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Yugoslavia: Serbs Dispute Election Outcome In Presevo Valley

Serbs in the Presevo Valley town of Bujanovac who reject the outcome of Sunday's municipal elections in southern Serbia are planning a second day of demonstrations today to demand that the Albanian victory be annulled and new elections organized. As RFE/RL reports, some local Serb leaders are alleging voter fraud.

Prague, 31 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It was no secret that the race for mayor and municipal-council seats in southern Serbia's Presevo Valley town of Bujanovac was going to be close -- the population is fairly evenly divided between Serbs and Albanians.

Serbs have been in control in Bujanovac since the end of World War II and there has been no love lost between them and the Albanian community in this region of southern Serbia traditionally known by Albanians as "Eastern Kosovo."

Bujanovac's Albanian-inhabited hill villages were the center of a 16-month rebellion against Serb repression that ended last year with a NATO-mediated peace agreement.

The international community was concerned with possible manipulation even before Sunday's elections and called on Serb authorities to ensure that all qualified voters could cast ballots. Many Albanian residents had boycotted previous elections and were no longer registered voters.

Voter turnout on Sunday was only 60 percent. On Monday, Albanian election monitors awarded victory to the Albanian candidate Nagip Arifi. But at the same time as the Albanian victory claim, the municipal election committee released results for half of the polling stations, suggesting the Serb coalition candidate Novica Manojlovic had a comfortable lead.

Finally, 36 hours after the first contradictory results, the municipal election commission yesterday released what it called preliminary results showing Arifi won more than 55 percent of the vote, while Manojlovic received less than 44 percent. But in announcing the results, electoral committee Chairman Radovan Ristic also said he was resigning. "Believe me, this [resignation] is above all a personal, moral act," Ristic said.

Ristic declined to explain why he was quitting, although the timing of the announcement strongly suggests that he was protesting the outcome of the vote. He did not say whether he stands by the validity of the Albanian victory.

Another challenge to the election result came from Goran Taskovic, head of the local branch of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic's Democratic Party. Taskovic told reporters yesterday that at 11 polling stations, Albanian voters had cast ballots without showing identity documents and had continued to vote well beyond the official close of polling : 8 p.m. Sunday evening. "I've got data that 8,500 votes were cast in the places where we found irregularities," Taskovic said.

Taskovic said that at 8 p.m. Sunday evening when the polls were due to close, Serb mayoral candidate Manojlovic was leading Arifi by nearly 1,000 votes. "We prolonged the voting with the blessing of the international community and [Deputy Prime Minister] Nebojsa Covic, and the Albanians pulled out in front," Taskovic said.

Taskovic's remarks contradict statements by international observers who declared the vote peaceful and "generally in line with international standards."

Within an hour of Taskovic's news conference, some 500 Serb protesters gathered for a rally outside the town hall, alleging the vote had been improperly conducted and chanting "treason, treason," "Bujanovac is Serbia," and "Belgrade betrayed us."

Serb mayoral candidate Manojlovic urged calm, calling on the protesters to show that they are "civilized and law-abiding."

The protesters eventually dispersed when their attempt to march through Bujanovac was blocked by a police cordon.

The implication of the chants and Taskovic's allegation is deep-seated suspicion that Serb authorities in Belgrade intervened to ensure an Albanian victory in a bid to placate the international community. The prospect of being ruled by an Albanian-dominated town council is anathema for many Serbs in Bujanovac.

But in a message from New York, where Covic was holding talks at the United Nations, Serbia's deputy prime minister for issues concerning Kosovo and the Presevo Valley sent a message to those who are upset with the outcome. The message read: "Whoever won the elections is a citizen of Serbia. Let the commission do its job and declare the winner."

Meanwhile, in Bujanovac's ethnic Albanian community, revelers celebrated the election of the municipality's first ethnic Albanian mayor by firing guns into the air.

Arifi spoke by telephone last night with RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service. "The Serbs do have some questions about some of the ballots. But the Albanian side does not have any complaints. I don't think these [Serb] complaints can have any impact on the final outcome," Arifi said.

Arifi said that with 24 of the 41 new municipal-council members ethnic Albanians, he will have sufficient backing to be able to govern the municipality. He said he intends to be mayor of all the residents of the municipality, including Serbs and Albanians.

Arifi said his chief priority will be economic development. "It will be the economic development of Bujanovac because this area is very underdeveloped. There are opportunities for development. There are natural resources that have not been developed yet. Geographically speaking, we are in a good position but until now the resources and location were not taken advantage of by those in power for the last 50 years," Arifi said.

Bujanovac has little significant industry, but Serb government investment in recent decades has transformed the face of the Serb-controlled town with new apartment blocks and a new pedestrian zone. In contrast, just 25 kilometers to the south lies the Albanian majority town of Presevo, which was denied the kind of government investment that Belgrade sank into Bujanovac. The difference between the two is a generation or more in terms of investment.

Even under the Milosevic regime, local Albanian rule prevailed in Presevo due to the municipality's overwhelmingly Albanian population. Elections in Presevo on Sunday retained Albanian rule.

Meanwhile, no one has challenged the Serb victory in the Presevo valley's third restive municipality, Medvedje, where Serbs far outnumber Albanians.