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From the February 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 2)

Elections in Kosovo

For Whom the Doors Open

Ivan Torov, Danas (independent), Belgrade, Yugoslavia, November 24, 2001

A miracle has happened! For the first time since the period of hostility and mutual hatred was declared, Kosovo’s Albanians and Serbs voted in provincial legislative elections on Nov. 17—not in a single line at polling stations, though, but each group in its own courtyard, gazing at each other suspiciously, under the watchful eye of a real army of some 40,000 KFOR officers [NATO-led peacekeeping] soldiers and UNMIK [U.N. administration].

The environment had not seemed democratically ready. However, the elections took place and, more important, there were no serious incidents, if we do not count conflict within Serb political circles and the electorate over whether or not to boycott them.

[Ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim] Rugova is the expected winner; [former ethnic Albanian rebel leader Hashim] Thaci and [a former regional commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army Ramush] Haradinaj were again runners-up, after being defeated in local elections in fall 2000.

According to the prevailing view, the Serb candidates did better than they expected, winning 22 seats in the future Kosovo parliament. They should not be demoralized by being in third position, nor should they nostalgically recall the good old days of one-party rule when they dominated Kosovo. Furthermore, the Serbs have only themselves to blame [as a result of political in-fighting and widespread boycotting of the vote] for failing to come in second behind Rugova’s Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK).

Rugova’s satisfaction with the outcome comes from the fact that, after all the controversy and conflict, he remains what he has been from the very beginning—the leading political figure among Kosovar Albanians. He found an effective formula to survive the obstacles of [former Serbian president Slobodan] Milosevic’s absolutism, of reciprocal ethnic cleansing, of war, and of the proliferation of the most extreme and most militant groups, while managing to retain his basic political conviction—that a solution could be reached only by nonviolent means. So, he outlasted Milosevic, then triumphed over Thaci, Haradinaj, and [Agim] Ceku [a former KLA commander, now head of the Kosovo Protection Corps, the civilian successor to the KLA], attaining the position of the leader who enjoys the trust of the majority of ethnic Albanians.

Rugova is not the same person he was 10 years ago. Events forced him to shift from advocating strengthened Kosovo autonomy to his current position that Kosovo must be independent. Despite this shift, he is still perceived as a moderate, even among the Kosovo Serbs in the Coalition for Return [the only Serbian political group that took part in the elections] and some Belgrade-based politicians, who would gladly see him as a coalition partner.

Now the attention of the Kosovo, Serb-Yugoslav, and international public is focused on what agenda Rugova will push once the parliament is constituted. The question is whether he will keep his promise to ethnic Albanians and declare Kosovo’s independence, despite European and U.S. opposition.

There is little international support for the ethnic Albanian secessionist movement since the Sept.11 tragedy in the United States and subsequent news reports that Osama bin Laden was involved in the Kosovo conflict. [Since the Sept. 11 attacks, there have been unconfirmed reports in the Serbian press about the presence of Al-Qaeda operatives in Kosovo. During the election campaign, for example, Rugova was quoted in the Serbian press as saying that people linked with Bin Laden were and still are in Kosovo.—WPR]

Domestic analysts, however, are more interested in seeing if the LDK leader (and almost certainly the future Kosovo president) will abandon his main opponents Thaci and Haradinaj, or if he will accept the idea of forming a national unity government, which would again push Serbs to the other side of the barricade and anger the international community. [On Dec. 13, Rugova lost a bid for provincial president in the new parliament.—WPR]

A deal with Kosovo Serbs would certainly diminish his stature among ethnic Albanians as a fighter for final liberation from Serb occupation. It would also strengthen resistance within the block of [Albanian] extremists. Cooperation with Thaci would reduce Rugova’s support in the international community, on which he depends. Therefore, many believe that the most probable outcome is a coalition with Haradinaj’s Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, if the party does not condition it with unacceptable demands.

Despite strong pressure from [Serbian] nationalists, who claimed that taking part in the elections would legitimize Kosovo’s independence, the Serbian side has good reasons to be satisfied with the outcome. Serbia has created institutional forms of participation and influence on future developments in Kosovo by making a deal with [UNMIK chief Hans] Haekkerup and winning a relevant number of parliamentary seats. They have avoided marginalization [of Serbs in Kosovo], and the only question is whether Belgrade will be persistent and patient.

By taking part in the elections, by refraining from bellicose, nationalistic rhetoric, and by cooperating with the world, the Serbian side has managed to gain international credibility for its perspective on the Kosovo problem. In the period following the Kumanovo agreement [On June 10, 1999, Belgrade representatives signed an agreement with NATO in the Macedonian town of Kumanovo to withdraw Yugoslav police and army forces from Kosovo.—WPR] and the entry of NATO troops into the province, Belgrade believed that Kosovo was lost forever.

[Serbian leaders in Belgrade] will make a strategic mistake if they start to believe that the story of losing Kosovo now has a happy ending. That would throw the conflict between Serbs and Albanians back to its very beginning.

The worst-case scenario would be if Serbs again underestimate Albanians, reviving myths about “sacred Serbian land,” and insisting on the immediate return of several thousand Serbian soldiers and policemen to Kosovo at a time when even 50,000 KFOR soldiers will not be enough to protect them from Albanian revenge. Instead of imposing itself as a regional force, Belgrade should work with UNMIK on strengthening security for all inhabitants, on the return of refugees and displaced persons, and on trying to shed light on the fate of those kidnapped and missing on both sides.

It will be better if Belgrade works on establishing intellectual, cultural, educational, and economic relations with the Albanian side. It is indeed a difficult and painstaking path, but the only one possible if Serbia is finally to break with the logic that the issue could be effectively solved overnight, by blitzkrieg, as was suggested until recently by Milosevic’s army and police generals and national ideologists.

The international community is in favor of Belgrade’s new course. So far, the international community knows what it does not want: independence for Kosovo. But it has no idea what it does want. Although the part of U.N. Resolution 1244 related to “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia” has been frequently recalled, the international community does not understand what it means. It has no clue what to do if, let’s say, by Montenegro’s sucession, the federation simply disappears.

Will Serbia be taken as a starting position instead of Yugoslavia? Will it be federalized, or will Kosovo simply get a “visa” to become independent? The situation is, as an American Balkans expert said, extremely fluid in its lack of international consensus, allowing possible disputes over Kosovo’s final political status.

Although everybody quotes the phrase “substantial autonomy,” no one can explain what it means in practice. Does it mean return to [Tito’s] 1974 Constitution, which would turn Kosovo into a third Yugoslav republic, or [does it mean] providing autonomy within Serbia’s constitutional and legal framework? Any of these options is certainly unacceptable for ethnic Albanians. They hate even the thought that they could, after all, live with Belgrade under the same roof. But they are also aware that the current balance of world powers does not provide grist for their independence mill. As long as the United States, Russia, and China remain unified by worry over world terrorism, the doors to Kosovo’s independence will be closed.

The U.N. administration in Kosovo was aware of that when it established a model that gave ethnic Albanians the illusion that they had self-rule after the elections, while strengthening the international protectorate.

The international community will not withdraw from the province for a long time, and therefore the issue of establishing final political status will not be put on the agenda in the foreseeable future.

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