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Kosovo Serbs Threatening Poll Boycott

West is anxious to persuade Kosovo Serbs to take part in November elections.
By Vesna Bojicic

Bitterly divided over their cooperation with the international community, Kosovo Serbs are waiting for a clear message from Serbia as to whether they should take part in crucial general elections in the UN-administed province later this year.

The recent appointment of Western favorite, Serbian deputy prime minister, Nebojsa Covic, as head of the Yugoslav Coordination Team, represents a major shift in Belgrade's policy towards the region.

For the moment, though, the Serbian government's official position is that conditions for Serb participation in the ballot, which will election a parliament and president for the entity, have not been met. If the minority boycotts the poll, it will be left with no legal representatives for the next three years.

Kosovo Serb representatives say that member of their community lacks basic security, are afraid to use their language in the streets or public institutions, and have next to no freedom of movement.

Since the arrival of NATO forces in June 1999, 1,360 Serbs have been kidnapped, according to the Committee for Missing Persons in Gracanica, a statistic that the UN Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, has yet to confirm.

Five women are in critical condition, and a further ten are under medical observation, following a ten-day hunger strike aimed at drawing world attention to the fate of the missing Serbs. On July 24, over 2,000 people in the Serbian enclave of Gracanica, near Pristina, attened a rally to urge an international investigation into the disappearances. They carried pictures of their missing relatives in what amounted to the largest rally in two years.

UNMIK has also failed to confirm the number of Kosovo Serbs killed since June 1999. The missing persons committee claims that 1,200 have lost their lives, but a Serbian organization Political Committee for Defense of Northern Kosovo in Kosovska Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, believes 300 more have perished.

Two factions have emerged among the remaining Serbs. A Gracanica-based group maintains that cooperation with the international community in Kosovo could prove beneficial to their dwindling community. While a Kosovska Mitrovica contingent argues that a refusal to do so will compel Western officials to improve their living conditions.

Both factions have called on the international community to repatriate an estimated 250,000 Serbs expelled during and after the Kosovo conflict, and provide security guarantees for the 100,000 or so who have remained.

The real test for both these groups and Covic are the elections scheduled for November 17. The international community wants him to convince the Serbs to take part - so far only a small number of their representatives are prepared to even consider this. The Gracanica-based Serbian National Council of Kosovo and Metohija, SNV KM, is one.

"I absolutely support cooperation with the international community and its active mediation in the Serbian-Albanian relations," said party member Rada Trajkovic, one of four temporary observers on the Interim Administrative Council of Kosovo and Metohija, IACK. "I believe that the international community will contribute to the establishment of democracy in Kosovo."

Serb leaders in northern Kosovo vehemently condemn this position and what they perceive as the SNV KM's "collaboration" with the IACK. They left the SNV KM over the issue in 1999, going on to form the Serbian National Council of Northern Kosovo, SNV SK, based in Kosovska Mitrovica.

The Serb and Kosovar communities in Kosovska Mitrovica glare at one another across the River Ibar and skirmishes between them are frequent.

The SNV SK's relations with the international military forces are more confrontational than cooperative. Serious incidents have occurred with several killed on both sides. Last month, when UNMIK set up a customs post on the administrative border with Serbia, northern Serbs set up barricades.

Two Serbs died and a third had his hand and foot blown off when KFOR troops broke up the protests. A French soldier died from his injuries at the end of last year, when KFOR attempted to confiscate a Serb's weapons.

Regardless of party affiliation, cooperation with the international community is considered absolutely unacceptable in the Mitrovica enclave. "The exodus of 250,000 Serbs from Kosovo, daily attacks on the Serbian community, denial of basic human rights, the right to use our mother tongue, freedom of movement," SNV SK's former chairman, Oliver Ivanovic told IWPR, "are just some of the reasons for the boycott of the international community."

But even Ivanovic was considered too "soft" by most northern Serbs. They took offence to his involvement in talks with international officials on the return of Serbs to Kosovo and replaced as SNV SK's chairman.

When President Vojislav Kostunica came to power, he first appointed Momcilo Trajkovic from the Serbian Renewal Movement to head the Yugoslav Committee for Cooperation with UNMIK. However, Trajkovic's position is similar to those Serbs from northern Mitrovica, who are opposed to working with Western officials.

If Covic's task is to reconcile the Serbs and convince them to take part in November elections, he faces an uphill struggle. Any talk of elections is certain to ignite disputes among Kosovo Serbs. Rada Trajkovic is one of the few local Serb politicians to have so far accepted the principle of participation.

For years, Kosovo Serbs looked towards Serbia as a source of security and jobs. For a decade, Slobodan Milosevic and the Socialist Party of Serbia enjoyed a monopoly over their votes. Those who remained after NATO troops arrived in 1999 were dispersed in enclaves, exposed to persistent attack, and are completely unfamiliar with a genuine multi-party system.

But, in the long term, Covic might see some success if he can negotiate real guarantees for Kosovo Serb rights.

Vesna Bojicic is the VOA Pristina correspondent

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