Kosovo Serbs Drop Poll Objections

Under pressure from Belgrade, Kosovo Serbs are coming around to registering for forthcoming provincial elections.

Kosovo Serbs Drop Poll Objections

Under pressure from Belgrade, Kosovo Serbs are coming around to registering for forthcoming provincial elections.

Thursday, 20 September, 2001

A campaign of not always gentle persuasion by the Serbian and Yugoslav governments is eroding a Serb boycott of the November elections in Kosovo. At the beginning of September, only a few thousand Kosovo Serbs had registered to vote; now the number has risen to around 100,000 - about half their total number.

Most Serbs oppose the election of a parliament and president for Kosovo, which is currently an international protectorate. Demographics dictate that any assembly will inevitably be Albanian-dominated. Serbs view this as further consolidation of Albanian power and a first step to independence, which they vehemently oppose. Election boycotts are not new to the province - under Milosevic, the Albanian majority consistently refused to go to the polls, after the province was stripped of its autonomous status.

There are around 100,000 displaced Kosovo Serbs. About the same number remain in the province, living in scattered enclaves. Their freedom of movement is severely restricted and they are afraid to use their language in the streets and public institutions. Many regard the elections as window dressing on the part of the international community, which, they believe, has signally failed to improve their security or living conditions.

"The international community manipulates us without solving a single one of our problems," complained Slavisa, a Serb from Gracanica. "And the Serbian authorities have shown yet again how they will squander our destiny to score political points. They are courting us now, while they are trying to appease the West, but once the election is over they will turn their backs again."

Faced with an orchestrated Serb boycott which threatened to undermine the legitimacy of the elections, the international community - here in the form of UNMIK and the OSCE - decided to delay the voter registration deadline from September 8 for two weeks.

Then, on September 5, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church appealed both to Serbs within Kosovo and the displaced Kosovo Serbs in Serbia and Montenegro, to vote in order to defend their rights.

The Serbian government is also working hard to persuade Kosovo Serbs to vote - a challenge made harder by the fact that most of them were died-in the-wool Milosevic supporters. Milosevic championed the Kosovo Serb cause to fuel his rise to power, but also kept their votes by guaranteeing their security and jobs.

Many Kosovo Serbs who oppose the registration say that their participation in the election will only confirm the "success of international mission in the province", without really improving the conditions under which they live.

In the event that Kosovo Serbs refuse to vote, UN chief Hans Haekkerup would himself nominate 10 Serb representatives to the 120 seat parliament. If all eligible Serbs cast their votes, however, they could elect up to 30 representatives.

To this end, a Yugoslav Coordination Team in Kosovo has been appointed, headed by Serb deputy president Nebojsa Covic, widely respected for his role in brokering peace between Serbs and Albanians in the Presevo valley.

Covic has joined ranks with the UNMIK administration in Kosovo in exhorting Serbs to register, backed by a media campaign both in Serbia and the international protectorate.

Kosovo Serbs are being told that if nothing else, their participation in the registration will function as a kind of census, to pin down exactly how many of them still live in Kosovo and enable more effective lobbying on their behalf. This argument was put forward by the Serbian Commissioner of Refugees, Sandra Raskovic, during her visit to Pristina on September 6.

But the Serb authorities are not relying solely on converting hearts and minds. Those whose salaries are paid from Serbia's budget face more direct "persuasion", as some who refuse to register have found their salaries withheld. "What kind of blackmail is this? When I went to pick up my salary in the Serbian government office in Gracanica, they demanded a registration certificate," said Miomir Bulatovic. A miner currently unable to work for security reasons, he has been receiving a government salary - until now. "They said without the certificate I cannot be paid. This, after 32 years of work - it makes me bitter," he said.

Local responses to the registration campaign have been heavily influenced by community leaders. For example, Serbs in the Gracanica enclave outside Pristina have heeded a call from their bishop, Artemije, who has signalled his willingness to take part in the ballot and urged his flock to follow suit. "This will show the real number of Serbs still in Kosovo and how many have left," he argued.

Similarly, registration numbers doubled in the Leposavic enclave after community leader Nenad Radosavljevic urged his compatriots to go to the polls.

In Kosovska Mitrovica, however, local Serbian leader Marko Jaksic dismisses the election as yet another attempt by the international community to deceive the Serbian community. He says existing documentation already testified to the Serb presence in Kosovo. Convinced that the formation of a Kosovo assembly will be a first step to independence, Jaksic told IWPR that the ballot therefore breached UN resolution 1244, which states that Kosovo is part of Yugoslavia.

Opposing Jaksic is Olivier Ivanovic, the former leader of Kosovska Mitrovica, who has urged his compatriots to take part in the election process. However, having lost influence precisely because of his perceived support for the international community, it seems unlikely that many will now heed his call.

Despite local divisions, Serb registration has definitely picked up in recent weeks. The OSCE spokeswoman in Pristina, Claire Trevena, has confirmed that so far around 130,000 non-Albanian voters have registered across Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro - most of whom are believed to be Serb, as the province's other minorities are small in number.

It is difficult to get a more precise estimate of Serb participation. Despite the huge anxiety over minority registration and voting, without which the credibility of the November 17 election would be severely undermined, the OSCE resolutely refuses to record ethnicity on voting registration lists: elections, it insists are for voters, not nationalities.

Vesna Bojicic is a journalist with Voice of America in Pristina.

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