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Yugoslavia: Rugova Emerges Victorious in Kosovo Local Elections

Based on first preliminary results, the big victor in Saturday's local elections in Kosovo appears to be moderate politician Ibrahim Rugova and his Democratic League of Kosovo. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports that although it's not clear yet what the vote means for Kosovo's future political status, the result indicates a strong preference among the population for moderation over violence.

Prague, 30 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- As vote-counting continues in Kosovo following Saturday's municipal elections, the winner appears to be moderate Ibrahim Rugova.

No official figures are yet available, but OSCE officials are not challenging Rugova's claims that his party, the Democratic League of Kosovo, won some 60 percent of the vote across the province. The only districts he has conceded to have lost are in the central Drenica region, the birthplace and bastion of the former Kosovo Liberation Army, or UCK.

The big losers were two parties led by former UCK commanders. Hashim Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo placed second and Ramush Haradinaj's Alliance for the Future of Kosovo was third.

Rugova, known as the "Albanian Gandhi" for his advocacy of non-violence, says the poll was a clear call for Kosovo independence from Serbia and Yugoslavia.

At a news conference yesterday at his home in Pristina, Rugova called on "Paris, London, Berlin, and Washington to recognize the independence of Kosovo."

"The people of Kosovo have demonstrated that they are for democracy and peace and that they know how to lead Kosovo. The proof of this is the massive turnout."

Voter turnout was overwhelming. At many polling stations, voters had to wait hours to cast ballots. Some polling stations remained open six hours longer than scheduled to cope with the crowds of eager voters.

Thaci has made no comment since the election but his aides are blaming the international community for showing a clear preference for Rugova.

Haradinaj, in contrast, appears satisfied with his party's third place showing in a field of more than 20 parties, considering he only founded his party six months ago. "I felt proud voting for the first time in a free Kosovo. This is the result of a high level of political culture shown by the voters. The real winner is Kosovo."

The office of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica issued a statement yesterday declaring the Kosovo local elections invalid on grounds the poll applied only to the province's ethnic Albanians. Most of Kosovo's remaining Serbs, estimated to number between 50,000 and 100,000, chose to boycott the poll. Only about one percent of Serbs registered to vote. Nor did Serbian parties field candidates.

But the head of the OSCE election process, Jeff Fischer, says the vote was free and fair because it represented a matter of choice:

"I believe that the case can be made that this was a free and fair process because it represented a matter of choice. There are people in Kosovo who chose to participate. There are people in Kosovo who chose not to participate. That was their free choice."

Fischer says he hopes more Serbs in the future will choose to play a stronger role:

"I know the door remains open to the Serbian community to participate in the governance of their municipalities and I'm hopeful that the next electoral event will be more reflective and have greater participation by all communities within Kosovo."

UN chief administrator for Kosovo Bernard Kouchner says he will appoint Serbs to sit on local councils and may call new local elections within months. But Fischer says any decision on new elections will have to be made at the highest levels at the United Nations and at the OSCE.

In Belgrade, pro-Kostunica politicians are welcoming the victory of Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK).

A leading member of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), Social Democratic Alliance chief Zarko Korac, tells RFE/RL that Rugova's victory is "basically a good thing as it opens up space for the start of a dialogue between democratically minded Serbs and Kosovar Albanians about the future."

"If Rugova positions himself as the leading politician of Kosovar Albanians, it will be easier for the (Serbian) political forces which want dialogue with the Kosovar Albanians."

And the head of another DOS member party, the Democratic Center's Dragoljub Micunovic, says it is good that Rugova's party won.

"We expect that Rugova as a moderate politician who has been through all the changes that Serbia and Yugoslavia have, is working toward the goal of stability of Yugoslavia, the Balkans and the region as a whole. As far as we can tell, somewhere sometime a change of thinking (on the part of the voters) occurred -- at any rate it is a good thing that extremists did not win the elections."

In contrast to the pro-democracy leaders in Belgrade, Kosovo Serb politicians are taking a more reserved view.

Moderate Rada Trajkovic, a member of the Serb National Council of Kosovo and a member of Kosovo's joint administration council (along with Rugova and Thaci), insists the conditions did not exist for legal, democratic and free elections for the Serb community in Kosovo.

"You know we certainly do not have freedom of movement and the Serbian community in this region are denied their human rights."

Similarly, in the Serbian enclave at Gracanica, near Pristina, Father Sava Janjic, a moderate Serb, said the significance of the election is overshadowed by the absence of conditions for Serbs to participate. He says the legitimacy of Rugova's party will depend very much on its attitude toward the right of the Serbs and other minorities in Kosovo. Finally, the head of the Serbian community in the divided city of Mitrovica, Serb National Council chairman Oliver Ivanovic, says he remains skeptical over whether Rugova's victory really means a vote for moderation.

"We were expecting some sort of victory by Mr. Rugova and the Democratic League of Kosovo, but not so convincing. Today, generally speaking, this doesn't mean anything at all for Serbs. I think the concepts of Mr. Rugova and Mr. Thaci in principle are very similar."

Saturday's election is merely the first in a string of elections Kosovar voters will face over the next few months. Although this vote was peaceful and orderly, making the next round more inclusive to all the province's communities may be easier with Rugova's LDK replacing Thaci's UCK veterans in town councils across Kosovo.