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Yugoslavia: Kosovo Goes To Polls To Elect National Assembly

Voters went to the polls over the weekend in the UN-administered and NATO-occupied province of Kosovo. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports from the Serb enclave of Gracanica near Pristina that voter turnout was light as many chose not to cast their ballots.

Gracanica, Kosovo; 19 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- International and local election supervisors, monitors, security personnel, and reporters vastly outnumbered voters at Gracanica's polling center in the local school on 17 November.

The international election supervisor for Gracanica, Stefan Ferrari, a staffer for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), says voting had been "extremely smooth." "A moderate participation in the morning hours is also in a way a positive signal because usually the local population don't vote in early morning hours."

In Pristina, the OSCE said one-quarter of eligible voters had cast ballots during the first four hours of the 12-hour voting period. Polls close at 1900.

Some 3,700 Serbs are registered to vote here in five polling stations in the school, but the few voters who came at mid-morning largely consisted of members of the clergy of the local monastery and local politicians active in Kosovo's joint administration with the UN.

Some 70,000 non-Albanians currently living in Kosovo, mainly Serbs, have registered to vote in these elections, along with 105,000 displaced persons currently living in Serbia and Montenegro. The Yugoslav and Serbian governments only came out in favor of Serbian participation in the elections two weeks ago.

Vladika (Bishop) Artemije, who heads the Gracanica Serbian Orthodox monastery, said: "We expect that these first elections in Kosovo -- regardless of the situation we find ourselves in -- will bring an improvement in living conditions, respect for human rights of all communities in Kosovo, greater security, freedom of movement, as well as the return of displaced persons to their homes."

An Orthodox monk from Visoki Decani, Father Nektarije, voting in Gracanica where he currently lives and works, says the elections are an opportunity for Kosovo Serbs to participate in the political life of the province: "I expect that Serbs will be able to participate in Kosovo's parliament and in this way will be able to fight legislatively for their rights, which at present they don't really have in Kosovo."

The monk says many Serbs in Gracanica are "so suspicious" about the elections because for the last 2 1/2 years "they have been living in a ghetto here and so don't see the point of participating in political life." Father Nektarije denies there has been any intimidation of eligible voters.

Rada Trajkovic is a Serbian member of the joint administration of Kosovo. She told reporters that the elections should help create conditions for Serbs in Kosovo to lead normal lives in freedom by ending discrimination and human rights violations.

She says that by voting, Kosovo's Serbs, "together with democratic Serbia, want to show the world that they have the chance of becoming the safest foundation not only for the future of Kosovo but of the entire Balkans."

"I decided to go and vote today to support the [pro-Belgrade] coalition, Povratak [Return], really convinced that my vote will help our children's future, peace and democracy in this area. In the future parliament, if elected, together with all people of goodwill, I'll fight against discrimination, which has continued against Serbs for more than two years in this area."

Rangelj Nojkic, a member of the Serbian National Council in Gracanica, notes that voter turnout was even lower in the Serb-inhabited part of Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo. Some Mitrovica Serb activists have urged an election boycott and threatened to watch for anyone trying to break the boycott.

"I expect that in Mitrovica, considering that there has been such heavy pressure. People have thought over whether it is safe enough to go vote. But whatever -- there was a clear message to voters by those in Mitrovica who have always been making demands to their friends not to vote."

Just down the street from the Gracanica polling station, a group of men were standing around outside a small grocery shop. Only one, the owner, Misko Micic, was willing to talk, and he said he had no intention of voting.

"I didn't [vote] because if I had I would have recognized Albanian hegemony. For centuries, [Kosovo] has been inhabited by the Serbian nation. How can I vote when I don't have freedom of movement, when I've got nothing? In the last three years, people have lost all their property, their homes, and they can't return. Without a return of all those [Serbs] who left, there can't be any voting. The people don't have anything. The world is on the Albanians' side."

In Gracanica's sole stationary store, the shopkeeper, Dusan Mirkovic, complained that the Serbian ultranationalists have all left town and are not running in this year's parliamentary elections.

"I don't have anyone to vote for because those key people who are for [a Serb-dominated] Kosovo, those who used to be here before the catastrophe, none of them are on the list [of candidates]. So who should I vote for? Belgrade has got plenty of money, but they haven't given us any. The ones who used to be here with us here should be running -- the ones who have our trust. We'd vote for them. But these [candidates] are paid to run and are not for our well-being. That's why I'm not voting."

In contrast, in nearby Pristina, voting was heavy among the city's Albanians, who make up the overwhelming majority. The leader of the largest party in the province, Ibrahim Rugova, told reporters at his local polling station that the 17 November election is a vote for independence. "These elections are important because they are a guarantee for Kosovo's independence, for its freedom and democracy, for its prosperity, and economic development of all the citizens of Kosovo."

Similarly, the former political commander of the insurgent Kosovo Liberation Army, Hashim Thaci, who now heads the Democratic Party of Kosovo, also pushed the independence and democracy theme. "These elections will open prospects for Kosovo and its citizens. These elections are for Kosovo's institutions, for its freedom, for Kosovo's independence and democracy."

And the leader of the third-largest party in the province, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, also a former rebel commander, Ramush Haradinaj, noted the continued imprisonment in Serbia of some 200 Kosovar Albanians, whom he says are being held as hostages, and tied this also to independence. "We are sorry that today not all of Kosovo's citizens can vote -- those still being held as hostages in Serbia. But we are convinced that their sacrifice will be crowned with Kosovo's independence, a unified Kosovo including the [Serb-occupied] north."

But the UN's chief administrator of Kosovo, Hans Haekkerup, who has warned Kosovar Albanian politicians that independence is not in the cards in the next three years, was equally cautionary on 17 November. "This is a step toward creating some of the preconditions for finding a settlement on the final status of Kosovo, but it'll take some time."

The 120-seat parliament will have a three-year mandate. Among its first tasks will be to elect a president of Kosovo and ratify his choice of prime minister and a nine-member cabinet. Serbs and other non-Albanian minorities are guaranteed at least one-sixth of the seats in the new legislature. Additional Serb mandates will depend on the percentage of the total vote their parties win, with 1 percent of all votes cast equal to one seat.