Kosovo: Serb Poll Optimism

Serbs edge towards taking part in Kosovo's forthcoming parliamentary election.

Kosovo: Serb Poll Optimism

Serbs edge towards taking part in Kosovo's forthcoming parliamentary election.

Kosovo's battered Serb minority is moving cautiously towards participation in the first election campaign in the province since the international community effectively assumed control there in 1999.

However, Serbia's authorities have still not publicly announced whether they want Kosovo Serbs to vote for deputies in a provincial parliament on November 17.

After long deliberation, leaders of the ruling DOS coalition were expected to hammer out a final position at a meeting on October 17.

The reason for the delay is partly explained by the dilemma of reaching a decision that might permanently seal the fate of the Kosovo Serbs.

But there has also been a great deal of wrangling with the international community over the guarantees it might offer Kosovo Serbs in exchange for their participation in the poll.

In particular, Belgrade wants fresh guarantees that Kosovo will not become independent after the November 17 poll, despite the fact that the UN chief in Kosovo, Hans Haekkerup, and other international representatives have already stated it will remain part of Yugoslavia under the terms of UN Resolution 1244.

They want more progress on Serbian access in Kosovo to health, education, police and finance, as well as guarantees that Serbs pushed out after NATO's air campaign in 1999 will be able to return home.

Nada Kolundzija, of the Democratic Alternative, the party of Nebojsa Covic, head of Serbia's Kosovo and Metohija Coordination team, said the international community must send clear signals to the Kosovo Serbs that they will be able to go back.

Their security must be improved, he said, and the final status of the province must be placed beyond dispute, regardless of any future decisions of a Kosovo parliament.

The demands for extra guarantees are a consequence of two-and-a-half disastrous years for the Serbian community, which started with the arrival of NATO troops. Belgrade says about 250,000 Serbs were expelled from Kosovo during and after the NATO air campaign. The UN has returned only a few hundred.

About 100,000 Serbs remain in the province. But they live in isolated enclaves under the guard of KFOR soldiers, without much access to education, without freedom to travel or use their language in public. In addition to this, they have to endure regular attacks at the hands of Albanian extremists.

Prior to participating in the elections, Kosovo Serbs want an assurance that their enclaves will be autonomous and that Kosovan independence will never be internationally recognised.

The international community appears likely to concede most of the Serbs' demands. It wants to avoid a Serb boycott of the election, which would undermine the legitimacy of Kosovo's new institutions. As a result, the Serbian leadership is likely to come down on the side of Serbs taking part in the poll.

During September, Covic held several meetings with representatives of the international community to secure the guarantees the Serbs seek. At a meeting with EU and NATO representatives in Brussels on September 4, he told George Robertson, NATO's secretary general, that it was "difficult to expect that Serbs will participate in the elections without strong guarantees that that the ballot would not lead to Kosovo's independence".

He reported that EU ambassadors and the NATO chief had assured him Kosovo's independence was "out of question" and that in return the EU expected Serbs to participate in the ballot.

After Covic repeated similar demands at a UN Security Council session in New York, he said the UN had also responded with "firm guarantees that the independence issue is out of question".

UN statements following their October 6 Security Council session reinforced Covic's claim. These noted only that "the people of Kosovo would enjoy a considerable autonomy in accordance with Resolution 1244".

The UN statement is seen as an important precedent, as it cites the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as the official framework for Kosovo and its future self-government. It called on Kosovo Serbs "to get rid of their fears and participate in November 17 elections for more peaceful future".

The international community's concern that Kosovo Serbs should take part in the elections has resulted in the provision of a few additional "carrots".

More protection has been offered to Serb pupils and secondary and primary school buildings, while part of the Pristina university campus has been set aside for Serb students.

These moves have encouraged Serbia to put pressure on the Kosovo Serbs, whether they are living in Kosovo or displaced in Serbia, to register for the election, if only "to see how many of us are here".

Patriarch Pavle, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church and Archbishop of Pec, in Kosovo, has endorsed the campaign by registering as a displaced person.

According to UNMIK, around 178,000 Serbs have now registered as potential voters in Kosovo. Around 70,000 did so in Kosovo, 102,000 in Serbia and another 6,000 in Montenegro.

When the Return Coalition was registered in Kosovo under Covic's influence on September 22, uniting several local Serbian parties and branches of Belgrade-based parties, it was seen as a clear signal that Serbia was preparing the way for Kosovo Serbs to vote on November 17.

Covic spoke cautiously about the move. He did not commit Serbs to voting but instead stressed the need "to take into account the deadlines and the election process, regardless of whether we participate in the election or not".

It is increasingly clear that a Serbian boycott would be self defeating, as the election would still be seen as legitimate even without their participation. The Serbs stand only to lose their elected representatives in Kosovo's new parliament, who may be best placed to carry on the fight for their rights.

Vesna Bjekic is a regular IWPR contributor.

Serbia, Kosovo
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