Kosovo's citizens vote in a test to reconciliation efforts

Saturday, October 23rd 2004, 11:30 am
By: News On 6

PRISTINA, Serbia-Montenegro (AP) _ Kosovo Serbs largely stayed away from the polls in early hours of Saturday's general election, a vote that will test the depth of the province's ethnic divide and international attempts at reconciliation.

The ethnic Serb minority had threatened to boycott the vote, saying the United Nations and NATO have failed to create an environment where Serbs can live free of the fear of attack.

The election was Kosovo's second since the province came under U.N. and NATO rule in 1999 after a NATO air campaign ended former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown against independence-minded ethnic Albanians. The 1998-99 war killed an estimated 10,000 people, mainly ethnic Albanians.

Three hours into the polling, just a handful of Serbs had cast ballots. Overall turnout at 9:45 a.m. was 5 percent, said Adnan Merovci, the head of the election commission.

About 1.3 million voters were eligible to elect representatives to a 120-seat assembly, which in turn will elect a president and a government that holds limited authority. Ultimate power remains with the U.N. mission.

In the predominantly Serb town of Zvecan, north of Pristina, Serb leaders attended a church service instead of voting, while Serbs in Gracanica, just east of Pristina, lit candles instead of going to the polls.

``We don't even notice that the elections are going on today,'' said Milan Ivanovic, one of the leaders in Zvecan. ``The Serbs understand that these are not our elections and that they are not in our interest.''

The elections, he said, are for ``ethnic Albanian institutions of violence and repression against the Serbs,'' who account for about 100,000 of Kosovo's 2 million people. Some 90 percent of the population is ethnic Albanian.

The election came seven months after Kosovo's worst outbreak of ethnic violence since the war. Mobs of ethnic Albanians attacked Serbs and their property in riots that killed 19 people and injured more than 900 others.

Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova called Saturday ``a great and important day for the formal recognition of Kosovo's independence,'' adding an independent Kosovo should be ``integrated in European Union, in NATO and in friendship with United States.''

The lawmakers elected will likely lead the province toward talks to determine Kosovo's final status, which are expected to begin next year. Ethnic Serbs and Belgrade want the province to remain part of Serbia-Montenegro, the successor to Yugoslavia.

One of the few who cast ballots in the northern, mainly Serb town of Kosovska Mitrovica, was Oliver Ivanovic, a Serb pro-election leader who said that those ``who had the courage to take our own destiny into our hands are the moral victors today.''

But Bosko Vukumirovic, 71, a Zvecan resident, boycotted the poll. ``We voted at previous elections and that was a mistake,'' he said.

In the rest of Serbia, where Serbs displaced from Kosovo could vote, only a handful of ballots had been cast hours after the election began.

In the central Serbian town of Jagodina, some 100 Serb refugees surrounded a polling station on Saturday morning, preventing it from opening. The protesters carried signs such as ``Betrayed souls'' and ``We won't vote''.

Thirty-three political parties, initiatives and independent candidates were on the ballot. Ten of the seats are set aside for Serbs, though they can win more if they vote in large numbers. Another 10 seats are reserved for other Kosovo minorities.

Security was provided by some 20,000 NATO-led peacekeepers and about 10,000 police officers deployed throughout Kosovo.