Wooing Serb voters in Kosovo

UN officials extended the registration deadline for a fall vote through this week, but Serbs are not showing up.

In a spacious room with pale blue walls, a polished wood floor, and tables covered with neatly stacked forms, United Nations workers wait patiently to register Serb voters in preparation for October elections in Kosovo.

They've had a long wait. Since registration started on May 18, not one Serb has come in.

Ognjan Todic, whose job is to check identification papers, plays chess in a corner. A few younger men lounge on the front steps, ogling the girls walking by. There is not a lot of paper-pushing here.

In just three months, the UN plans to hold what it has heralded as the first free elections in Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia that came under UN administration more than a year ago. The elections, for local officials, will be the second big step in turning the governance of the province over to the people who live here.

But bringing democracy to Kosovo, a region still scarred by war and divided by ethnic hatred, is not so simple. Majority ethnic Albanians have turned out in large numbers, eager for the chance to choose their own leaders after a decade of Serbian repression. The registration also will be used for things like identification cards and travel documents, which the UN hopes to begin issuing later this summer.

But Serbs have boycotted it, complaining that the UN has failed to make progress on two issues that concern them most: protection from ethnic Albanian revenge attacks, and the return of more than 150,000 Serb refugees who fled last year. "We're simply not able to go into elections because we don't have basic human rights," says the Rev. Sava Janjic, one of a small group of Serb leaders who have cooperated in other ways with the UN.

The depth of Serb defiance was illustrated this week as violence broke out again in Mitrovica, the ethnically divided town in northern Kosovo. On Monday, police arrested a Serb for burning Albanian cars. Serbs responded by stoning the UN police station and briefly kidnapping an officer. Although French troops eventually resolved the conflict, the demonstrations continued Tuesday, with thousands of Serbs setting up roadblocks around Mitrovica.

Only about 100,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo, less than 10 percent of the population, and Western officials have vowed that the October vote will go ahead with or without them. "If people voluntarily opt out, do not want to join, then it's their choice and they have to be blamed for it," says Daan Everts, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's highest official in Kosovo.

At the same time, the Serb recalcitrance underscores the West's inability to break the grip of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Western officials widely blame the boycott on pressure from Belgrade and radical Serbs. Last week in Leposavic, Nenad Radosavljevic, a factory manager, urged Serbs in his community to register. Mr. Radosavljevic was promptly expelled from the Serb National Council, an organization of Serb leaders in northern Kosovo. On Saturday, a group of Serbs from Mitrovica traveled to his town and effectively closed the registration station.

By holding local elections, the UN is attempting to change the distribution of power. It has required, for example, that a third of the top candidates be women. In addition, it is trying to shift authority from the central government, to help minority communities attain added cultural and language rights.

Ethnic Albanian leaders wanted the UN to hold provincial elections this year. But the UN hopes that by holding local elections now and postponing a wider vote, it can give Kosovars what UN spokeswoman Nadia Younes calls "a taste of the democratic system." Perhaps more important, the UN hopes to give moderate Albanian leaders a chance to weaken the grip of radical Albanians.

Serbs are not the only ones boycotting the election. Most of Kosovo's ethnic Turks, who number about 15,000, also have refused to register. They want Turkish to be one of the official languages of Kosovo, in addition to Serbian and Albanian.

It's not clear what effect the boycotts will have on Kosovo's 30 municipalities. Regulations now being drafted give Kosovo's UN administrator broad powers, including the right to appoint local officials where they have not been elected. But one UN official says the world body may not want to reward Serb leaders. "We might want to let them feel a little bit their nonparticipation," he says.

Western officials tried to convince Serb leaders that taking part would demonstrate both to the West and to ethnic Albanians that they were committed to being a part of Kosovo. "Registration is a recognition of your cause," says OSCE official Mr. Everts. "So don't wait for all your conditions to be met and then register. That's putting the horse behind the wagon."

But this argument had little effect, least of all in Lipjan, a small town divided between Serbs and ethnic Albanians. Officials estimate that more than 5,000 local Serbs are eligible to register, but even the Serb staff at the registration station declined the opportunity. "We want first for our refugees to come back," says Aleksandar, a young man who would give only his first name.

Half-a-mile away, a station for ethnic Albanians had registered more than 7,500 people, getting about 50 a day as the registration period drew to a close.

"We'd like to see a government headed by Kosovars," says Arijan Qorrolli, a computer student.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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