A look back at Kosovo: Restoring personal identification through elections

By Jeff Fischer

August 31, 2017   |   0 comments

Voters of all ages cast their ballots in the Kosovo municipal elections, 28 October 2000. (OSCE)

Kosovo, a small landlocked country in the central Balkan Peninsula, turned a page in history in 2000 by voting in multiparty elections to establish new self-government institutions.

In 1998, after than a decade of tension and breakup among the states of the former Yugoslavia, open conflict erupted in Kosovo, which pitted Kosovar Albanian Muslims against ethnic Serbs in the republic. In 2000, members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization intervened to expel Serbian forces. The republic, though its status was yet undetermined, decided to hold the first round of elections at the municipal level.

The decision to conduct local elections before “national” ones was because the status of Kosovo as a “state” was undetermined, and there wasn’t an established legislative branch of government. It also was driven by the fact that Kosovars received many social services from municipal governments, and their continued functioning was essential for normal life to go on.

For this significant election, I served as the Director of Elections with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and later as the head of the Joint Registration Task Force with the United Nations Mission in Kosovo.

Registering voters in a post-conflict environment

Creative’s Jeff Fischer, Senior Electoral Advisor, served in Kosovo in 2000 as an advisor to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and as the head of the Joint Registration Task Force with the United Nations Mission in Kosovo.

Before establishing new self-government institutions in Kosovo, creating a civil and voter registry was the first challenge to tackle.

However, as a post-conflict environment, there was a major challenge with respect to identity documents, many of which were confiscated by Serbian authorities or lost as citizens fled the violence. As a result, several special measures had to be taken to restore personal identity and enfranchise people without identity documents.

Approximately 1 million people, 16 years of age and older, visited registration centers throughout Kosovo. Of the applicants, approximately 890,000 of them possessed sufficient documentation, such as a passport, driver’s license, or national identity card, to successfully register at the registration centers. 

Application forms did not ask for ethnicity, so it was difficult to precisely monitor participation from the various communities in Kosovo. Based on locations of registration centers, however, some general observations can be made.  From the Kosovar Albanian population, about 90 percent participated in the election. The majority of the Bosniak and Gorani (two large ethnic minority groups in Kosovo) populations participated as well.

Despite strenuous efforts from the United Nations Mission in Kosovo to lead the process, very few members of the Serb and Turkish communities participated in the election. And participation from the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian populations, marginalized groups in the country, had mixed results.  

To prevent the disenfranchisement of those unable to produce sufficient documentation at the registration center, the Joint Registration Task Force provided three pre-emptive services: 1) a hard-copy document reconstruction service, 2) an electronic consolidation service, 3) and an inquiry service. Together, these three services comprised what was termed the “review and inquiry process.”

Municipal records centers were established in each municipality to provide the hard copy document reconstruction service. Documents and registers that had been located were secured and moved to the municipal record centers. The documents included in the scope of the project were back-ups for identity documents, applications for passports, back-ups for driver’s licenses, birth and marriage registries, hospital records and court records.

At the completion of the operation, the municipal records centers and their satellites contained approximately 3,990,200 documents. The number and condition of these documents varied greatly by municipality–depending on the toll the conflict took on them.

The electronic consolidation service was a collection of searchable electronic databases on CD-ROMs.  These databases were gathered from the electric company, telephone company, Social Security Administration, the Albanian community’s parallel government records of school payments and the International Red Cross/ Albania refugee list.  Each municipal record center had a copy of this CD-ROM and used it in its efforts to find documentation to support claims of residence.

In total, 108,585 cases went through the review process; approximately 21,400 (20 percent) were confirmed with existing documentation, 2,551 were confirmed for civil registration only, and approximately 92,000 were submitted to the inquiry process.

 Verifying the vote and making history

A substantial amount of documentation was destroyed during the conflict. But even more importantly, there was very little existing documentation before the conflict took place.

The chief reason for the low number of cases confirmed during the review process was, quite simply, a lack of documentation.

First, people in rural areas, especially women, had no identification. Therefore, they had no documents that could have been archived in the municipal records centers.

Second, while the strict eligibility criteria diminished the possibility of fraud, it also made it difficult to find sufficient data to confirm identity from the documents that were available in the municipal records centers. These 92,000 cases then went to the inquiry process to be resolved. An evaluation of the inquiry cases revealed roughly 70 percent were for women, and most of those cases were for young women who, for reasons such as cultural and gender norms, did not have obtained documents.

More than 50,000 people in Kosovo are fully illiterate, meaning that they cannot read and write; a much higher number are partially illiterate, meaning they have a limited ability to read and write, according to Kosovo Agency of Statistics.

The 50,000 figure equates to 3.2 percent of Kosovo’s population that cannot read or write at all, which rises to 3.9 percent of all those over the age of 10— the highest illiteracy rate in Europe. This percentage is even higher among girls and women.

The caseload was broken down into seven groups using gender, age, and the existence of supporting documentation at municipal records centers. The groups were based upon certain assumptions of risk for fraud and sample investigations were conducted to determine whether the assumptions were correct.

The groups were the following: females older than age 45; males older than age 55; females younger than 20; males younger than 18; females ages 20 to 45; males ages 18 to 35; and males ages 35 to 55.

Then, sample investigations were performed in all municipalities. Sample size was gauged by the risk of fraud associated with the municipality or associated with one of the seven groups. Risk of fraud was assessed by the existence of various factors such as proximity to a border/boundary, identified fraud, incidents of political intimidation, and ethnic population shifts. 

More investigations were made in areas with a high risk for fraud, and fewer were made in areas assessed to have a low frisk for fraud. Based upon the results of the sample investigations a group profile was validated. 

For instance, if there were few or no denials of women older than 45 in the municipality of Prizren, then the Inquiry Division would be able to recommend approval of all women fitting that description without further investigation because of the low risk for registration fraud.  A sample would, therefore, be used to approve a group with similar characteristics in a specific municipality.

Cases found not eligible for civil and/or voters’ registration were denied only through investigation.  If denials occurred in one group, more investigations were performed to determine the extent of the problem. In some instances, a gender/age grouping may have been broken down further, possibly into registration sites, in order to identify where a problem existed. 

Using this methodology, most of the 92,000 cases were resolved and included on the final voter’s list. However, 347 cases were denied, approximately 3.7 percent of all cases investigated.

With many of the documentation issues being resolved and then witnessing first hand Kosovars enthusiastically exercising their right to vote, I was encouraged to see progress being made in establishing a new government.

The 2000 Kosovo elections was important in that it provided the opportunity for men and women the right to influence the country’s direction and helped pave the way for democratic development, respect of human rights and for implementation of the rule of law. 

Jeff Fischer is a Senior Electoral Advisor at Creative Associates International.

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