Comment: Kosovars Forge Democracy

Kosovo's democratic credentrials have been improved by the orderly, non-violent nature of campaigning for this weekend's local elections

Comment: Kosovars Forge Democracy

Kosovo's democratic credentrials have been improved by the orderly, non-violent nature of campaigning for this weekend's local elections

When the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, announced local elections would be held on October 28, many international and local observers reacted with scepticism, criticising the decision as premature and likely to cause violence.

They argued Kosovo, only one year on from the war, was not ready to begin the transition from international administration to local government.

Inter-ethnic violence, especially in border areas and in and around the Kosovo Serb enclaves, and tension among Kosovo Albanian politicians were too high, the sceptics said.

During the summer, a series of attacks against leaders of the Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, seemed to presage conflict between the main Albanian political groups.

Polls had the LDK, led by the moderate and charismatic Ibrahim Rugova, 20 points ahead of the Democratic Progressive Party, led by former Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, leader Hashim Thaci.

The KLA guerrillas-turned politicians believed they deserved majority backing for liberating Kosovo. They found the continued support for Rugova especially galling, because of his passivity and "treacherous" meeting with then Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic during the war.

Although a number of former KLA fighters were also attacked during the political violence, the LDK exploited the incidents, claiming they had been victimised and placing the blame squarely at the door of their political rivals.

The international administration's response was disorganised and clumsy. Against such a background the calling of elections did indeed seem a crazy step.

But from the start of campaigning on September 13, tension has surprisingly eased. The only possible source of friction on election day is the OSCE decision to ban the Albanian flag from polling stations.

All political parties, however ill-prepared for the elections, sought to avoid tension and violence. This is perhaps because the stakes are not so high. Real power after all will remain with the international administration. The Albanian political parties see October 28 more as a warm-up exercise for the real showdown - the parliamentary elections scheduled for next year.

Another factor that has contributed to lowering tensions has been the absence of outsiders.

With the political turmoil in Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic and his secret service have not been meddling in Kosovo affairs. And criminal and mafia groups have been thwarted by

protectorate forces and foreign intelligence services.

K-For soldiers, UNMIK and local police uncovered a haul of weapons and bomb-making equipment in Gracanice, arresting a number of suspects, thought to be Serbian secret service agents. Similar operations have rounded up several suspected Albanian extremists and Mafiosi.

Such actions have been instrumental in preventing destabilising acts of violence ahead of the election. Instead there is a growing sense of security.

Meanwhile, world attention, and that of Kosovo Albanians, has been turned to elections elsewhere in the region, in Albania, Macedonia and of course Yugoslavia.

Although Kosovo Albanians claimed to have little interest in what was happening in a "foreign country", Milosevic's fall and Serbia's democratisation has unavoidable implications for Kosovo's future status.

The international community's warm reception of Yugoslavia's new president Vojislav Kostunica has worried Albanians. They fear Serbia will become the favourite to the detriment of Kosovo.

The threat of lost foreign aid and protection has served to close Kosovo Albanian ranks, just as happened at the Rambouillet conference during the war, marginalising the internal disputes of Kosovo's Albanian politicians.

Regardless of your political party the crucial question is the same - "what direction are the United States and the European Union going to take?" Serbia's democratisation, however sceptical one is of that, means the race is now on to see who can attract the most attention from the great powers.

The slogan for today is, "We are democrats, and better ones than them!" Hence the need to ensure the October 28 poll goes off smoothly. Kosovars' desire to improve their democratic credentials should have a positive effect on détente in the region as a whole.

Shkëlzen Maliqi is an independent political analyst and supervises Radio Free Europe's local correspondents in Kosovo.

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