MITROVICA, Kosovo : Widespread intimidation in a volatile Serb pocket of Kosovo marred a watershed election on Sunday, part of a European Union-brokered rapprochement between the Balkan country and its former master Serbia.
Participation of Serb-populated northern Kosovo in the country-wide council and mayoral elections is central to an agreement reached in April to integrate the north with the rest of Kosovo, which is majority Albanian and declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
Serbia has called on Serbs in northern Kosovo to take part for the first time, with the EU holding out the prospect of membership talks with Belgrade - slated to begin in January - as a reward.
But Serb hardliners in northern Kosovo, who reject Kosovo’s secession, have waged a sometimes violent campaign for a boycott.
Dozens gathered outside polling stations in the north hurling abuse at mayoral candidates and filming people who entered to vote.
“These elections are an act of high treason that will ultimately cut Kosovo off from Serbia and lead to a Serb exodus from Kosovo,” said 22-year-old student Negovan Todorovic. “Belgrade is betraying Kosovo for the vague prospect of the so-called benefits of so-called European integration.”
Krstimir Pantic, a Belgrade-backed candidate for mayor in the Kosovo Serb stronghold of Mitrovica, was attacked on the street by two masked men late on Friday, suffering cuts and bruises to his face.
Pantic was cursed by dozens of Serbs wearing badges that read “Boycott 100 percent” as he entered a polling station to vote, where two out of four members of the voting commission had failed to turn up.
The municipal vote is the most tangible sign yet of the shift in official Serbian policy towards its former southern province.
Serbia lost control of Kosovo in 1999, when NATO bombed for 11 weeks to halt the killing and expulsion of Albanians by Serbian forces trying to crush an insurgency.
Belgrade retained de facto control over a small pocket of the north, where some 40,000-50,000 Serbs live largely beyond the reach of the Kosovo authorities. Serbia, however, agreed to cede the foothold in April in exchange for EU accession talks that the former Yugoslav republic hopes will drive reform and help lure investors to its struggling economy.
Besides the north, tens of thousands of Serbs live in scattered enclaves across the rest of Kosovo but are far more integrated into the new state.
Preliminary results are expected on Sunday evening but are unlikely to bring about much change at the state level. Turnout among Serbs in the north will give an indication of the scale of resistance to integration with the rest of Kosovo and the challenge facing the newly-elected councillors and the EU in implementing the April accord.
Kosovo’s election authority said general turnout by 11 a.m. (1000 GMT) was 12 percent, but just 3 percent in north Mitrovica, the Serb side of the ethnically-divided town.
A Reuters reporter in Mitrovica said morning voting appeared to be slow.
“What we need is a strong city leadership that will tackle issues like infrastructure, sewage ... and not politics,” said Oliver Ivanovic, another candidate for Mitrovica mayor. Protesters jeered and shouted “traitor!” as he turned up to vote.
Milka, a 43-year-old Serb woman who refused to give her full name, said she would not vote for fear of losing her job in a state-run company where she said the manager had threatened to fire any worker he saw voting.
Nationalist hardliners had also travelled south from Serbia to back the boycott. “I came here with dozens of my brothers to prevent this shameful sale of Serbian soil,” said a man who gave his name as Stevica. Others said they would not be deterred.
“I’ve been living here for almost 80 years and I came to vote because if we do not take part in elections, Serbs will vanish from Kosovo,” said 79-year-old pensioner Milorad Stijovic. “These people, the boycotters, cannot intimidate me. I’m