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Serbs in North Kosovo Boycott Local Elections

People walk by a graffiti reading 'No surrender! KM (Kosovska Mitrovica) remains!' near a polling station in the north of Mitrovica, predominantly populated by the ethnic Serb minority during the municipal elections in the north of Kosovo, Apr. 23, 2023.

Serbs in northern Kosovo boycotted local elections on Sunday in protest that their demands for more autonomy have not been met, in another sign that a peace deal signed between Kosovo and Serbia last month is not working.

The main political party in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo, Serbian List, called on Friday on the Serb community not to vote on Sunday.

"Except in some rare and very few cases, Serbs are boycotting the elections," an official from the central election commission, who did not wish to be named, told Reuters on Sunday.

Serbia and the Kosovo Serbs are demanding the creation of an association of Kosovo Serb municipalities, in line with a decade-old EU-brokered deal with the Kosovo government in Pristina, before they take part in the vote.

Fearing possible violence on Sunday, the central election commission abandoned plans to put voting booths in schools and instead set up mobile huts at 13 locations, while NATO troops from Latvia and Italy, part of a more than 3,000 strong peacekeeping force in Kosovo, patrolled roads in voting areas.

Election officials in Zubin Potok, a municipality inhabited mainly by Serbs, were on standby in case any voters showed up.

"Whether anyone will vote or not we have to keep the doors open," one election commission official in Zubin Potok, who did not wish to be identified, told Reuters.

The voting huts were guarded by Albanian police officers brought in from other regions after 500 Serb police officers, along with Serb administrative staff and judges resigned collectively last November in protest over the Kosovo government's plan to replace Serbian car license number plates with those of Kosovo.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, following the 1998-99 war in which NATO intervened to protect the ethnic Albanian majority, but Serbia has not recognized independence and Kosovo's Serbs view themselves as part of Serbia and see Belgrade, not Pristina, as their capital.

Northern Kosovo is home to around 50,000 Serbs. On March 18, Pristina and Belgrade verbally agreed to implement a Western-backed plan aimed at improving ties and defusing tensions in northern Kosovo, by offering more autonomy to local Serbs with Pristina given ultimate control. But Serbs say the agreement has yet to produce concrete action.

"Democracy by force? No," said Jovan Knezevic, a Serbian in the town North Mitrovica, on why he would not be voting. The Serbian community should have been consulted on whether local elections should take place, he said. "There has to be a compromise, there has to be an agreement," he said.

Albanians form a more than 90% majority in Kosovo but are a small minority in the north.

Only one of 10 candidates in Sunday's elections was a Serb after another Serb withdrew.

On Tuesday Kosovo's elected prime minister Albin Kurti said Belgrade was intimidating Serbs from the north not to participate in the elections.

The European Union and the United States said last week they were disappointed that Serbs had decided not to participate in the elections.