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Kosovo Election Campaign Kicks Off

Albanian political parties in Kosovo square up ahead of October's municipal elections
By Llazar Semini

Kosovo's municipal election campaign got off to an early start on September 10 as thousands of Albanians gathered in Pristina for a rally promoting non-violence in the troubled province.


Although campaigning does not officially get underway until later this week, supporters of Kosovo's two leading Albanian politicians, Ibrahim Rugova and Hashim Thaci, used the occasion to chant support for the two rivals.


In downtown Pristina, Saturday's "Day Against Violence" - a product of the Airlie House agreement signed by Kosovo Serb and Albanian representatives in Virginia, USA in July - attracted around 6,000 people. But related events elsewhere in the province drew crowds of only a few hundred.


UN Chief Bernard Kouchner addressed the crowd in Albanian, to riotous applause. "Do not act as [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic has done with you. He wants us to fail. Violence in Kosova is a victory for Milosevic. Fair and democratic elections are a loss for Milosevic," he said.


But when Kouchner made the same point in Serbian he was booed and jeered. Meanwhile, supporters of Rugova and Thaci vied to out-shout each another.


No Serb representatives attended the Pristina rally. Father Sava Janjic, spokesman for the Serb National Council, SNV, said senior officials from the United Nations international administration, UNMIK, had warned "it could have been dangerous, there could have been attacks. We listened to that advice."


But UNMIK spokeswoman Susan Manuel said the international administration was disappointed SNV representative Rada Trajkovic had not attended. The SNV has already announced it will not participate in the October 28 municipal elections. So far only 1,000 of Kosovo's 100,000 remaining Serbs have registered for the poll.


Serbs fear the municipal poll could further bolster ethnic Albanian ambitions of independence - the only issue their politicians have campaigned on to date.


On a live televised debate on September 8, Rugova and Thaci did little more than bicker. Trajkovic, meanwhile, enjoyed ample time to voice her complaints about anti-Serb violence.


The October 28 poll presents Kosovo's Albanian leaders with a double test - to demonstrate their commitment to democracy and to make clear their policies for the everyday running of Kosovo's municipalities.


Rugova, leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, is enjoying something of a renaissance in Kosovo. His reputation was badly damaged last year following his decision to meet Milosevic. But the LDK now looks favourite to win on October 28.


Thaci, as former political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, believes victory belongs to his Democratic Party. Although the two men are often seen side-by-side at meetings, their mutual hostility is clearly visible.


Thaci attacks Rugova relentlessly for his passive policies over the past decade. He recently called on the LDK to remove itself from the register of political parties held in Belgrade before participating in the election.


Both Rugova and Thaci missed an ideal opportunity during the TV debate to outline to voters their wider political agendas. Voters have a right to know after all how their political leaders intend to manage the more mundane issues such as power and water supplies, rubbish collection, health and education.


The coming winter is going to be a hard one for the people of Kosovo. The province's power plants cannot generate sufficient electricity and cuts in supply seem inevitable. Due to problems transporting Greek electricity through Macedonia, Kouchner has opted to import supplies from Serbia.


Albanian leaders have criticised the plan, claiming it increases the province's dependence on Serbia, something they have fought to end. But the presence of Serbian goods in Kosovo shops suggests some Albanians at least are more pragmatic about ties with their northern neighbour.


Kouchner used the "Day Against Violence" rally to call on the Albanian community to abandon violence and to reinforce the point that the October 28 poll was concerned with local government and not independence.


In July, one Albanian politician was killed and several others injured in what some have claimed was politically-motivated violence. The situation has calmed down in recent weeks, but Belgrade's announcement that Kosovo is to be included in the Yugoslav federal elections on September 24 risks polarising voters yet further.


Should Milosevic win on September 24, the prospect of another four years of hardline, nationalist government in Belgrade could hinder Kouchner's attempts to keep independence off the October 28 agenda.


Llazar Semini is IWPR's Kosova Project Manager.


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