The meaning of “no”
Feb 15th 2012, 15:17 by T.J. | ZVECAN
IN THE small town of Zvecan in northern Kosovo a poster shows Novak Djokovic, Serbia’s champion tennis player, punching the air with joy. Next to him a banner declares: “Referendum—99%”. Mr Djokovic’s family hails from here and so every lamppost on Zvecan’s main street is festooned with pictures of him.
Serbs here, as in the rest of Serbian-dominated northern Kosovo, are voting in the second day of a referendum that asks them: “Do you accept the institutions of the so-called ‘Republic of Kosovo’?”. Of those voting, probably 99% will say no. Kosovo declared independence four years ago this Friday.
The vote has been organised by the four Serbian municipalities of northern Kosovo. The writ of the Albanian-dominated Kosovo government, which has denounced the poll, does not run here. Serbia’s president, Boris Tadic, has also spoken out against the referendum, which he says will damage Serbia’s interests.
Throughout the day a steady stream of people have been voting in schools. Makeshift booths, some no more than cardboard boxes on desks, have been set up to allow people to cast their ballots secretly, but many are not bothering to use them. Antipathy towards anything to do with the Kosovan state (bar public-sector salaries) is so high here that the vote is no more than an exercise in rhetoric.
Dragoljub, a burly moustachioed engineer who is helping organise the vote in Zvecan, tells me: “Everyone else in the former Yugoslavia had the right by referendum to say what they wanted—Slovenes, Croats, Macedonians and Albanians. So we are saying what we want and what we don’t want.”
At the Mihailo Petrovic Alas school in the Serbian part of the divided city of Mitrovica, Nada, a middle-aged woman who has just voted, says: “We just want to stay with our people.” Ljubisa, a local businessman overseeing voting in one classroom, says: “We don’t want to live in a ‘country’ called Kosovo—and make sure you put the inverted commas in.”
Everyone knows that Serbs in northern Kosovo—which to all intents and purposes functions as part of Serbia—reject being part of Kosovo. The real issue, says Oliver Ivanovic, a deputy minister in the Serbian government, is what Serbia proper thinks.
Northern Kosovo is dominated by Serbian opposition parties, and they are positioning themselves for a Serbian general election likely to be held on May 6th. Serbia hopes to gain candidacy status for European Union membership at the end of this month. Opposition politicians like Vojislav Kostunica are against EU accession, so they hope both to damage Serbia’s prospects of gaining candidacy and, if successful, to profit from Mr Tadic’s failure.
Serbia’s last attempt to gain candidacy status, last December, fell flat. Three conditions were set for Serbia to win it this month. None has been met. One is that Serbia and Kosovo strike a deal allowing the latter to be represented in regional gatherings. Talks are ongoing; one diplomatic source described the position as a “cliff-hanger”.
Mr Tadic’s decision to distance himself from the referendum means it should not harm Serbia’s international reputation. But there is another worrying issue on the horizon. Local elections are supposed to be held here in May. If Serbia gains EU candidacy, they may well be suspended. If it does not, the momentum will then be lost, as Serbia begins its election campaign.
(More pictures from the referendum here.)