Their formal importance stems from Kosovo’s constitutional and legal system, which guarantees their representation through reserved seats in parliament and the cabinet.
Functionally, however, this power is trivial, owing to the lack of legitimacy of the Serbs’ elected representatives, plus the lack of any clear idea about what constitutes the Serbian interest in the country.
To put this in a perspective, the current crisis over forming a government should be an ideal situation for the Serbs.
The winning coalition, led by the Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, has only 39 of the 120 seats in parliament.
For the last two months, the PDK has been unable to muster a majority and form a government, since Vetevendosje [Self-Determination Movement], LVV, with 32 seats, and the Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, with 29, refuse to support a PDK-led government.
The Serbs, meanwhile have 10 seats. Nine are held by the Serbian List, SL, a political force backed by Belgrade, and one by locally-founded parties.
So, their role in forming the government should go beyond the constitutional guarantees and be essential for coalition-building process in the sense of their political weight.
But this role remains trivial because the Serbs have aligned with the winning PDK-led coalition, giving it a total support in the parliament of 60 MPs, one short of a majority.
It has become a custom in Kosovo for the Serbian vote, as well as the vote of the 10 other guaranteed seats for representatives of other ethnic minorities, to go to the winning coalition.
Ever since Kosovo declared independence in 2008, the vote of the minority representatives has gone to the first force nominated to form a government.
The coalition-building negotiations usually focus on trivial issues, such as which individual gets what government position. Policies and the interests of the Kosovo Serbs are never discussed.
The main problem with the elected representatives of Kosovo Serbs is their legitimacy.
Between 2008 and 2014, the Serbs by and large boycotted Kosovo elections.
Some, however, were brave enough to establish new parties and run for the guaranteed seats. Since they were the only parties representing the Serbs, they took those guaranteed seats in the parliament and government.
MPs could get elected literally with only dozens of votes. Although legally elected, such representatives were far from having legitimacy, however.
Although in the eyes of many Serbs these politicians were traitors and the Albanians’ puppets, Serbian wellbeing in Kosovo rested on their shoulders, as did the merit for any improvements to the lives of Serbs in Kosovo.
When the 2013 Brussels Agreement was reached between Kosovo and Serbia, the EU turned to Belgrade to help integrate the Serbs into Kosovo.
And it did, creating a political entity – the Serbian List – to serve as Belgrade’s puppet in the Kosovo system.
Empowered by the so-called parallel structures that the Belgrade government sustained in Kosovo, the Serbian List twice won the vast majority of the Serbian seats in the Kosovo parliament.
But, when I asked a fellow Serb researcher from Mitrovica to tell me more about their MPs, he said he had never heard of them.
In the words of some Serbian intellectuals in Kosovo, their elections were fraudulent on an industrial scale. Bags of ballots were witnessed being taken into polling stations, ticked and stamped, ready to count.
By having the Serbian List represent their interests, Kosovo Serbs ousted other illegitimate representatives and let the Belgrade government bring them new ones.
An interesting aspect in this switch was the role that the EU played in it. In the EU-mediated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, most of agreements impact clearly on the lives of the Kosovo Serbs, which begs the question of who really represents them in this dialogue. Having analysed the EU’s discourse during my doctoral research, I found no single reference to Kosovo Serbs.
Blinded by the self-proclaimed success of the dialogue, which led to the participation of Kosovo Serbs in elections and their integration into Kosovo’s political system, the EU has ignored the most important aspect of the wellbeing of Kosovo Serbs – their ability to freely elect their own legitimate representatives.
Elections have been reduced to a formality. The wishes and statements of Serbia’s former Prime Minister and now President Aleksandar Vucic, suffice to determine the outcome. [That, and some systematic intimidation of voters.]
The Serbian government has no problem with this. They have obtained full control over what is now the fourth largest political force in the Kosovo parliament, with de-facto veto powers over crucial policies for which the Kosovo system requires a “double two-thirds” majority, meaning two-thirds of the votes also of the non-Albanian MPs.
This provides Belgrade with instrumental leverage in the dialogue with Kosovo, and, consequently, in the dialogue with the EU.
Kosovo’s government, on the other hand, has had to suffice with the formal integration of the Serbs into its system. The legitimacy of these Serbian representatives becomes an issue only when they decide to block the institutions, on instructions from Belgrade.
But the legitimacy of the Kosovo Serb representatives remains a problem. While a minority focuses on concrete policy aspects, the majority in the Serbian List are seen as the clients of the Serbian President. Political debate among Kosovo Serbs has been reduced, once again, to Balkan-style labels of “patriots” versus “traitors”.
What constitutes the interests of Serbs in Kosovo is lost in this. The real issues facing the Serbian community and the overall wellbeing of the Serbs in Kosovo are also lost. With no legitimate representation, and no proper political debate, Kosovo Serbs are incapable of projecting their own interests.
Thus, even in an ideal situation, such as the crisis over the formation of the current government, they cannot be the real kingmakers in Kosovo.
Krenar Gashi is a political scientist from Kosovo, currently a doctoral fellow at the Centre for EU Studies, Gent University, Belgium.
The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.