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.
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.
The website of B92, an independent Serbian radio station, reports from Brussels that the European Union is preparing for fresh talks on Kosovo. The EU representative to a three-party contact group that includes Russia and the US is due to report back to European ministers on Nov. 19 as international pressure grows to find a diplomatic solution for Kosovo.
Javier Solana and Wolfgang Ischinger met Sunday in Brussels to prepare for the next round of Kosovo status talks. The EU foreign policy chief and the Union's representative to the Contact Group Troika held detailed discussions on the current negotiations, with the aim of "preparing" a debate among EU foreign ministers on Kosovo and a new round of negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina in Brussels.
Solana's spokeswoman Christina Gallach told Beta news agency that "the stance of the European Union is that the negotiations on the status of Kosovo must go forward, even though the European twenty-seven are conscious of the difficulties and the fact that hitherto there has been very little progress."
"But now that the elections in Kosovo have been held, we need to enter the final phase of the process, which must lead to the establishment of Kosovo's status," Gallach said.
In an analysis written before the weekend elections, the British Broadcasting Corp. says that Kosovo would likely declare unilateral independence if the UN fails to break the deadlock next month over its status. The US and some European countries would probably recognize Kosovo, but Russia is strongly opposed. Russia earlier vetoed a UN mediator's proposal to support "supervised independence" for Kosovo. But the divisions over Kosovo's future extend to Europe, too.
There could also be a secondary crisis within the EU, if a unanimous position cannot be found. At the moment, it looks as if there would be a split.
Britain, France and Germany are expected to lead the way calling for recognition but Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia have all indicated that they would need UN approval first.
The EU seeks to formulate a joint foreign policy, but if no common position can be found, states can go their own way.
Behind the political divisions, Kosovo has religious splits: Ethnic Albanians are mostly Muslims; ethnic Serbs are mostly Orthodox Christians. Serbs opposed to independence emphasize its importance to the Serb Orthodox church, reports Al Jazeera.net. But claims that militant Islam could penetrate an independent Kosovo seem to be far-fetched.
Alexander Anderson, the Kosovo project leader for the International Crisis Group, says that some Serbs had been using religion to undermine talks on the future status of the region.
"We have a constant drip, drip of statements about Serbs being under threat and attacks on Serb Orthodox sites," he said.
"One also hears talk about the risk of Kosovo being at risk of becoming a new base for al-Qaeda in the region, it is all very exaggerated."
Three religions - Islam, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism - have long existed together in Kosovo.
A large majority of Kosovo Albanians consider themselves, at least nominally, to be Muslim, while a small minority, about 60,000 people, are Roman Catholic.
Most Kosovo Serbs, even those who are not active religious believers, consider Orthodoxy to be an important component of their national identity.