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Yugoslavia: Civil Society, Future Independence In Kosovo Depend On Tomorrow's Vote

Kosovo's more than 1 million registered voters are preparing to cast ballots tomorrow in the province's first parliamentary elections since Serbian forces withdrew in June 1999 after 78 days of NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia.

Pristina, 16 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Tomorrow's vote in Kosovo is as much about chances for reintegrating Serbs and other minorities into everyday life in Kosovo as it is about independence for the U.N.-administered and NATO-occupied province.

The international community has ruled out independence for Kosovo during the three-year mandate of the parliament to be elected tomorrow. That parliament is to elect a president and confirm a cabinet.

But the three main Albanian parties are demanding independence, though they differ over how to go about it.

The Democratic League's Ibrahim Rugova favors a coordinated approach in cooperation with the international community, while the Democratic Party of Kosovo's Hashim Thaci promises a speedy, unilateral declaration of independence in the event that his party wins. In his words, "the faster, the better."

Speaking in German, the Swiss-educated Thaci predicts that NATO's KFOR peacekeepers will have little choice but to continue keeping the peace in Kosovo, even if the province's elected leaders declare independence.

"KFOR is here even if Kosovo becomes independent because we need NATO here and our orientation is pro-West," Thaci says. "If we govern well and accept the reality that we can organize and found [an independent Kosovo], and the voters accept it, then it is also important that the democratic world does not oppose the independence of Kosovo."

Thaci, who served as the political commander of the since-disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, or UCK, is predicting a massive turnout in tomorrow's elections.

The head of UNMIK, the UN administration in Kosovo -- former Danish Defense Minister Hans Haekkerup -- called tomorrow's election "historic," since for the first time the population of Kosovo will have the opportunity "to elect representatives who will be essential in forming the future of Kosovo."

"It is also very important that all [ethnic] communities participate in these elections -- Albanians, Kosovo Serbs, [and] other communities. And not only in the elections, but in the institutions that are coming out of these elections," says Haekkerup. "We will soon have an assembly, a government, a president of Kosovo, and these institutions are not only an end in themselves. It's a goal to carry the process forward, the process of reconciliation."

As Haekkerup puts it, "Atrocities were committed here in the past which created a lot of hatred between different ethnic communities." He says tomorrow's elections will be a very important step in the process of overcoming these differences "so that people can live together side by side and together create the future of Kosovo."

The commander of the NATO-led peacekeeping troops of KFOR, French General Marcel Valentin, today offered prospective voters assurances that they can cast their ballots freely and without fear: "I would like to reassure the people of Kosovo that KFOR, together with UNMIK, has planned for all contingencies, and we are well-prepared. We will remain vigilant during the final hours before election day, during the day itself and the days and weeks following. The people of Kosovo can be certain that KFOR will continue to carry out our mission and prevent any action that would threaten the safe and secure environment."

In the general's words, "Every eligible man and woman should now support the future of Kosovo and place their vote."

The head of the Kosovo Mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Dutch Ambassador Daan Everts, told reporters in Pristina today that the international community is "very, very determined that these elections will be fraud-free and that there will be no room for manipulation."

"Be assured that every single ballot is numbered and will be accounted for," he said. "There is no way, I repeat: There is no way, that the results can be in any way fixed or manipulated."

Everts says the election campaign has been "remarkably good and dignified."

The authorities in Belgrade recently came out in support of Serbian participation in the elections in exchange for an accord with UNMIK regulating relations between the UN administration and Belgrade.

Although many Serbs are expected to vote -- especially for the Kosovo Serb coalition of pro-Belgrade parties, Povratak (Return) -- a Serbian nationalist in the Serb-occupied northern part of the city of Mitrovica, Milan Ivanovic, favors a boycott and opposes cooperating with the international community. He says his activists will monitor polling stations to see who votes -- a form of intimidation that contravenes election rules and could result in a low turnout figure in northern Mitrovica.

General Valentin says he is aware of the problem and has already taken precautionary measures in close coordination with UNMIK police, but both he and Haekkerup declined to offer details of the security plans. Haekkerup says, "As you know, among Kosovo Serbs especially in the north, there are a lot of hard-liners who anyhow will be against participation in the elections, and we cannot change that. But what has been important is that [Yugoslav] President [Vojislav] Kostunica and [Serbian Orthodox] Patriarch Pavle have been now publicly supporting Kosovo Serb participation."

UNMIK's Haekkerup says that, even if the Serbs boycott the polls, it will not affect the legitimacy of these elections. He says he expects a reasonable turnout of Kosovo Serbs.

And the OSCE's Everts says that, in view of the very late start of Kosovo Serb political involvement in the elections -- just 12 days before election day -- "A low turnout must be really very, very, very low to be disappointed about."