Residents of three municipalities in southernmost Serbia -- the scene of an ethnic Albanian insurgency that ended in a peace agreement last year -- go to the polls on 28 July to elect local governments. As RFE/RL reports, the contests in southern Serbia's Presevo Valley herald the start of an entire season of key elections in the Balkans.
Prague, 23 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Incumbent parties backed by large ethnic majorities are expected to maintain their hold on power in two of the three local elections to be held in the Presevo Valley on 28 July.
The electoral outcome in the municipalities of Medvedje, which is largely Serbian, and Presevo, which is largely Albanian, seems certain. But the third election, in the Bujanovac municipality, is likely to prove more of a contest. There, the ethnic division between Serbs and Albanians is far more even, with Serbs dominating the administrative center and Albanians populating nearby hill villages like Konsul, Veliki Trnovac, and Dobrosin, which were the center of the Albanian insurrection in 2000-2001.
The 37,000 registered voters in Bujanovac municipality are being asked to choose between two mayoral candidates: Novica Manojlovic, backed by the Serbian Bloc for Bujanovac, and Nagip Arifi, backed by the ethnic Albanian community and the Party of Democratic Action.
A Manojlovic victory would mean the continuation of five decades of Serbian socialist rule. If Arifi wins, he will become Bujanovac's first Albanian mayor.
The Bujanovac mayoral poll -- together with local council races in all three municipalities contested by Serb, Albanian, and Roma candidates -- are raising interest and controversy in the first in a series of elections to be held in the Balkans this season.
The elections have already come under dispute, with some Albanian politicians claiming that 3,000 extra Serb names have been added to voter registration lists in Bujanovac while nearly 2,000 Albanian names have been struck from rolls, allegedly for having boycotted previous polls.
Serbian officials reject such charges. Nebojsa Covic, Serbian deputy prime minister and special envoy for the Presevo Valley and Kosovo, said the issue of unregistered voters has created "unneeded tensions" between the highly sensitive Albanian and Serb communities in the Presevo Valley. He has lashed out at Albanian critics and said every effort is being made to avoid a misunderstanding and to conduct elections as "transparently" as possible. "The issues we're dealing with in the pre-election period are highly sensitive, involving trust or mistrust. I think all the ethnic communities in this area should gradually enter a phase of relaxation so that once the administrative errors and omissions have been dealt with there would be no need to interpret how someone had been trying to cheat or fix the data [through electoral fraud]," Covic said.
Riza Halimi, the ethnic Albanian mayor of Presevo and the head of the incumbent Party of Democratic Action, rejected Covic's argument that everything is being done to ensure free and fair elections. "The stand taken by Covic and other government representatives is generally known. They sometimes resort to criticizing Albanian political parties in the region without having any solid arguments. It is simply clear that they don't like the independent political organization of Albanians in this region, which includes Presevo and Bujanovac. So there is nothing new in Covic's criticism," Halimi said.
Last week, Covic and Halimi held pre-election talks in Presevo with U.S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia William Montgomery and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Ambassador to Yugoslavia Stefano Sannino.
Sannino said it is in the interest of all the parties involved to create the best conditions possible for the elections, which he described as "very important for the region, for Serbia, and for the international community."
The OSCE has provided most of the 80 international observers charged with monitoring the election campaign, voting, tabulation, and media coverage. Nikolai Vulchanov, the head of the election-observation mission, said the OSCE, in observing the 28 July elections, hopes to "contribute to the process of reintegration of the entire population of the region into the democratic structures of Serbia."
U.S. Ambassador Montgomery said extremists on both sides, Serb and Albanian, want the peace process to fail and may try to interfere in the elections. He said, "We've got to be prepared for that, we have to expect it, and we have to resist it."
He also said the elections should be a "success for everybody" and that voters should be assured the voter-registration controversy is being dealt with. "There are clearly some outstanding issues that people are working very hard on to resolve," Montgomery said.
Albanians in the region suffered considerably less official discrimination than their Kosovar cousins until Serb forces withdrew from Kosovo in June 1999 and were redeployed in the Presevo Valley. Harassment and shootings of Albanian civilians by Serb troops led to the formation of a vigilante army, the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedje, and Bujanovac, or UCPMB, which repeatedly attacked Serb police patrols.
After the fall of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, the UCPMB refused to lay down its arms and expanded its insurgency further, forcing the new pro-democracy leadership in Belgrade to send in additional forces. Belgrade eventually won NATO support in February 2001 to enter the "ground safety zone" along the boundary with Kosovo, which was being used by the insurgents as a safe haven. The UCPMB rebels surrendered to NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers in Kosovo and a peace treaty was signed.
The elections in the Presevo Valley are the first in a series of elections around the region in coming months. Macedonia is set to hold early parliamentary elections on 15 September that are likely to result in the fall of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski and his nationalist VMRO-DPMNE. Opinion polls there currently give the opposition Social Democrats a lead of nearly three to one.
Serbia holds presidential elections on 29 September to replace indicted war criminal Milan Milutinovic, a close Milosevic aide. The two main candidates are Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus. Both men will see their posts dissolve later this year with the abolition of Yugoslavia and the new, loose formation of Serbia-Montenegro.
Other polls include parliamentary elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro, slated for 5 and 6 October, respectively. The Montenegrin elections are being held three years ahead of schedule as a result of the recent fall of the pro-independence government following the agreement, under European Union pressure, to establish Serbia-Montenegro.
Municipal elections are also due to be held in Kosovo on 26 October, and early parliamentary elections in Serbia are possible, though looking increasingly unlikely, by the end of the year.