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Yugoslavia: Kosovo Holds First Elections On Saturday

Yesterday (Thursday) was the last day of campaigning in Kosovo in advance of the province's first internationally supervised, free local elections on Saturday. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports that the elections are a step further toward the stabilization of Kosovo 16 months after the withdrawal of Serbian forces.

Prague, 27 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the campaign for local elections in Kosovo has been the virtual absence of violence or skullduggery in the battle-scarred and hate-filled province.

The collapse of the Slobodan Milosevic's regime coincided with an end to efforts to disrupt the campaign. A wave of violence in the spring and summer seemed in part to have been fomented by Belgrade in an attempt to make the UN civil administration and NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers appear incapable of maintaining order.

Last month, NATO forces uncovered a bomb laboratory near the capital Pristina staffed and supplied by Yugoslav special forces. NATO officials were quick to describe the facility as an attempt by the since deposed Milosevic to disrupt the local elections.

But as the chief UN administrator in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, now puts it: "The campaign has been open, no more violent than in France." And front-runner Ibrahim Rugova describes the campaign as "peaceful and dominated by an atmosphere of tolerance."

There were no real issues in the campaign -- beyond independence from Belgrade, which was supported by the more than 20 political groups participating. Some one million registered voters are expected to cast their ballots in 380 polling stations across the province.

At a final rally in Pristina on Wednesday, Rugova emphasized independence.

"The main aim of the national program for all of the people of Kosovo -- Albanians and others -- is independence for Kosovo!" (crowd cheers)

The election is not a referendum, however, and independence is not yet on any official agenda. But an independent commission did issue a recommendation this week to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that Kosovo should be granted "conditional independence." By that, the commission meant that Kosovo would be allowed home-rule while the international military and police presence in the province would continue to ensure peace, security and the protection of minority rights.

But in his last campaign speech, Rugova said that what the commission is calling for in fact already exists.

"Thank God, NATO, and our fighters that we have de facto independence today. What we want is for the international community to recognize Kosovo's independence."

Serbian politicians in Kosovo have unanimously rejected the commission's recommendation and insist the province is an integral part of Serbia. While Kosovo Serbs participated in the Yugoslav federal elections last month and Kosovar Albanians boycotted it, nearly 99 percent of Kosovo Serbs in the province boycotted the voter registration drive for the local elections organized jointly by the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Nevertheless, Kouchner yesterday held out an olive branch to the Kosovo Serbs. In an interview with the French press agency (AFP), he said that if the Serbs show a willingness to cooperate, a way could be found to hold new local elections. In Kouchner's words, "We could easily within six months, or [even] four months, decide to register [Serbs] and hold new elections." He added that, in the meantime, Serbs will be nominated to local councils to prevent Albanians from dominating them.

Rugova's mainstream Democratic League of Kosovo, or LDK, is likely to win about twice as many votes as its nearest rival, Hashim Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo. Rugova co-founded the LDK in 1989 and led it to landslide victories -- garnering 80 percent of the vote in parallel or underground elections -- in the Serb-controlled province in 1992 and 1998.

Thaci, a former civilian commander in the insurgent and now dissolved Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), has been running on a platform of being the United States' best friend. His campaign posters and leaflets show him shoulder-to-shoulder with U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright and retired U.S. commander of NATO forces in Europe, Wesley Clark.

Thaci concluded his campaign yesterday with a rally in Pristina, still playing the U.S. theme strongly:

"You are in a position to choose between the new political class -- those who, with our strongest ally in history, brought freedom to Kosovo -- or the old political generation, well known for compromise."

Thaci also took credit for winning UN approval to have the Albanian flag in addition to the UN banner on display in polling stations Saturday.

Another former UCK commander, Alliance of Citizens of Kosovo chairman Ramush Haradinaj, has also emphasized the need for improved security. Haradinaj was seriously injured earlier this year in a shootout with a rival.

"The main aim of the Alliance is independence for Kosovo and then good relations among the citizens of all ethnic groups. Secondly, security for all Kosovars and security for property, but above all economic development."

But according to the Alliance's deputy chairman, Liberal Parliamentary Party chief Bajram Kosumi, independence and freedom are predicated on democracy.

"Freedom for Kosovo means nothing if it is only an ideology. Kosovo will gain its freedom if we establish the democratic institutions -- political and constitutional, and if we have free citizens in a free Kosovo. We are on the way to proving this but it will be a long process."

The Alliance has gained the backing of a former U.S. congressman, New York conservative Republican Joseph Dio Guardi, who is active in pro-Albanian political causes in the U.S.

"Albanian brothers and sisters, don't be afraid: You have Albanian brothers and sisters in America and friends in Washington!"

But support for Kosovo independence at the State Department and the United Nations is still a long way off. Provincial legislative elections must first be held, after which the new leadership is likely to call a referendum on independence.