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Kosovo's leader-elect eyes independence as U.N. deadline nears

With Russia and Serbia opposed to independent status, the European Union looks likely to split on the issue.

By / November 19, 2007

A former rebel leader is expected to become Kosovo's next prime minister following parliamentary elections on Saturday. Hashim Thaci would need to form a coalition government after failing to win a majority, according to unofficial tallies. Whatever the final outcome, all Kosovo politicians favor independence for the territory, which has been administered since 1999 by the United Nations and secured by NATO peacekeepers.

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Mr. Thaci has promised to declare independence next month from Serbia. Some Western powers favor an independent, self-governing Kosovo, but Serbia and Russia object strongly to such a move. International mediators are due to report to the UN Security Council on Kosovo on Dec. 10 on proposals for Kosovo's status, and the looming deadline has opened a diplomatic rift in the heart of Europe.

Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo won 34 percent of the unofficial vote, ahead of the incumbent Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) with 22 percent, reports the Financial Times. Party leaders had vowed at the start of the campaign to form a new government quickly in order not to delay their bid for independence.

All ethnic Albanian parties share the goal of independence, but most of them refrained from arguing over the date it should be declared during election campaigning…. Mr Thaci says he is determined to form a government quickly but he can only do so with coalition partners. The simplest way would be make a deal with the LDK, if the two parties can agree on how to share power. Otherwise, Mr Thaci must rely on multiple smaller parties, and negotiations over cabinet seats could drag on beyond the end of the year, political analysts in Pristina, the provisional capital, say.

Disgruntled voters stayed away from the polls, the Associated Press reports. As in past elections, the territory's Serb minority boycotted the vote on orders from their national leaders, adding to the low turnout.

Ethnic Albanians have watched with increasing skepticism as their leaders have failed to achieve independence from Serbia. The economy, meanwhile, is in shambles, jobs are scarce and power outages are plentiful.
The Council of Europe said the elections were in line with European standards, but it was troubled by the low voter turnout of 43 percent.
"We are alarmed by the very low turnout and we have to ask ourselves why it is so low," said Doris Pack, a member of the council's 150-member monitoring team. She said it was a reflection of the population's disappointment with elected officials.

Born in 1968, Thaci went to university in Switzerland before returning to become a leader in the Kosovo Liberation Army, fighting against Serb rule during the 1990s. Reuters says that he attended peace talks in France in 1999 to try to settle the disputed status of Kosovo.

At peace talks in Rambouillet, France, in 1999, Thaci famously refused intense pressure from then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to sign an agreement that fell short of Kosovo's demand for a referendum on independence. Back in Kosovo, the KLA was against the deal. But Thaci eventually relented and signed. Serbia refused, and weeks later NATO launched a bombing campaign to drive out Serb forces.

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said Sunday that a European proposal for a "neutral status" for Kosovo was unacceptable and tantamount to declaring independence, Xinhua reports. He said international mediators should consider "maximum autonomy" for Kosovo within Serbia – a solution also favored by Russia – and warned against unilateral independence.

"And if the result of the negotiations has been determined in advance and this means that Kosovo will be independent one way or another, then one can count in advance on Serbia's answer saying that this is a brutal policy of force which will bring nothing good to anybody and which will never force Serbia to give up 15 percent of its territory," Kostunica concluded.