In nine days, Yugoslavia holds presidential, parliamentary and local elections, contests that observers both in the country and abroad agree will hardly be free or fair. The campaign so far has been nasty and on occasion violent. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports that supporters of incumbent President Slobodan Milosevic yesterday pelted the front-runner, opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica, during his brief campaign swing through Serb-inhabited towns in northern Kosovo.
Prague, 15 Sept 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Serbian Democratic Opposition presidential candidate Vojislav Kostunica, who has a reputation as a moderate nationalist, took his campaign to Kosovo yesterday. He made the trip to lambast Milosevic for having promised the Serbs unity 11 years ago, but having given them instead mostly war and destruction.
Only about 50,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo after its occupation by NATO-led peacekeepers. But both domestic and foreign human-rights monitors predict the Milosevic regime will try to use the Kosovo ballots to claim victory, whatever the real outcome of the 24 September presidential and parliamentary elections.
In a report issued today, the New York-based Human Rights Watch says "the non-Albanian Kosovo vote is considered to be the major factor determining" the vote's outcome. The report recalls previous Yugoslav elections which, it says, "established Kosovo as the main reservoir of fraudulent votes for the government. In the repeat 1997 presidential elections, fraud in Kosovo assumed grotesque forms."
Human Rights Watch says Yugoslav government officials are inflating the number of eligible voters from Kosovo. By doing so, the group says, they hope to prepare the public for post-election day claims that "hundreds of thousands" of Kosovo non-Albanians voted for Milosevic.
Yesterday, in the northern, Serbian part of the divided Kosovo town of Mitrovica, opposition presidential candidate Kostunica spoke to a crowd of some 600. Some in the Mitrovica crowd greeted his calls for Serb unity with chants of "Slobo, Slobo," and hurled tomatoes, eggs, and stones at the rostrum, hitting Kostunica with a stone just below the eye.
"Brothers and Sisters! Mitrovica! Kosovo! Serbia! We have come here and they are dividing us. Those who have been throwing stones want to divide us. Those who stand behind them want to divide us. But we come with a message of peace!"
After Kostunica's bodyguards hustled him off the platform, Milosevic supporters attacked his motorcade. They smashed car windows and slashed tires. Hecklers also jeered him at campaign appearances in nearby Zvecan and Zubin Potok. Kostunica says the attacks mean Milosevic is weaker than ever.
Kostunica does have supporters in Kosovo, including the hard-line mayor of northern Mitrovica, Oliver Ivanovic. Ivanovic calls the stoning a "planned action" by Milosevic's forces.
In his speech in Mitrovica, Kostunica dared Milosevic to keep to his regime's pledge to visit the province before the elections. But he added that Milosevic would not be welcome either in Kosovo or in Montenegro.
Milosevic is hardly likely to visit Kosovo. NATO Secretary-General George Robertson warned this week that KFOR peacekeepers would immediately arrest the indicted war criminal if he were to enter the province.
KFOR officials said today that Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic, would be barred from entering the province for failing to respect campaign regulations requiring 96 hours notice in advance of a campaign appearance. Markovic heads one of the parties in Yugoslavia's ruling coalition, the neo-communist Yugoslav Left, and had been reported to be planning to visit Kosovo for a rally today.
KFOR troops provided protection to Kostunica as soon as he crossed into Kosovo. For his part, Kostunica made an effort to avoid being photographed or filmed in the company of the peacekeepers.
Yesterday's rally in north Mitrovica was dwarfed in size, if not significance, by a simultaneous, peaceful rally of some 4,000 Albanians just across the Ibar river in south Mitrovica for the former political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) Hashim Thaci, who is campaigning for his party.
"The Democratic Party of Kosovo will have achieved victory once it administers the whole territory of Kosovo including all of Mitrovica."
The UN and NATO have made it clear that for the foreseeable future, regardless of who wins the Yugoslav or the Kosovo elections, the UN will jointly administer the province with local Serb and Albanian representatives. The UN is sponsoring local elections in Kosovo on 28 October that are being boycotted by the overwhelming majority of Kosovo Serbs.
Earlier this week in the central Serbian town of Krusevac, which has become home to numerous displaced Serbs from Kosovo, Kostunica played the Albanian card. He accused Milosevic of being in league with Thaci and moderate leader Ibrahim Rugova.
"The commanders of south Albanian Mitrovica have given victory to Milosevic. They saw how the others gained independence and they too want independence through ethnic cleansing. Once again, Hashim Thaci and Ibrahim Rugova and the others are backing Slobodan Milosevic."
Kostunica was referring to allegations that during the 1990s Rugova struck an agreement with Milosevic. The alleged accord is said to have provided for mutual non-interference on electoral matters in Yugoslavia and in Kosovo. Those who believe the allegations are true say they explain how Rugova was twice elected president of Kosovo with minimal interference by Serbian security forces.
The UN's chief administrator in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, was quoted today in an interview the French weekly "Nouvel Observateur" as saying "it is no secret that the most radical Albanians are hoping for a Milosevic victory, because they think it is the quickest route to independence."
Kouchner says a victory for Milosevic would "finally oblige the international community to ask itself questions about UN resolution 1244," which set up the UN administration in Kosovo. According to Kouchner, the resolution "provokes more confrontations than it resolves" -- a rare public admission.
The UN administration in Kosovo is allowing Belgrade to hold its elections in nine days, but is barring the use of public buildings as polling stations. Two weeks ago, Kouchner characterized Milosevic's stated intention of opening 500 polling stations in Kosovo for the Yugoslav elections as "a farce, not linked to democracy, but on the contrary to a provocation."