Kosovo went to the polls Sunday in an election that could usher in new leadership at a time when stalled talks with former war foe Serbia are a source of instability in Europe.
Whoever takes the reins will be under heavy pressure from the West to renew dialogue with Belgrade, which still rejects the independence its former province declared in 2008.
However, for many of Kosovo’s 1.8 million citizens, high unemployment, widespread corruption and poor healthcare are more pressing concerns than the talks.
“We need freedom, a state governed by the rule of law, prosperity, economic development,” voter Mentor Nimani, 47, told AFP in the capital Pristina shortly after polling began at 0500 GMT.
For the past decade Kosovo has been dominated by members of the guerrilla forces who waged an insurgency against Serbian repression in the late 1990s — a war that cost 13,000 lives, mostly Kosovo Albanians.
Sunday’s snap poll was called after then prime minister Ramush Haradinaj resigned in July to face questioning by a special court in The Hague investigating war crimes from that era.
Opposition parties hope to block him and other ex-fighters from regaining power by harnessing public frustration with the graft and poverty that have blighted Kosovo’s first decade of independence.
Brussels and Washington will be watching closely to see whether a change of power can thaw the frozen dialogue and ease tensions.
Kosovo needs Serbia — and its allies Russia and China — to accept its statehood so it can get a seat in the United Nations.
Serbia is also under pressure to make peace with Kosovo, so it can move forward with its EU accession process.
But the EU-led talks have been at a standstill for nearly two years, with frequent diplomatic provocations souring efforts to build goodwill.
Ahead of the vote, the US and four European countries made clear the poll offered an important “chance to urgently restart talks”.
– ‘Fed up’ with dialogue –
Polls will close at 1700 GMT, with official results not expected until Monday.
“I am fed up with this story of the dialogue” with Serbia, shop owner Salih Mehana, 39, told AFP in Pristina.
But analyst Krenar Shala expects the issue to top the agenda of any new government.
“It is clear that the future government will focus almost its entire energy on the dialogue with Serbia and very little on the issues discussed with the citizens during this election campaign,” he said.
One of the core obstacles to resuming talks is the 100-percent tariff that Haradinaj slapped on Serbian goods a year ago.
Having resisted heavy Western pressure to remove the tariff, the former commander is hoping voters will reward his tough stance with re-election.
All the other top candidates, however, have shown a willingness to reconsider the tariff for the sake of dialogue.
Kadri Veseli, leader of the PDK, which was part of the outgoing coalition with now-rival Haradinaj, has condemned the tariff move as “amateur”, and said he would honour Washington’s calls to remove it.
Opposition party candidates Vjosa Osmani, from the centre-right LDK, and Albin Kurti, from the left-wing and nationalist Vetevendosje, also seem willing to lift the trade barrier to resume talks.
This pair has also left open the possibility of joining forces after the poll, an alliance that could oust the so-called “war parties”.
Yet with no camp expected to take home an absolute majority, coalition talks could drag on for weeks.
– Sensitive power issue –
If the dialogue with Belgrade does resume, one of the most sensitive issues will be settling what powers to grant administrations in Serb-majority parts of Kosovo.
There are approximately 40,000 Serbs living in the north and 80,000 scattered in and around a dozen enclaves in other parts of Kosovo, whose population is overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian.
The Serbs have 10 reserved seats in parliament, a bloc that could be decisive in coalition-building.
Dominating their scene is the Srpska Lista party, which considers itself an extension of Belgrade.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has been urging Kosovo Serbs to vote for the party, leading critics to decry an atmosphere of intimidation.