Seeds of hope are sprouting in Kosovo

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In a Pristina cafe, a wise, urban-chic Kosovar woman explained why the party in power won the recent municipal elections, as it has for the last eight years: "It's the cat and dog theory: If you have a cat and it dies, you get another cat. If you have a dog and it runs away, you get another dog."

Balkan pundits prefer more complicated theories. They also see no easy solutions to the poignant issues: independence versus remaining a province of Serbia; and how to retain human rights for the Serbs and other minorities. However, seeds for resolution of these problems are an taking root in the daily events of Kosovo.

The mere act of voting on Oct. 28 was one of these seeds. As an international election observer for the municipal elections, the obvious winner to me was each and every voter. This was their first free, fair, and legal election ever. For them, the reality of voting mattered more than the results of the elections, particularly when all parties are advocating for independence. Sure, citizens of Kosovo had voted before. But under Communist rule, and then Serb oppression, the outcome of the vote was predetermined - neither free nor fair. Since the early '90s, when Kosovo developed a shadow government parallel to Serb rule, the elections were held in homes and garages and lacked official status.

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This year, on voting day, the crisp fall day complemented the excitement and expectation in the air. It felt as if all were preparing for a wedding. Here are verbal snapshots from Polling Station 13, one of 16 in a polling center in Urosevac:

* People waiting up to five hours in order to vote, with a line of police - arms interlocked - barricading the doors of the center to control the flow of this literal mob of people.

* People dressing up in their best clothes, and a young man shunning a friend for wearing blue jeans.

* Curious children tagging behind parents, who in turn were assisting their parents in voting.

* A note on the ballot, "Thank you for this opportunity."

* The last vote cast at 11 p.m., three hours after the official close, because the line was so long.

* The local polling-station workers persisting until dawn of the next day, despite the absence of heat and water at the center and only a dim light by which to count the votes.

This was just one polling station. Multiply these passions by more than 1,000, all across Kosovo, and one can feel the confidence building among the voters. Moreover, the Balkan pundits consider that the success in holding these municipal elections has set the stage for national ones, scheduled for next spring. It is not that these elections will resolve the issue of independence, but they will establish national institutions.

The participants in the election were the Albanian population, known as the Kosovars. What effect does the lack of Serb participation have on their and other minorities' rights?

Another wise young woman in Pristina encouragingly spoke to the issue of reconciliation among Serbs, other minorities, and the Kosovars. She related a chilling experience of a conversation she, a Kosovar, had with a Serb. He shared his pain from an experience in the war. She listened. Then she spoke of a painful experience she had had. Now they have regular conversations. Discussions like these can achieve an understanding, which leads to taking responsibility. Finally, reconciliation can happen. Although this is a long, slow process, it is another seed of hope.

A key element in providing time for the country to heal is the international community. It has been a pervasive presence since the so-called "cessation of hostilities." As a point of clarification, this term only marks a date on the calendar: June 10, 1999, when NATO stopped bombing, and when the Serbian armed forces initiated their evacuation. The hostilities between Serbs and Kosovars have not ceased. After centuries of conflict, the hatred is deep and seething. Lacking NATO's armed forces - known as KFOR - to protect one from the other, the people would undoubtedly reach a final settlement on the independence issue, with guns. An additional concern is that similar angry repercussions could boil over into the neighboring countries.

The other important role of the international community is its recognition and support of the locals' capabilities. Only recently did members of the international community start listening to, as opposed to talking to, the locals. Furthermore, thanks to the force of the women, some of the most instrumental foreigners have changed their attitudes. They acknowledge the Kosovars' capacities instead of treating them as victims.

The Kosovars have a track record from the 10 years of Serb oppression: They competently took control of their lives by operating a shadow government - complete with education, health, welfare, and the private sector. (Credit goes to the Serbs for allowing this to happen.) The Kosovars' desire to participate actively in the rebuilding, similar to their participation in the elections, is another well-planted seed.

Janet Hunkel, director of the Harvard Ukrainian Business Initiative, was an international election supervisor in Kosovo.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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