MITROVICA, Kosovo (Reuters) - Ethnic Serbs trickled to polling stations in northern Kosovo on Sunday in a re-run that is central to a plan brokered by the European Union to end the country’s ethnic partition but has been marred by what locals said was coercion to vote.
NATO soldiers and EU police were out in force, protecting voting centers against a possible repeat of violence during the original vote two weeks ago by Serb hardliners opposed to the election.
The municipal ballot is the first to be held in the northern, mainly Serb pocket of majority-Albanian Kosovo.
Ethnic Serb participation is central to an EU-brokered accord between Serbia and Kosovo in April aimed at integrating the mainly Serb north with the rest of Kosovo, more than five years since the former Serbian province declared independence.
The EU wants to see an orderly vote to produce a local council that will operate under Kosovo law, something local Serbs have resisted since Kosovo’s 1998-99 war for fear of discrimination.
For years the north has functioned in a legal limbo, part of Kosovo but de facto under the control of Serbia in defiance of Kosovo’s NATO and European Union overseers.
In an historic about-face, Serbia has agreed to recognize Kosovo’s legal authority over the north in exchange for talks on joining the EU, expected to begin in January.
However, there was evidence of the Serbian state mobilizing voters to raise turnout, which by 3 p.m. (1400 GMT) had reached 16 percent, to try to maintain influence over the area’s future.
“I was called on Friday night and told that, as someone on welfare, they’d be giving out sugar, oil and a bit of money sent by the state so that I would vote for the government candidate,” said Vesna Cosic, a pregnant unemployed Serb woman in north Mitrovica.
“Then they started to threaten. ‘If you don’t come on Sunday, we’ll take you off welfare’,” Cosic told Reuters. “I don’t sell out for anyone, and certainly not for a few kilos of welfare.”
Several residents, clutching bags of sugar and oil, said they had received state handouts on the promise they would vote.
Other Serbs, working in Serbian state institutions, spoke of pressure from managers to turn out with family members to vote.
Workers at the local hospital, who receive their salaries from Serbia, arrived to vote en masse, filing past an envoy of Europe’s chief rights and democracy watchdog, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as he addressed reporters.
“There is no problem, everything is going smoothly,” Ambassador Jean-Claude Schlumberger said when asked about signs of pressure on voters.
Some 23,000 people, the vast majority of them Serbs, were eligible to vote at three locations on the mainly Serb side of Mitrovica, a former mining town split largely between Serbs and Albanians since the war.
“This kind of pressure wasn’t even seen even under (late Serb strongman Slobodan) Milosevic,” said Oliver Ivanovic, a Mitrovica mayoral candidate running against Belgrade’s favorite for the post, Krstimir Pantic.
Milosevic lost Kosovo in 1999, when NATO bombed for 11 weeks to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians by Serbian forces trying to crush a guerrilla insurgency.
Almost 15 years on, the West is still trying to rein in the north, where instability has frustrated NATO’s hopes of further cutting back its 6,000-strong peacekeeping force.
Serbia hopes that by resolving issues in the north, it can catch up with the likes of fellow former Yugoslav republic Croatia in joining the EU and lure investors.
But the Mitrovica election has laid bare the depth of resistance among ethnic Serbs to integration with Kosovo’s 90-percent Albanian majority, and the challenge facing the EU in implementing its accord.
“Pristina can’t count on raising the Kosovo flag in the north. That won’t happen,” Ivanovic told Reuters, flagging difficulties seen persisting whoever wins the vote.
Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Pristina; Editing by Alison Williams