Ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo can vote in Serbia's upcoming parliamentary and national elections under a deal brokered this week by regional peacekeepers.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the governments of Kosovo and Serbia announced Tuesday that OSCE workers and EU-sponsored police would be allowed to oversee Sunday's elections and deter potential clashes with ethnic Albanians.
Serbia doesn't recognize the independence of its one-time province and is insistent Serbs residing there be allowed the right to vote in its national elections but Kosovo sees them as a threat to its sovereignty.
Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic has accused the Albanian-dominated Kosovo government of planning to foment disruptions in a bid to prevent the ethnic Serbs from voting.
Under the agreement, OSCE workers will staff mobile polling stations labeled with its symbol, while the ballots will be transported out of the country by EULEX international police to central Serbia to be counted, since there is no Serbian Embassy in Pristina, the Serbian news agency Tanjug reported.
"(Serbian election officials) and representatives of the OSCE have worked intensively on a whole series of technical details in order to help the OSCE realize election activities, especially security segments, and managed to make a protocol on mutual cooperation," acting Serbian President Slavica Dukic Dejanovic said.
Oliver Ivanovic, the Serbian state secretary for Kosovo, said OSCE personnel alone would be allowed to handle the ballots under the deal.
Only voting for Serbian national races will be allowed -- not local elections as sought by Belgrade.
"In keeping with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244, there will be no local elections in Kosovo and Metohija," Ivanovic told Tanjug. "This resolution also envisages that (U.N. peacekeepers) have the right to gradually transfer their competencies to Kosovo's institutions, which it has been doing in the recent years."
OSCE Secretary-General Lamberto Zannier said preventing ethnic violence will be his group's foremost task during the polling.
"The OSCE has begun its preparations to organize polling stations to enable eligible voters in Kosovo to exercise their right to vote in these elections," he said. "I call on all to refrain from provocation and to allow the voting to proceed in an orderly and peaceful manner."
The United States also praised the deal.
"Given the short time until the elections, we expect both Serbia and Kosovo authorities to cooperate fully with the OSCE and the OSCE Mission in Kosovo to ensure that the agreement can be successfully implemented in a safe and secure environment for all," U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
The elections have prompted NATO to beef up its contribution to the KFOR international peacekeeping presence in Kosovo as EULEX is seeing its resources stretched.
NATO said this week it has begun deploying more than 700 soldiers to Kosovo at the request of KFOR Commander Erhard Drews.
"We need to consider the legitimate rights of the Serbs in the north, but at the same time we need to respect the law which bans the holding of local elections, due to the fact Kosovo is a sovereign country," KFOR German contingent commander Col. Bernd Holthusen told the Pristina daily Koha Ditore.