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UN: Official Says Elections For Kosovo Vital This Year

A senior official involved in planning United Nations policy in Kosovo says preparations should continue without delay for province-wide elections this year. But the official tells RFE/RL UN correspondent Robert McMahon that Kosovo's Albanian leaders must demonstrate that they are capable of responsibly governing a multiethnic province.

United Nations, 2 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The actions of ethnic Albanian gunmen in southern Serbia, northern Macedonia, and Kosovo have raised concerns in the international community that independence-minded Kosovars will destabilize the Balkans.

But the United Nations' assistant secretary-general for political affairs, Danilo Turk, says the best strategy for dealing with the extremists is to proceed with plans for province-wide elections this year that will legitimize the political power of ethnic Albanians.

Turk discussed the latest developments in the region with our correspondent in a recent interview, dealing out equal criticism to leaders in Pristina and Belgrade. But he repeatedly stressed that the most effective way to counter the influence of ethnic Albanian extremists was to lay the groundwork for elections that would bring moderate Albanians to power.

"This is the only way to establish a legitimate Kosovo-wide authority which would be also an indigenous authority, which would then be expected to deal with these problems, and I think that in such situations the moderate Kosovars will prevail. Of course, the international presence will need to remain for a while, but without that political evolution, I don't see how this problem can be effectively addressed."

Turk, who previously was Slovenia's ambassador to the United Nations, has during the past 18 months overseen the work of the UN Mission in Kosovo -- known as UNMIK. Like UNMIK's chief, Hans Haekkerup, Turk believes that elections can be held this year despite the difficult conditions minorities, particularly Serbs, face in the province.

Haekkerup last month (March) set up a working group entrusted with establishing a legal framework for creating the institutions that will administer Kosovo on a province-wide level. The group includes international and Kosovo Albanian legal experts, but the Kosovo Serb member of the group withdrew.

Russia, China, and some other members of the UN Security Council have warned against rushing into new elections because of ongoing security threats to Serbs and other minorities. The United States strongly supports holding elections as soon as possible. Turk points to the experience gained in last autumn's municipal elections in Kosovo -- conducted in a period of relative calm -- as proof that Kosovars are politically mature enough to carry out new polls.

"My own assessment is that elections later this year should be a realistic possibility. Now, we are not yet at the point that specific dates can be determined, but I think that for the international community it would be wise not to lose any time and to make all the preparations and proceed with elections as soon as conditions so permit."

Haekkerup told the Security Council last month that the new democratic leaders of Yugoslavia need to provide clear signals they are willing to engage Pristina in dialogue and push Kosovo Serbs to participate in local bodies. Turk said Belgrade also needs to cooperate with UNMIK in working out a way for some 250,000 displaced Serbs to participate in the elections. With their return to Kosovo unlikely any time soon, Turk says, they could be instructed to participate through absentee ballots or through some other practical arrangement.

Turk says it's important to acknowledge that Kosovo's Albanian majority will dominate local politics and that Security Council resolution 1244 -- adapted in 1999 after Yugoslavia withdrew its troops from the province -- permits that to happen democratically.

"There is no way of establishing substantial autonomy without empowering the local population. That's the core. That's the key. That's the basis of everything. It so happens that the majority of that population, ethnically speaking, are Albanians and there is no way of avoiding a certain transfer of power to the Albanian population. That is the essence of substantial autonomy."

But UN officials and Security Council representatives in recent weeks have been critical of Kosovo Albanian political leaders, pressing them to isolate the extremists operating in Presevo and northern Macedonia.

Turk says even though elections are months away, Kosovo Albanian politicians already have de facto political responsibility for guiding the province to peace and stability. He says it is time for these politicians to bring an end to attacks on Serbs and other minorities and take responsibility for the fate of their province.

"There is a basic political wisdom that suggests that the majority and its leading political forces are always responsible for the fate of minorities and they have to understand that. I'm not sure whether this kind of basic wisdom is fully understood."

Turk thinks the potential for conflict remains in the Balkans, but only in small pockets not capable of coming close to the scale of the wars of the early 1990s. One reason, he says, is a population exhausted by war and looking for peace. Second, a long process of reintegration into the European mainstream is underway. Turk is confident these and other factors will keep the current conflict in Macedonia under control.

"I don't think that the situation in Macedonia, even in the worst scenario, could unravel into a large-scale use of force by all sides. I think that for several reasons this can be and will be contained even if, politically, the European Union and others do not succeed immediately in bringing full stability."

Turk also sees little basis for fears that Montenegro -- which this spring faces a parliamentary vote and possible referendum on independence from Yugoslavia -- is another potential Balkan powder keg. He says the Montenegrin authorities are proceeding in a responsible manner with preparations for this month's (April) elections, including allowing free movement of independent monitors. Turk says it would be better for the international community to let the Serbs and Montenegrins work out a solution than throw support behind one side or the other.

"The main thing now is to ensure that all opinions can be expressed, that interaction among them in ensured and that the process leading to final status will be democratic. What that final status will be is of secondary importance. I would also like to add that there was a fear at one point that the situation in Montenegro will trigger a domino effect in the Balkans and that fear is not yet completely gone."

As a former diplomat from one of the Yugoslav successor states, Turk is sensitive to the challenges facing other new states in the region. He cites Slovenia's neighbor, Croatia, as a positive example of a state where reformist forces have gained strength and are putting the country on a stable course. It is now the responsibility of the rest of Europe, he says, to take each of the region's new states seriously and integrate them without delay.