Would-be Mayor Challenges Kosovo’s Deep Divide

Balkan Insight, 1 november 2013

Adrijana Hodzic discusses her difficult mission to bring change to divided Mitrovica in the historic local elections.

By Mitra Nazar

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Adrijana Hodzic, who is running as an independent mayoral candidate in Serb-run northern Mitrovica in this Sunday’s local elections, doesn’t much like it when people ask about her ethnic background.

She could be what the turbulent and divided city of Mitrovica needs on the slow road to reconciliation – a middle option who understands the needs of both communities. “I am a local patriot. I take no side, only the side of the citizens,” she says.

Her chances of getting elected mayor of the Serb-run, northern half of Mitrovica on Sunday are slim. Violence, threats and nationalistic rhetoric make her mission difficult. It is still unpopular to support someone who thinks it would be a good idea to work with the Albanian-run, southern half of the city.

“People are afraid, confused and pressured,” the 38-year-old explains.

The atmosphere in the Serbian northern part of town is especially grim and tense in the run-up to the elections, following a wave of bomb blasts and threats addressed to mayoral candidates.

An explosion in front of Hodzic’s apartment set alight her neighbour’s car. A bomb went off near the home of one of her employees. A while ago, a masked man shot at another employee in front of a restaurant. Police blamed the attacks on hardliners opposed to Serbs taking part in Kosovo-wide elections. Nobody has been arrested.

Despite the threats, Hodzic remains optimistic about the polls as a whole. She thinks a turnout of 15 per cent in the north of Kosovo is possible. That sounds low, but considering that almost all Serbs in Kosovo used to boycott elections organized by the Pristina government, 15 per cent would be a major advance.

“I try to explain that the process is moving forward, with or without us,” Hodzic says, talking about the process of normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosovo, agreed in April under European Union brokerage.

“On a local level, we should now try to be an adequate partner for both Belgrade and Pristina. Otherwise, we’ll be left without any support,” she says.

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Hodzic’s campaign office is located in Bosniak Mahala, the multi-ethnic area of northern Mitrovica. Her team has printed election posters in both Latin and Cyrillic script, using both Serbian and Albanian. They aim to show that she is a rare neutral candidate, open to cooperation with all ethnic communities.

Instead, her campaign focuses on local issues. “We have to improve education and health. We need more support for pensioners and people in need. Better safety in the streets. We need a sports centre and a cultural centre,” Hodzic says, reeling off a list of must-dos.

“For 14 years nothing has happened, which is why we have social problems with drug and alcohol addiction,” she adds.

She faces strong opposition from two quarters in the Serbian community. This time round, the Serbian government wants Serbs in Kosovo to vote, but only for its own handpicked “Srpska” candidates list.

At the same time, boycotters urge Serbs not to take part in any elections organized by the ethnic Albanian-led government of Kosovo. They see any elections organized by a government that Serbia does not recognize as illegal.

Last week, their supporters went around town tearing down any election posters they found. Hodzic understands Serbian concerns about the elections, and their fears that Serbia may eventually recognise Kosovo, but is very clear: “This is not the moment to talk about Kosovo’s status. These elections should be about the quality of life in Mitrovica,” she says.

“We need to integrate into the Kosovo system now. I’m saying integration, not assimilation,” she adds.

In the light of the historic Belgrade-Pristina deal in April, and as both countries bid for EU accession, she believes borders are becoming a less crucial issue. “When we all join the EU, borders won’t be important any more,” she predicts.

Her slogan, “When, if not now?” refers to the fact that the two governments are finally talking to each other, she explains. “The whole world is trying to help find a sustainable solution in the north. I think the moment is now. If not, I’m asking people, when?”

The presence in northern Mitrovica of powerful criminal groups deeply concerns her. “The criminals feel like kings of the city. They have a profitable business and want to keep the status quo,” she says.

Because of that, people fear to speak their minds and consider voting in the local elections. Hodzic says she has met citizens who feared to talk to her on the street, but instead invited her to their homes. “They don’t feel safe because everybody knows those thugs are not joking,” she says. “Nobody wants to be collateral damage.”

But in their homes, she adds, she had open discussions. “They tell me they want change. But they keep a low profile, because that kind of a life is still not very much supported,” she says.

At the moment, it would take a miracle for Albanians and Serbs to start living together again in the city. Hodzic is one of the few people who dreams of that day coming. She already runs the Mitrovica North Administration Office, established by the Kosovo government three years ago.

When her office distributes firewood in winter, people from all ethnic groups stand in line together. As mayor, Hodzic would slowly start working together with the Albanian south of the city to set up mixed public services. “Imagine a city-wide sanitation service. People could apply for jobs there on one condition: it has to be a multi-ethnic team,” she says, eyes sparkling. “That would work.”

Sunday’s elections are the ultimate test for the historic Belgrade-Pristina deal, Hodzic concludes. “This is our chance, when all the world is watching. At the end of the day we are on a mission, all of us,” she says.

 

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