Kosovo Serbs Snub Election Appeal

Kosovo Albanians are urging local Serbs to participate in forthcoming municipal elections, but their appeals are likely to be ignored.

Kosovo Serbs Snub Election Appeal

Kosovo Albanians are urging local Serbs to participate in forthcoming municipal elections, but their appeals are likely to be ignored.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Twice a week Serbs from the Gjilan municipality meet in the courtyard of an Orthodox church, where they wait for a KFOR troops to ferry them to Pristina.

While they wait, they shop at a nearby Albanian-run food store. They chat with its owner about their lives, many expressing the hope that one day both communities will be able to live together again.

"We are neighbours and there should not be any problem between us," said Svetlanka, a Serb pensioner.

Yet when the Serbs are asked whether they will vote in forthcoming municipal elections, their mood distinctly changes. "It's up to our leaders to decide that," snapped Svetlanka. Others are more categoric, insisting they'll have no truck with the ballot.

The Gjilan municipality is one of dozens of Serb enclaves in Kosovo. Impoverished and vulnerable to Albanian revenge attacks, tens of thousands of the inhabitants of these KFOR-protected ghettoes have fled to Serbia proper since the Yugoslav army withdrew from Kosovo last year.

The 100,000 or so who remain see the elections as the latest step towards Albanian independence - something they refuse to countenance.

Most said they voted for Slobodan Milosevic in the recent Yugoslav presidential elections hoping he would send his army back to Kosovo. They might just as well have voted for his successor, Vojislav Kostunica, as this week a senior figure in his Democratic Opposition of Serbia Alliance, DOS, pledged to do the same.

"Between now and the end of the year we will return 1,200 of our [Serb] police and our Yugoslav soldiers to the border with Albania, " said DOS official Zoran Djindjic.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe blamed the Milosevic regime for the Kosovo Serb boycott of voter registration for the local elections. The head of the OSCE in Kosovo, Dan Everts, said the Belgrade authorities had used the threat of long-term retaliation against Serbs who wanted to register.

The civilian head of the UN Mission in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, recently said that around a 1,000 Serbs attempted to do so, but many were intimidated by fellow Serbs taking their orders from Belgrade.

Given that Kostunica appears to be no less hostile to the idea of Kosovo running its own affairs, he is unlikely to encourage local Serbs to take part in the poll.

With the exception of some extremists, most ordinary Albanians, however would welcome Serb participation in the elections, believing this would ease tensions between the two communities.

"They're having a very bad time at the moment," said Tasim, an elderly Albanian. "But they if they vote they would help to move Kosovo forward and, as a result, their living conditions would improve."

Many Albanians share this view. There is a sense that a new environment has been created in post-war Kosovo, one in which all the province's inhabitants - be they Albanian, Serb or any other nationality - should consider themselves Kosovar citizens.

Some local Albanian leaders believe the democratisation of the province hinges on Serbs voting in the poll.

"We think the Serb minority should be involved in post-war Kosovo development," said Ismail Kurteshi, the leader of the local Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK. "They should get involved in the municipal ballot because this is the only way of restoring normal life and helping democracy to blossom."

The problem with the pre-election campaigning thus far, however, is that it suggests that the poll is effectively a referendum on independence - an instant turn-off for the Serbs. Politicians have spoken of little else, while the sort of local issues and problems Serbs might have a vested interest in resolving, such as poor schools, badly equipped hospitals and business closures, have been largely overlooked.

Ridvan Berisha is a Kosovo Albanian journalist.

Albania, Serbia, Kosovo
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