In what many see as a popular referendum on independence from Yugoslavia, majority ethnic Albanians in Kosovo go to the polls tomorrow to choose municipal leaders in the Serbian province's first-ever internationally supervised elections.
But minority Serbs plan to boycott the vote, in part to protest attacks against them, 16 months after American-led NATO airstrikes sought to reverse the "ethnic cleansing" of Albanians by Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic.
The significance of the vote - and of Kosovo's final status - has been thrust to the top of the Balkan agenda this week. Yugoslavia's new president, Vojislav Kostunica, has conceded that Serbs committed war crimes in Kosovo - but also insists that Yugoslav troops must be allowed to return to the province, if only symbolically.
But a report commissioned by the United Nations on Monday recommended eventual independence for Kosovo if certain conditions - such as guaranteed safety for minorities - are met. "It's not realistic or justifiable to expect the Albanians in Kosovo to accept rule from Belgrade," the report said.
"They don't want to live together anymore. I'm very sorry for that, but this is my personal, day-to-day reality," says Bernard Kouchner, the UN's top official in Kosovo.
"This is normal after centuries of confrontation. You cannot change it, as if with a miracle, in 16 months," says Mr. Kouchner, the former French minister. "How long has it taken in Beirut, Cyprus, in Londonderry [Northern Ireland]?"
The divisiveness that prevails is easy to see in Mitrovica, a city split along ethnic lines. Despite the presence of heavily armed French peacekeeping troops to prevent ethnic Albanian retaliation against Serbs, a bridge over the Ibar River linking the two sides is a regular flashpoint.
Skendar Hoti could be called one of the sparks. Three times in the past year, he pushed the limits of tolerance by setting up an office for his firmly pro-independence Albanian political party on the northern, Serb side of town. Three times, that office was burned to the ground. "There is no democracy in even one Serb," he says. "They never showed a shred of proclivity to live with other people."
Serb officials dismiss Mr. Hoti as a provocateur. After weapons were found in one office, he was detained briefly by UN police. Now he is prohibited from visiting the north.
"He put a red [Kosovo Albanian] flag in the north," says Oliver Ivanovic, a Serb community leader in Mitrovica. "It's like waving a [matador's] cape in front of a bull.
"Nationalism is a destructive force, and they are playing the nationalist card," adds Mr. Ivanovic, a moderate.
But Albanians are wary of the new president, a moderate nationalist, and concerned that Western aid money once destined for Kosovo might go to bolster Mr. Kostunica's pro-democracy position. "People in Kosovo are afraid because of the changes, and some politicians say it was better with Milosevic," says Baton Haxhiu, editor of Koha Ditore, Kosovo's largest-selling Albanian-language newspaper. "But this means they are not ready to be face to face with democratic Serbia. Kostunica has toppled Milosevic, but he has not changed Serbia. Now we have 'rational nationalists.' "
Moreover, the "substantial autonomy" called for by the UN Security Council decisions also require, eventually, the presence of federal Yugoslav troops - the same forces responsible for last year's ethnic-cleansing campaign that prompted NATO's involvement.
But "It is a provocation" for Yugoslav troops to return anytime soon," the UN's Kouchner says. "Kostunica knows they would be killed, that it would start a bloodbath."
He goes on to say that "Serbs have to discover that [Albanian] Kosovars are not criminals or terrorists. They are people."
Tomorrow's vote comes as Kosovo's final status is again in the spotlight. Meeting other Balkan leaders in the Macedonian capital of Skopje, Kostunica said on Tuesday that he sees a "symbolic presence of the Army [in Kosovo] and one day, when the situation allows it, the issue of the return will come up on the agenda."
In an interview with CBS's "60 Minutes II" that aired Tuesday, he also admitted that Serbs were involved in atrocities in Kosovo and during three other Balkan wars of the past decade. Milosevic and four senior officials have been indicted for war crimes by the international tribunal in The Hague. "For what Milosevic had done, and as a Serb, I will take responsibility for many of these, these crimes," Kostunica said.
Kosovo's election pits Ibrahim Rugova - a longtime pacifist, who was tarnished by a wartime meeting with Milosevic - against three main parties that emerged from armed factions of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian guerrilla force. KLA commanders hurt their reputation in the months after the NATO air campaign by abusing civilians, forcibly extracting taxes, and other unpopular acts of thuggery. "The vote is for legitimacy, to know who is who in Kosovo," says Mr. Haxhiu, the newspaper editor.
The vote is likely to help clarify Kosovo's future, though many problems remain, says Llazar Semini, head of the Kosovo office of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, in Pristina. "At the moment, all Albanians will say: 'There should be no Serbs here.' But if you ask: 'Why? Has every Serb committed a crime?' they will say 'No, not every individual.' "
The risk of failure is high. The UN's Kouchner says he believes the "way ahead" is the continued presence of 36,000 NATO-led troops in Kosovo, huge economic assistance, and "substantial autonomy."
"This is what we have to do if we want to avoid a Middle East conflict, a new Palestinian crisis, in the heart of Europe," he said.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society