Democracy faces test in troubled Kosovo

In a historic vote Saturday, Yugoslav province elects a new assembly.

The people of Kosovo cast ballots in their first multi-ethnic elections Saturday, in a vote that majority Albanians hope - and minority Serbs fear - could nudge the deeply divided Yugoslav province toward eventual independence.

Voters will choose legislators to govern them alongside the UN administrators and 38,000-member NATO-led peacekeeping force who have run Kosovo since 1999. The peacekeepers - including 5,000 American troops - arrived after Serb forces withdrew from the province, following a Western bombing campaign and ground invasion to end a crackdown on ethnic Albanian civilians that killed thousands of civilians and left many others homeless.

Hans Haekkerup, the Danish UN governor of Kosovo, says the elections are designed to give the province a "wide measure of autonomy" by choosing 120 legislators, who will then choose a president, forming a provincial government. But the question of whether the province of 2 million will become independent from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia remains open.

As the three ethnic Albanian parties see it, however, the elections are a steppingstone to independence from a new, democratic Yugoslav government that has not renounced sovereignty over the province, despite the demise of former president Slobodan Milosevic.

In February, Milosevic will stand trial for his alleged role in ordering "ethnic cleansing" by Serb paramilitaries in Kosovo in 1998-1999.

The current Yugoslav President, Vojislav Kostunica, is encouraging Kosovo's Serbs to participate in the elections. They boycotted polls for local governments that were held in October 2000.

President Kostunica, a moderate nationalist, says that voting for the 10 seats in the assembly that have been set aside for Serbs will help Serbs who fled the province during and after NATO's intervention to return home. Since the UN and NATO took charge of Kosovo, up to 200,000 Serbs have fled Kosovo. Scores were killed in revenge attacks by the Kosovo Liberation Army, and 1,300 are missing, feared dead.

Hardliners loyal to Milosevic's Serbian Socialist Party are urging Serbs not to cast ballots, claiming they will be rubber-stamping Albanian plans for declaring independence in the new assembly.

Ethnic violence in Kosovo has diminished since Milosevic was ousted. The Bush administration has indicated it would like to cut the number of US troops deployed in the Balkans, and officials at the US office in Pristina, the battered Kosovo capital, are watching the election closely, diplomatic sources say.

If the moderate pacifist leader Ibrahim Rugova and his Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) party win the elections, as opinion polls suggest is likely, it could provide an argument for Pentagon analysts who favor at least scaling down the deployment at Camp Bondsteel, the sprawling American base in central Kosovo that US forces occupied with the blessing of the KLA, the sources say.

But other experts, such as Christian Jennings, a British Pristina-based defense analyst who is writing a book about Kosovo, believe that the US presence will not be affected by the outcome of the polls. "While there are still fears about the future of Macedonia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia such as Montenegro, as well as uncertainty over Kosovo itself, the Americans are here to stay for the foreseeable future," Jennings says.

Nevertheless, many ethnic Albanians in Kosovo remain anxious that Sept. 11 may have heralded a diversion of US attention away from the Balkans.

"Freedom was brought to us by America," said Haxhi Elmika, a Kosovar waiting for midday prayer to begin in the US-run sector of the province. "We like other countries too, but we want the Americans here, we need them. If they leave, war will start again."

Some 1.2 million people have registered to vote Saturday. The UN estimates that 83 percent are Albanian and 12 to 13 percent Serb.

Although peacekeeping troops have mounted extra security as the election approaches, some violence has occurred. On Oct. 20, suspected extremist Albanian gunmen shot and killed two moderate Kosovars linked to Rugova.

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