Serbian votes, which, according to the Central Election Commission’s final results, account for about 7% of the total vote in the last Kosovo’s early parliamentary election, represent one of the major controversies that, in addition to the convincing victory of opposition parties, marked the last election process in Kosovo.
Numerous precedents accepted by the Kosovo authorities regarding voting within the Serb community, which aimed to promote turnout and provide legitimacy to previous electoral processes in Kosovo, are now slowly being labelled and dismissed as illegitimate.
Prohibition of voting with Serbian ID cards after five election cycles, health problems of Albanian CEC officials after contact with postal ballots received from Serbia, later verification of votes from central Serbia in protective suits and complaints about the “constitutionality” of votes from Serbia and requests for their rejection.
Finally, the accusations of Fatmir Limaj’s and Behgjet Pacolli’s coalition (NISMA-AKR-PD) that they did not pass the threshold precisely due to the acceptance of “illegal” votes from central Serbia, are topics that have kept Kosovo Serb votes in the spotlight of the Kosovo public over the past two months of the most recent election process.
On the Voter List, but without the right to vote
In the fall of 2013, the Kosovo Central Election Commission (CEC) updated the Voter List, which, for the first time, included voters registered in the Serbian Voter List for towns in the territory of Kosovo, who at the same time did not necessarily possess Kosovo documents, too.
In order for them to exercise their right to vote, these voters were allowed to vote with Serbian documents. This year, 6 years after the merging of the Kosovo and Serbian voter lists, the CEC, however, decided, for the first time, to announce, weeks in advance, a decision on the prohibition of the use of Serbian documents in voting.
On the last October 6, in the early parliamentary election for the Assembly of Kosovo, certain voters registered in the Voter List could no longer exercise their right to vote with Serbian documents, since the documents and registration numbers under which they were registered in the list in 2013 are considered invalid starting from this year.
“Kosovo institutions turned a blind eye in 2013”
The CEC decision of September 9 ordered the Municipal Election Commissions and Polling Station Committees for voter identification that identification of voters in the upcoming election is possible only with documents issued by Kosovo institutions.
To the question how did it happen that the persons included in the Kosovo Voter List in 2013 will still not be able to exercise their right to vote, Shpend Emini, Executive Director of a non-governmental organization that deals with monitoring the elections and electoral reform, Democracy for Development, said it was a political, not a legal decision.
“In 2013, Kosovo institutions turned a blind eye in order to encourage Serbian voters to vote,” Emini explains for CBS.
The first local election throughout Kosovo was organized in 2013. As part of the package of the Brussels Agreement, this election was organized on November 3, 2013, in the municipalities in the North, as well.
Until then, only Serbian local elections had been held in North Mitrovica, Zvecan, Leposavic and Zubin Potok. At that point, the campaign to boycott Kosovo’s elections was the most conspicuous.
Although voter turnout in the North was not large (from 17% to 31%), the election was declared legitimate and the political representatives, who were then elected, formed municipal structures in the Kosovo system, primarily a local assembly and mayor’s cabinet.
The Kosovo Voter List was last updated in 2017, but those who were registered in 2013 who did not possess Kosovo documents were not removed from that list, and in this election they were on the list of registered voters, but without the opportunity to vote. This is possible because the procedure for removing people from the Voter List is complicated, Emini explains.
“It is difficult to remove voters from the list, even if you report, for example, death of a family member to the Civil Registry Service, due to a lack of communication between local authorities and the Central Civil Registry Agency, this information may not reach the CEC when the period for updating the Voter List comes and that person will not be removed from the list, ” Emini tells CBS.
“The only possibility left for the family then is to go to the first instance court, whose decisions are binding for the CEC,” he adds, explaining that few will opt for such a bureaucratic process to remove a family member from the Voter List.
In addition, it is unclear by what criteria these voters could even be removed from the Voter List.
The decision suspended the former practice where voting was also allowed with Serbian documents, and, according to the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, as a result of this decision, the largest Kosovo Serb party, the Srpska List, lost about 3,500 votes.
It was this party that opposed the decision most of all and appealed to the Election Complaints and Appeals Panel and later to the Supreme Court, but both instances upheld the CEC’s decision, raising the question of whether previous electoral processes since 2013 have been regular.
However, the decision had no effect on the turnout of voters who voted in favor of Serbian political options, therefore, this year, as many as 60,358 votes were cumulatively collected by the Serbian parties, for the seventh convocation of the Kosovo Assembly, more than 57,000 of which went to the Srpska List.
This is also the best result of the Srpska List in Kosovo’s parliamentary elections, in which they also participated in 2014 and 2017.
Problem in accessing Kosovo documents
The CEC decision briefly, again, raised the issue of access to Kosovo documents, but it quickly fell into oblivion.
The problem continues for one part of citizens who are trying, but failing to register with the Kosovo Civil Registry and obtain identification documents. This is most discernible for persons who do not originate from Kosovo, who are married in Kosovo and reside here.
Even though in July 2018 the Kosovo government allowed late registration of deaths and births with Serbian birth certificates, as well as what it calls the registration of “illegal Serbian marriages”, this decision is still limited only to the changes in civil status that had occurred until 14/09/2016.
At the same time, this possibility of re-registration is valid only until December 31 this year, after which its extension will depend on political mood within the new Kosovo government.
EU before the election: There is enough time for voters to take Kosovo documents
Unfortunately, this problem of the Serbian community has not been formalized, not even by those who are most relevant to nominate this problem as such – by Serbian political representatives – nor by foreign, independent observers.
Answering a journalist’s question about the problems of the Serbian community in accessing Kosovo documents, Chief Observer of the EU Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) Viola von Cramon-Taubadel explained that the Mission’s position was that “all people on the Voter List should have the right to vote.”
However, she added, the CEC explained to representatives of this mission that persons who are on the Voter List but who do not have Kosovo documents have sufficient time to submit requests and get Kosovo documents.
By the end of the observation process, the EU Election Observation Mission had come to the conclusion that there was “no tangible evidence that there are people who cannot obtain Kosovo’s identity cards”.
Different EU EOM findings in 2017
Contrary to this year’s findings, the EU EOM and its team in 2017 recorded announcements by Kosovo officials that the use of documents issued outside Kosovo could be banned in the current election cycle and reached the following conclusion:
“EOM received reports, in particular, but not exclusively, from the four northern municipalities on the difficulties for non-majority (especially Kosovo Serb and Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian) communities to confirm their residence status and to obtain Kosovo identity cards.
This is true for returnees and also for people who have never had a (Kosovo or) UNMIK ID card, which had not been necessary until now for many Kosovo Serbs living in northern municipalities, or for RAE communities’ members for whom it was easier to register in the Serbian system.”
Postal voting also problematic
Voting with Serbian identification documents is not the only decision by Kosovo authorities stemming from the practice of conducting the first local elections in the North in 2013 that was called into question this year.
Much more controversy has been sparked by votes that should come from Serbia by post. While voters with voting rights living in Serbia are enabled to register by post and vote in Kosovo elections if they want to, due to the lack of official cooperation between the Post of Serbia and the Post of Kosovo, transport of these votes is not done by the Post, their delivery is organized by other institutions.
Until this year, voting by post from central Serbia, had been organized by the OSCE by collecting all the ballots in several collective centers in Serbia and later, in the organization of this mission, they were transported to Kosovo. This year, however, according to the Kosovo media, the transportation of votes was the responsibility of the Serbian Liaison Office in Pristina.
Due to the specific manner in which postal ballots from Serbia arrive, many political entities in Kosovo feel that they should not be accepted. The first among them had been the Self-Determination Movement in previous years, and this year the legality of these votes was called into question by the NISMA-AKR-PD coalition, which also filed an appeal to the Election Complaints and Appeals Panel (ECAP). The ECAP rejected this appeal as untimely.
“Since 2013, applications from abroad from Serbia and Montenegro have been coming through illegal channels, they have not come by post, fax or e-mail… They come physically organized in a collective package, without the CEC postal code, there is no doubt about that. It was another aspect of the illegitimacy of these voters, but this is another topic that should be emphasized so that it does not recur next time.”
Remarks of the Self-Determination member of the CEC, Adnan Rrustemi, were raised at a CEC meeting back in 2017 regarding the CEC’s special practice regarding votes from central Serbia.
He indicated that they were legitimate voters but that they had to meet the criteria for legitimacy which, in his view, does not include only refugee identification.
“Additional documents are needed to prove that you lived in Kosovo, that you have parents from Kosovo, and so on. The criteria are defined and they are the same as the criteria for citizenship,” Rrustemi said.
The manner in which these ballots were transported was overshadowed by the unexplained circumstances under which 11 CEC officers experienced health problems, after being in contact with them, during their verification.
Despite the lack of official information on what could have caused the allergic reactions experienced by some CEC officials, Kosovo media quickly concluded that it was a “poisoning” and statements of political representatives followed directly blaming Serbia for the alleged poisoning.
A couple of weeks after that, votes from Serbia were, nevertheless, counted and included in the final result, which, as the NISMA-AKR-PD coalition itself claimed, cost this coalition the price of crossing the threshold.
Kosovo’s Voter List is the biggest challenge of electoral reform
The Kosovo Voter List is also controversial due to the fact that it has more voters than residents registered in Kosovo during the 2011 census. Arranging this list is a big problem for electoral processes and is blocked, again, by political will.
Emini explains that not all members of the Kosovo Diaspora, estimated at about 700,000 people, who have renounced their Kosovo citizenship over the past two decades, have been removed from these lists. The total number of persons who did so is unknown, but Kosovo media reported that between 2009 and 2018, over 40,000 people renounced their Kosovo citizenship, while in the first eight months of this year, another 3,500 people did so.
Likewise, according to EU observers who analyzed the Kosovo Voter List in 2017, there were as many as 164 people over 100 years old in 100,000 registered voters.
Due to deceased voters, as well as those living outside Kosovo, the Kosovo Voter List has reached a figure of 1.9 million, which is several hundred thousand more than the number of population registered in the 2011 census.
The proposal of civil society organizations to solve the problem of voter lists is automation of the removal of deceased voters, introduction of penalties for not registering deceased family members, but also division of the Voter List, whereby one, final voter list would include persons living in Kosovo, while a separate list would be made for voters living outside Kosovo, Emini states.
This article was created under the project “Development of Investigative Journalism for Journalists Reporting in Serbian Language in Kosovo” implemented by CBS and InTER. This grant is financed by the project ‘Support to the Civil Society in Kosovo’, funded by the Government of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and managed by the Kosovo Civil Society Foundation (KCSF). The content and recommendations made do not represent the official position of the Government of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the Kosovo Foundation for Civil Society (KCSF). The article is the sole responsibility of the author and does not represent the views of CBS and InTER.