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Kosovo: Tensions Simmer As Province Prepares For Parliamentary Vote

Kosovo is preparing for general elections on 23 October that could have a major impact on the final status of the province. The parliament that is elected this week will be in power when the United Nations begins negotiations sometime in 2005 on whether to grant independence to the Albanian-majority protectorate or keep it nominally as part of Serbia. Western officials are urging voters to head to the polls in high numbers. But Kosovo's minority Serbs are threatening to boycott the vote, saying they want better security guarantees and political representation.

Prague, 21 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- About 1.3 million people are eligible to vote for Kosovo's 120-seat parliament.

But it is unclear how many of the voters will be Kosovar Serbs.

Serbs, who are outnumbered by Albanians more than 9-to-1 in Kosovo, are threatening to boycott the vote.

Speaking at a rally in the divided city of Mitrovica yesterday, Serbian municipal leader Dragisa Milojevic called the elections a sham.

"We want free and democratic elections," Milojevic said. "These elections are not free and democratic. I don't think that they are our elections. They are the Albanians' elections."

Serbian demonstrators attending the Mitrovica protest criticized Serbian President Boris Tadic for urging them to vote, saying his words are a threat to "Serbian unity." The Mitrovica rally capped a string of similar demonstrations in Serbian areas of Kosovo.
Serbia's conservative Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has encouraged the boycott, saying Kosovo Serbs should not participate in any elections until their safety and rights are protected.

Serbia's conservative Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has encouraged the boycott, saying Kosovo Serbs should not participate in any elections until their safety and rights are protected.

Kosovar Serbs are still recovering from an outburst of ethnic violence in March. Attacks by ethnic Albanians left 19 people dead. Some 600 Serbian homes and Christian Orthodox churches were burned and vandalized.

NATO has boosted troop levels in the province for the election. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has said the international community will do "all it can" to guarantee security for Serbs voting on 23 October.

Serbian parties are guaranteed a certain percentage of parliamentary seats. But without a strong show of voter support, they will be left largely powerless in Kosovo policymaking.

The vote will mark the fourth time Kosovars have gone to the polls since 1999, after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign ousted Serb security forces from the province and ushered in an era of UN administration.

The province formally remains part of Serbia and Montenegro, but its final status is to be decided through negotiations, which are expected in 2005.

Ethnic Albanians want Kosovo to become independent; Serbs hope it will remain part of Serbia and Montenegro.

The issue of Kosovo's final status has been a key topic for Albanian politicians ahead of the weekend vote.

Hashim Thaci's nationalist Democratic Party of Kosovo is considered the main rival to President Ibrahim Rugova and his moderate Democratic League of Kosovo.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Kosovo sub-unit, Thaci said he would reject any international proposal on a final status that provides concessions to Serbs -- a solution favored by some outside nations, notably Russia.

"I don't prefer the organization of an international conference [like the one proposed by Russia]," Thaci said. "The best solution is recognizing the rights of Kosovars to express their political will on the issue of final status through a referendum."

But many Kosovar voters might have more pressing concerns than final status. Joblessness remains high throughout the province, and the economy is largely dependent on foreign grants.

Many people had hoped Kosovo's status as a UN protectorate would bring with it much-needed economic benefits.

Five years later, however, little has changed, and voters like Magribe Baftiu are growing skeptical that the 23 October election will make any difference.

"It's bad to say it, but I don't expect any improvement. We do want to have better conditions, but as long as we have to vote for the same people, who think only about themselves and their seats, things aren't going to improve," Baftiu said. "They should work more on fighting unemployment. They should support women. If they gave women some support, I wouldn't be a mother to a single child. I would have had more children."

The West will be watching the elections anxiously. The United Nations is eager to see a substantial Serbian turnout to support its ideal of a multiethnic state.

EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana has said a successful staging of free and fair elections is "fundamental" for bringing Kosovo closer to Europe.

Some observers say Kosovo has been sidelined in recent months by more immediate international issues. But Tim Judah, a Balkans expert and the author of "Kosovo: War and Revenge," said the UN protectorate is about to reemerge as a potential trouble spot.

"I think that Kosovo, apart from the 'blip' in March -- the blip of violence in March -- has more or less disappeared from the international media radar. But I suspect it will start to come back, partly because frustration among Kosovar Albanians will mount," Judah said. "There's a question of mounting expectations. I hear at the polls we've got party leaders promising independence. One party leader is saying that Kosovo will be independent by next autumn. Of course, that's nonsense. But with rising expectations, an ever greater level of frustration will come."

One face to watch in the weekend election is Veton Surroi and his civic movement Ora (The Hour), which advocates Kosovo's economic renewal. A relative political newcomer, Surroi is a key player in Kosovo's media community and is seen as an economic pragmatist.

A member of the Kosovo negotiating team in France in 1999, he is a familiar face to Western officials and is seen as someone one who could bring much-needed diplomacy and practicality to Kosovo's parliament.

(The Kosovo sub-unit of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service contributed to this report.)