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Yugoslavia: Belgrade Urges Serb Participation In Kosovo Vote

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica came out over the weekend in support of minority Serb participation in 17 November general elections in the UN-administered majority-Albanian province of Kosovo. Yesterday, Kostunica's representative to Kosovo signed a deal with the province's chief UN administrator, Hans Haekkerup, reaffirming how its administration will be regulated.

Prague, 6 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The deal signed in Belgrade yesterday between Kosovo's chief UN administrator Hans Haekkerup and Belgrade's representative to Kosovo Nebojsa Covic is largely a reaffirmation of the nearly 2 1/2-year-old UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which regulates Kosovo's administration. Perhaps most reassuring for Serbs, it says Kosovo is not on the verge of gaining independence.

Upon his return to Pristina last night, Haekkerup said, "The provisional institutions of self-government [to be formed on the basis of the outcome of the 17 November elections] do not have the right to declare independence." The Kosovo administrator continued, "As you know, the document and [UNSCR] 1244 [are] neutral as to what the final status is going to be and do not rule out any possibility."

Haekkerup said Kosovo's status will not be decided during the next three years. The purpose of the deal, he said, "is to get the support of Belgrade for Serb participation in Kosovo institutions."

Serb negotiator Covic last night described the deal as "the start of Yugoslavia's return to Kosovo. It is proof that we are not giving up on Kosovo." He added, "Considering all the past violence and terrorism in Kosovo, this day is a milestone."

"What is in the document are guarantees in the sense that there is no independence for Kosovo, [but there is] a guarantee of freedom of movement, a guarantee of security, a guarantee for the return of Serbs and non-Albanians to their homes, a guarantee that the problem of the missing and kidnapped will be resolved, a guarantee of justice and a guarantee of [Serb] police."

In fact, the issue of Serb police appears to remain unresolved. Very few Serbs to date have accepted the UN's offer to join the Kosovo police force. It still remains unclear when and if Serb police might be allowed to return to Kosovo.

The seven-page document reflects Serbian and UN fears that once elected on 17 November, the new Albanian-dominated Kosovo parliament could proceed to take measures to declare Kosovo an independent state. According to the document, the deal "reaffirms that the position on Kosovo's future status remains as stated in UNSCR 1244 and that this cannot be changed by any action taken by the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government."

This echoes previous calls by the international community and Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica for Kosovo Serbs to, as the document puts it, "actively engage in the future of a multiethnic Kosovo by participating in the 17 November election."

The overwhelming majority of voting-age Kosovo Serbs -- some 170,000 -- have registered to cast ballots for the 120 seats in Kosovo's provisional parliament. The Serbs will automatically receive 10 seats in the new assembly, in addition to any of 100 other seats they might win. Only 80,000 to 100,000 Serbs are believed to be living in Kosovo at present. More than 100,000 others are elsewhere in Yugoslavia or further afield.

The accord "honors the indisputable right of displaced persons and refugees to return to their homes." It also says that "ensuring security for all communities is the key condition for a multiethnic Kosovo," while calling for enhancing the general level of security and protecting "vulnerable persons, settlements, communications, and cultural sites and property, and full freedom of movement in Kosovo."

Security concerns have been the chief reason that most Kosovar Serbs who left the province since 1999 have yet to return. Yet it has been Kosovo's Serbs who have refused to use automobile number plates issued by UNMIK (United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo) that give no hint of the ethnic or geographic origin of the driver. As a result -- and in marked contrast to Bosnia -- Kosovo's Serbs, by using Serbian number plates, remain unable to drive freely in non-Serb areas.

The deal sets a deadline for the end of next year for determining the fate of some 4,000 people from all ethnic communities who have been missing since the fighting in 1998-99. It also pledges to investigate all 1,200 unidentified human remains held throughout Kosovo, and calls for the establishment of a multiethnic judiciary in Kosovo, police cooperation in combating terrorism, and a commitment to increased Serb participation in Kosovo's institutions and administration.

Early Saturday (3 November) morning -- following the conclusion of a meeting of the Yugoslav and Serb governments in Subotica, Vojvodina -- Yugoslav President Kostunica announced his support and that of the two governments for Serbs to vote in the 17 November elections. He linked that support to the deal that was signed yesterday. "This conclusion was made based on the difficult state and effect of the isolation being experienced by Serbs and non-Albanians in Kosovo. They can overcome this, in part, by participating in the elections."

Later the same day, in a 90-minute call-in show on state TV (RTS), Kostunica said that supporting Serb participation in the elections was a "difficult decision" and "a tough option of choosing the lesser of two evils." But he rejected suggestions that he was succumbing to the pressure of the international community, in the light of a series of recent phone calls he has received by world leaders.

Kostunica said: "What we have here is not international pressure but the pressure of reality. It is better for the Serbs in Kosovo and for the Serbs who have been driven out of Kosovo to participate in the election than not to." He explained that "in difficult, traumatic situations, in divided societies, where there are cases of ethnic cleansing and ethnic pressure, it is far better to participate in institutions and to be organized in political parties, than something else."

Kostunica praised the deal with UNMIK, saying that for the first time it regulates relations between Belgrade and UNMIK and contains guarantees in a mutually binding form. And he insists the deal "rules out Kosovo's independence and guarantees the borders as they are." Kostunica accused UNMIK and the NATO-led Kosovo peacekeeping force, or KFOR, of being "largely guided in their actions by their fear of Kosovar Albanian extremists."

The deal and the call for Serbs to vote has met with mixed response. The Serbian Orthodox bishop of Raska-Prizren, Artemije Radosavljevic, who heads the Serb National Council of Kosovo, welcomed the decision to back participation in the elections, albeit with reservations.

"It's a bit late, but I think it's a call at this moment to have the wisdom to organize things so that through these worldly and community institutions, Serbs -- who suffer from not having freedom of movement or the right to work -- will be able to regain their lost rights."

The Kosovo branches of 19 pro-regime parties have backed Kostunica's move and support calls to vote.

However, several Kosovo Serb political activists met in the Serb enclave of Gracanica near Pristina yesterday and rejected both Kostunica's call to participate in the elections and Belgrade's deal with UNMIK. A statement issued at the end of the meeting says that "unfortunately, the agreement between UNMIK and Belgrade is unacceptable for Serbs [in Kosovo] because it does not guarantee minimal conditions for participation in the vote and Kosovo's final status."

Serb Resistance Chairman Momcilo Trajkovic added, "To the extent that these decisions don't achieve what they're supposed to, I don't think Serbs need to go to the polls."

But several other Kosovo Serb activists denounced the meeting. North Mitrovica activist Oliver Ivanovic, speaking to Serbia's private Palma Plus TV, accused the organizers of the Gracanica meeting of fomenting confusion and dividing the Serb electorate.

Kosovar Albanians have been less than enthusiastic about the UNMIK-Belgrade deal. An editorial in the daily "Zeri" said, "If we had one unsatisfied side before these negotiations -- the Kosovo Serbs -- now we can face a great dissatisfaction by Kosovar Albanians, which in the worst-case scenario could put the elections in jeopardy."

The leader of one Kosovar Albanian party, AAK's Ramush Haradinaj, a former rebel commander, denounced the Haekkerup-Covic deal, saying, "We do not recognize it; we do not take it into consideration; it does not obligate us." And the leader of the province's largest party, LDK's Ibrahim Rugova, implied that the deal was of no consequence, declaring, "Kosovo's independence is a fait accompli and needs only a legal endorsement to become de jure."

But one of Kosovo's leading commentators, Shkelzen Maliqi, writing in "Koha Ditore" yesterday, commented that yesterday's deal and Kostunica's call for Kosovo Serbs to vote stabilizes Kosovo's long-term administrative sovereignty, according to which Serbs agree to their status as a minority with limited political and cultural rights, and without direct relations with Belgrade.

The international community has welcomed Kostunica's decision to urge Serbs to vote. KFOR commander Marcel Valentin told Serbian reporters over the weekend, "I cannot imagine a worse solution than a Serb boycott of the elections, both for them and for other groups in Kosovo." Valentin says Kosovo's "only future" is in a society that accepts differences and shows tolerance to everyone."

But Daan Everts, the head of the OSCE mission in Kosovo, while welcoming the accord expressed concern about the lack of time left to organize the elections for some 100,000 exiled voters in Serbia and Montenegro: "Organizing an election in just 14 days is an almost impossible task; our primary concern is to create fraud-free conditions for voting." Everts pledged that no manipulation of the vote would be allowed.