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Balkan Report: September 1, 2000

1 September 2000, Volume 4, Number 66

Different Issues, Different Priorities In Balkan Fall Election Lineup. No fewer than six sets of elections will take place in the western Balkans between 10 September and 11 November. The stakes are potentially high in all of them.

The first country to go to the polls is Macedonia, on 10 September. Voting is for local offices, but the significance goes beyond that. This is the first such poll since the national elections in the fall of 1998, and since the Kosova crisis and presidential election of 1999.

Feuding within the governing coalition and its failure to significantly raise living standards are likely to mean votes for the opposition Social Democrats. They are the former communists who ran the country until late 1998. Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski has said that he might be willing to hold snap elections in October if his pro-business Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) loses more than 10 percent in the local vote. The next parliamentary elections are due in 2002.

Most international attention has been focused on the 24 September Serbian local elections and the federal Yugoslav parliamentary and presidential vote. The stakes are the political future of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his machine.

Serbian public opinion polls are often unreliable and show a large percentage of undecided voters. But there is general agreement in the surveys that the combined opposition could possibly unseat the dictator and turn a new page in Serbian history.

The problem is that the opposition is anything but united. The Montenegrin leadership regards the laws under which the ballot will be held as illegal and unconstitutional. The Podgorica leaders and their supporters consequently refuse to participate in the vote, as the Kosova Albanians have done for many years.

For its part, the Serbian opposition is split between a joint slate of most of the parties on the one hand, and Vuk Draskovic's backers on the other (see below). The four leading presidential candidates--including Milosevic--all offer a tweedledum-tweedledee mantra of nationalism and anti-Western rhetoric. They differ chiefly in the nature of the social and political forces behind them, as well as in their stated attitudes toward Serbia's leadership of the past 13 years.

The third elections are local ones in Albania, slated for 1 October. It is unwise to read too much national significance into local elections in any country, but this ballot is widely regarded as a mid-term plebiscite on the governing Socialists. The opposition Democrats' defeat in the last general elections in 1997 was so massive that they have virtually nowhere to go but up. But their pre-election objections to the formation of the Central Election Commission and on the role of the OSCE suggest that they might try to deny the validity of the vote if it goes too strongly against them (see "RFR/RL Balkan Report," 29 August 2000).

Smaller parties both inside and outside the governing coalition will be jockeying for local support, but Albanian politics remain heavily polarized between the Democrats and the Socialists.

Slovenia goes to the polls on 15 October to elect a parliament, which is the center of power in that country's political system. There is a general consensus throughout the country that its future lies in integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions. Moves toward EU and NATO membership are therefore likely to proceed apace regardless of who wins.

The term "winning," however, may be relative. The next government is likely to be yet another shaky coalition with a narrow majority, which reflects the fragmented nature of the political spectrum. For more than a century, Slovenian politics have been divided into Liberal, Roman Catholic, and leftist currents, often with more than one party for each. In addition, a small nationalist Right is also present in post-independence Slovenia, and it could play a pivotal role in the formation of coalitions.

Since this summer, the government has been headed by Andrej Bajuk, the first national leader since independence in 1991 who did not come from the communist-era nomenklatura. Until recently, he was an international banker with an Argentine passport. The Slovene voters will decide on 15 October whether they want to keep the familiar names and faces of the 1980s and 1990s, or whether they feel it is time for new people.

Perhaps the biggest wild card of the upcoming elections is the Kosova local vote slated for 28 October. Few Serbs have registered, so the elections are likely to be an all-Albanian affair, with some involvement by Turks and other minorities.

There are three central questions overshadowing the vote. First, will the recent political and ethnic violence continue and even lead to a disruption of the balloting? Second, will the outcome of the elections be more conducive to general political cohesion throughout the province, or will it encourage trends toward rule by local warlords? And third, what will the balance be between the moderate, urban-based Democratic League of Kosova of Ibrahim Rugova on the one hand, and the more rural-based parties that grew out of the former Kosova Liberation Army on the other?

Last, but certainly not least important, are the parliamentary elections in both entities in Bosnia on 11 November. The international community is hoping that the voters will weaken the respective positions of the three nationalist parties that have held sway for most of the past decade.

Municipal elections earlier this year indicated that such trends are most pronounced among the Muslims, who may be drifting in ever greater numbers toward the Social Democrats. In addition, the powerful nationalist leader, Alija Izetbegovic, is leaving the joint presidency, which could make for further fragmentation among the Muslim elite.

The Croats, too, have no lack of parties from which to choose. The new government in Zagreb says it will not be helping the nationalists, but it is not clear if the changes in Zagreb earlier this year will translate into changes in Bosnia or especially in Herzegovina in the fall.

The situation among the Serbs seems less promising. Nationalists of various hues seem well entrenched, Milosevic appears poised to cause any mischief he can, and the moderates and minorities rely on the support of and active intervention by the international community. (Patrick Moore)

Crown Prince Aleksandar Urges Serbs To 'Vote For Change.' In a statement released in London on 29 August, Crown Prince Aleksandar Karadjordjevic appealed to Serbian voters to oust the regime on 24 September:

"The united democratic opposition has its shortcomings, but offers the only chance of a peaceful, non-violent transformation and of indispensable radical reforms, not only of the regime but also the way the country is governed. Despite the regime�s manipulations which prevent the holding of genuinely free elections, people will have a chance to express their will and to show their opposition to the regime�s arbitrary rule. In spite of all difficulties, objective and subjective, the democratic opposition has achieved an enviable degree of unity, and it is the duty of all citizens and patriots to give it full support in the forthcoming elections...

"It is also a pity that the ruling coalition in Montenegro has not joined the efforts of the united democratic opposition aimed at changing the regime in Belgrade. It would be logical if they worked together, since the departure of the regime is in the interest of not only Serbia but also of Montenegro.

The outcome of the elections will also have a bearing on the plight of the remaining Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija, on democracy and human rights, as well as on the status of that Serbian province. All these are reasons why it is necessary to vote firmly against the current regime.

"Dear countrymen. Turn the coming elections into an all-national referendum, which will in a peaceful manner show the regime it does not enjoy the people�s confidence!" (Compiled by Patrick Moore)

Armed Gang Harasses Albanian Parliament Deputy Speaker. Unidentified armed gangsters stopped and threatened Jozefina Topalli, who is the deputy speaker of Albania's parliament, between Vlora and Tirana on 26 August, according to Democratic Party (PD) officials. Topalli was on her way back from an opposition rally in Vlora when the gangsters stopped her car, fired into the air, and warned her "not to come back to these [southern] areas anymore," "Albanian Daily News" reported.

Public Order Ministry officials did not confirm the incident and stressed that Topalli had not informed police about her travel plans. A high-ranking National Guard official told "Shekulli" of 29 August that Topalli's personal bodyguard had failed to report Topalli's visit to Vlora to the Guard's director, in violation of the procedure for top officials' travel. The official added that the National Guard will take disciplinary measures against the bodyguard. He also stressed that usually all travel by high-ranking officials outside Tirana has to be reported.

Opposition leader Sali Berisha on 28 August nonetheless charged the government with staging the incident. He put the blame personally on Prime Minister Ilir Meta, Socialist Party Chairman Fatos Nano, Public Order Minister Spartak Poci, and other high-ranking officials.

Meta, who returned from the U.S. on 27 August, pledged "to shed light on this event" but expressed doubts about the accuracy of the PD's accounts. Public Order Ministry officials issued a report saying that local police in Vlora followed the activities of Topalli there closely and did not notice any incidents. (Fabian Schmidt)

Albanian Court Allows National Government To Audit Local Finances. The Albanian Constitutional Court ruled that the Finance Ministry has the right to audit finances of local administrations, "Shekulli" reported on 29 August. It thereby put an end to a dispute between the Association of Mayors, which represents the municipalities and communities, and the Council of Ministers, which began preparing a draft law on financial controls in May 2000.

The mayors objected to the law, arguing that it undermines the independence of local authorities. They added that the draft law therefore violates the Albanian constitution and the European Charter of Local Self-government. The mayors demanded that officials from the Finance Ministry, the respective prefectures, or the State Control (the government's anti-corruption agency) should have the right to audit local finances only in exceptional cases. They demanded instead that the local authorities audit their own finances.

The court, however, concluded that the draft law does not violate local autonomy and self-government, since it does not allow the central government to interfere in local decision-making processes. (Fabian Schmidt)

Albanian Police To Publish Pictures Of 1,200 Wanted Criminals. Albanian police officials intend to publish the pictures, names, and other data of up to 1,200 wanted criminals, "Shekulli" reported on 29 August. The drive is part of Public Order Minister Spartak Poci's effort to crack down on criminal gangs throughout the country and has no precedent in post-communist Albania. A police spokesman said in Tirana that the move is designed to improve cooperation between police and the public.

The official said, however, that for each case a court will first review the charges and evidence against the suspect in question before giving the green light for publishing his name. The first 24 names and pictures to be published include those of the most wanted criminals from Tirana.

Meanwhile, an Italian truck with modern telecommunication and radio equipment for Albania's police arrived in Durres on 28 August. The equipment will enable the Public Order Ministry to develop a sophisticated radio and telephone communication network for police throughout the country.

The network will connect harbors, customs offices, and border posts in Hani i Hotit, Kukes, Rinas (the main airport), and Vlora. It will also link police departments and offices in Tirana, Puka, Lezha, Kavaja, Lushnja, Fier, Koplik, Shkodra, Bajram Curri, Burrel, and Rreshen.

The company Interforce, which developed the system, will manage the digital technology. Access will be limited to a staff of specially-trained police officers, however.

In other news, "Shekulli" reported on 29 August that an official from the Prosecutor-General's Office said that law enforcement officers have recently launched investigations for corruption against 30 customs officials. Most of the cases involve forging of customs documents for imported goods. (Fabian Schmidt)

Russian Bear Growls In Security Council Over Kosova. Russia has lodged a strong criticism of the UN administrator in Kosova--Bernard Kouchner--and says conditions are not yet right for local and municipal elections. Other council members defended the administrator and said elections are an important step toward building a democratic society in Kosovo. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

Russia has stepped up its criticism of the UN mission in Kosova, telling a Security Council session on 24 August that Kouchner has seized too much authority and is pushing through elections.

Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Sergei Lavrov, told the council that the situation in Kosova remains too unstable for local and municipal elections, which Kouchner set for 28 October. Lavrov said Serbs and other minorities in the province remain marginalized and intimidated by the ethnic Albanian majority.

And the Russian ambassador repeatedly criticized Kouchner for failing to consult with the council on important matters, such as the election date: "We consider that elections in Kosovo might provoke a new crisis which might pose a threat to regional stability. We think the decision to hold elections should have been taken only after consultation with the Security Council."

Lavrov's comments followed a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry last week that the United Nations Mission in Kosova, known as UNMIK, was tolerating attacks on Kosova Serbs. Russia is the strongest supporter of Yugoslavia on the Security Council and has consistently accused Kouchner of exceeding the authority granted in last year's Resolution 1244, which set up a virtual UN protectorate in Kosova.

Representatives of council members China and Ukraine on 24 August also expressed concerns about Kouchner's actions, including the recent seizure of the white-elephant Trepca lead smelter in northern Kosova. UN officials say the plant was pumping unacceptably high levels of pollutants into the air, but Yugoslav and Russian officials charge it is an attempt to undermine the economic viability of Kosova Serbs.

But at a 24 August council session, a majority of council members voiced support for Kouchner's efforts, including the preparations for elections and the closure of the Trepca smelter.

The deputy representative of the United Kingdom's mission, Stewart Eldon, said the local and municipal elections are a key step for what he called "the normalization of a shaken society." He said it is essential that the council help make them successful: "I cannot agree with the doubts Ambassador Lavrov has expressed about this process, which is designed to help establish the democratic and multiethnic society for which we are, I hope, all working. "

UN officials say the vast majority of the ethnic Albanian majority--close to one million people--have been registered to vote. They vow to ensure representation by Kosova Serbs in municipal bodies despite their under-representation in registration. But UN officials are growing worried about the rise in politically motivated violence among ethnic Albanian parties.

The French ambassador, Jean-David Levitte, said the municipal elections are part of an "indispensable" phase of institution building in Kosova. He said they must be allowed to go forward but that UNMIK and ethnic Albanian leaders need to step up efforts against extremists: "Reconciliation, of course, cannot be decreed. It is a process that takes time and which must mobilize all efforts. The progress of the last few months is thanks notably to the actions of the special representative. We must consolidate them and not allow the extremists to sabotage the gains made so far."

The comments of council members came after a briefing by the UN's assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping affairs, Hedi Annabi. In response to concerns expressed by Russia and Ukraine, Annabi stressed that the Trepca smelter was only to be closed temporarily while renovations are carried out.

He said an initial inspection of the smelter by UN officials showed widespread neglect, lack of safety measures, and low worker morale. He said it will undergo a $16 million renovation, with the financing already in hand.

The 24 August session was also marked by strong protests from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands over the treatment of their respective nationals who are being held in Yugoslavia on charges of planning to commit terrorist acts. The two Britons being held had been training recruits for a new UN police force in Kosova. U.K. representative Eldon said the circumstances of their detention was a "sad comment" on the ruling regime in Belgrade. (Robert McMahon)

Quotations Of The Week. "Both Yugoslavia and Russia have experienced great troubles and faced similar problems in recent years that resulted from disintegration of the state, the collapse of economic management, 'wild privatization,' the expansion of the so-called gray economy, and the impoverishment of nearly all strata of the population.... [This disintegration of both the USSR and the former Yugoslavia] was chiefly engineered from abroad." -- Serbian opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica, in an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax, on 25 August.

"The genie is out of the bottle" for Montenegrin independence. -- President Milo Djukanovic, on BBC Television on 28 August.