Kosovo: Voting For Independence

In Kosovo’s first election since the end of Yugoslav rule, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian residents chose local officials today from among thousands of candidates with a single message — Kosovo demands independence.

The vote illustrated the deep ethnic divides in this Serbian province where ethnic Albanians vastly outnumber Serbs. Ethnic Albanians have anticipated the election as a first step toward their dream of independence from the main Yugoslav republic. However, Kosovo’s estimated 80,000 Serbs boycotted the polls, fearing the election would weaken ties to Yugoslavia.

Only 1,000 Serbs registered to vote, compared with more than 900,000 ethnic Albanians.

Voters guarded by thousands of NATO-led peacekeepers and U.N. police lined up early today to choose members of municipal councils from among more than 5,000 candidates. Each of the 20 political parties — all of them ethnic Albanian — claimed it was best prepared to bring about independence from Yugoslavia. Albanian flags were displayed outside most of the polling stations.

Vote For Independence

“I have come to vote … for Kosovo’s independence,” said 67-year-old Adem Ademi, who showed up an hour before the polls opened to be at the front of the line.

Election officials said preliminary results will not be known before Monday evening, and official results are expected to be announced in eight to 12 days.

Former rebel leader Hashim Thaci, now head of a leading ethnic Albanian political party, said he hoped the election would convince the world that Kosovars can govern themselves and “that Kosovo should be given the right to independence.”

The United Nations says Kosovo is still a part of Serbia. The contradiction between U.N. policy and the aspirations of the overwhelming majority here illustrates the dilemma facing the United States and its allies. They are trying to satisfy the new, democratic government in Belgrade, which wants to keep a strong hold on Kosovo, and the aspirations of the estimated 2 million ethnic Albanians here, who still want independence despite autocratic Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s ouster.

Disorganized Polls

Only three parties stand a realistic chance to win substantial representation in the local councils: those headed by Rugova, Thaci and Ramush Haradinaj, another former leader of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army.

Turnout was reported as being heavy today, and U.N. officials said they might have to extend the voting hours to accommodate everyone who wanted to vote.

But such enthusiasm did not extend to the Serb community, which feels its very existence threatened because NATO has been unable to stop attacks on Serbs by ethnic Albanian militants. A key Serb leader, Oliver Ivanovic, complained the elections are “not at all democratic” because Serbs and other non-Albanians “don’t have conditions to live safely, let alone vote.”

Only a few, minor incidents were reported, most reflecting voter frustration over the slow pace of the balloting. The process was often chaotic, despite months of preparation by the United Nations and the OSCE, Europe’s leading security organization.

Many voters — including the wife of the province’s best-known moderate leader Ibrahim Rugova — were turned away because their names were not on rolls, although they insisted they had registered before the deadline.

In Pristina, multiple precincts were often set up within a single school building. Voters stood for hours in lines, only to be told they should have been in another line leading to another classroom. No signs were available to channel people to the right lines.

Elderly people, many of them barely literate, could not figure out the complicated ballot. OSCE complained that many of its ethnic Albanian precinct staff showed up late for the 7 a.m. opening.

“This is bad organization,” complained Xhevat Nurboja, 58, whose name was not on the registration rolls. “I registered but I cannot vote. I don’t know what I should do.”

“Our staff simply did not show up to work in some locations,” said the American election chief of OSCE, Jeff Fischer.

Nonetheless, U.N. provincial administrator Bernard Kouchner said he was satisfied.

“I am very happy,” Kouchner said. “I met with a lot of people. They voted for the first time in their life in free and democratic conditions.”

Belgrade Citizens Unconcerned

In the late 1980s and 1990s, as Serb repression here intensified, a growing number of ethnic Albanians began agitating for full independence. Milosevic responded in 1998 with a massive crackdown, killing thousands of ethnic Albanians and triggering the 78-day NATO bombing campaign of Yugoslavia.

The bombing ended in June 1999 under an agreement in which Yugoslav forces left the province and handed it over to the United Nations and a NATO-led peacekeeping force.

In Belgrade today, many people appeared uninterested in Kosovo’s election. That may represent a sign that many Serbs have abandoned hope of regaining the province.

Stanislav Lukic, who moved from Kosovo to Belgrade three years ago, said the Americans and Western Europeans “wanted us out of Kosovo, they wanted to run the show, so let them deal with the problems.”

Asked about the Kosovo Serb boycott, Lukic replied: “They are just a handful of desperate people.”