, election authorities faced a logistical one.

Thirty-three schools had refused to provide their premises for the vote, while 10 others were accessible. The authorities had to use logistics containers to serve as extra polling stations.

School principals said cultural and other activities had already been planned for weekends across the whole of April.

"This is an attempt by the Serb List to hold the Serb community hostage, but it will fail and the process will not stop," said CEC official Alban Krasniqi.

If the vote had succeeded, Osmani would have set a date for an early municipal election in the territory.

"There are no consequences (of the boycott) for Kosovo, but rather for the Serbs themselves and Serbia's aspiration to exercise influence within the Kosovo territory," political analyst Nexhmedin Spahiu told AFP.

Ethnic tensions in the north boiled over in September with an attack by heavily armed Serbs on a Kosovo police patrol in the village of Banjska, which left one policeman dead.

Three Serb gunmen died in an ensuing gun battle at a monastery in the village close to the Serbian border.

Former vice-president of the Serb List, Milan Radoicic, took responsibility for the attack.

It was one of the worst escalations in years in Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

Belgrade does not recognise Kosovo's independence and continues to finance a parallel health, education and social security system for Serbs there.