Serbian Reaction to the Elections in Kosovo

Daunting Challenges Await Kosovo

An ethnic Albanian man casts his vote in Kosovo's first election since the war, Nov. 17, 2001 (Photo: AFP).

Kosovo's first parliament since the end of the war in 1999 will convene in early December. For the first time in more than a decade, representatives of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority and Serbian minority will sit together to determine the war-torn province's fate. Since former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic took power in late 1980s and revoked Kosovo's autonomy, ethnic Albanians have boycotted every parliamentary election organized by Serbian and Yugoslav authorities.

But the Nov. 17 general elections in Kosovo neither erased the old enmities between Serbs and Albanians nor primed either side for a compromise. Ethnic Albanian leaders seem to be more determined than ever to declare Kosovo and independent state, while Serbian representatives still insist that Kosovo must remain within the borders of Serbia and Yugoslavia. It looks as though it will be a long time before the United Nations' vision of a multiethnic, democratic Kosovo is realized.

'It's Worth a Try'

After casting his vote at a polling station in a Belgrade elementary school, Boro Cukic, an 89 year-old Serbian refugee from Kosovo, said he had only one wish left: to go back home. “That is why I am here to vote. I was born in Pristina and I left everything there. ” Cukic is among estimated 200,000 thousands of Serbs who have left Kosovo since 1999 out of a fear of reprisals from the Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority.

For Albanian reaction to the election in Kosovo, see World Press Review Albania correspondent Sokol Mici's piece, “Albanians See Kosovo Elections as First Step Toward Independence

Despite Belgrade's campaign to encourage Kosovo Serbs to vote in the election in order to keep the province part of Serbia, only 50 percent of Serbian voters from Kosovo participated in the Nov. 17 election. Milena Kostic, a 40 year-old refugee, found the slim turnout at her local polling station surprising. “If this will help, it's worth a try,” she said as she cast her ballot. “We just want to go back and have a safe life.” Though most of the refugees refused to talk to reporters on election day, those who did comment echoed Kostic's sentiments. Danica, A 62 year-old woman who did not give her last name, said only, “Now let God help us.”

The Serbian press was more prolix. Nenad Stefanovic, writing in the Nov. 22 edition of the influential Belgrade newsmagazine Vreme, proclaimed that in the election, the Serbs “got a chance to fight for their rights in the future parliament, showed their intention to live in Kosovo, and helped the government in Belgrade to acquire some allies.” But a Nov. 20 editorial in the independent Belgrade newspaper Danas read the election results in less monolithic terms: “A slight majority of Kosovo Serbs have accepted new reality in Kosovo, and want to fight for their national and civic interests through Kosovo's institutions, which will no longer be subordinate to Belgrade's. But [the turnout] also confirmed that another option is still very strong, particularly in the northern Kosovo, where Serbs mainly boycotted the elections. These are the Serbs who cannot come to peace with the end of Serb domination in Kosovo,”

The Coalition for Return, the only political group representing the Serb minority in the election, won 22 seats in 120-seat strong Kosovo assembly, making it the third-largest single contingent. But it is unlikely that Ibrahim Rugova, whose Democratic League of Kosovo won the largest number of seats in the new assembly, will nominate many Serbs to positions in the future government of Kosovo.

Serbian commentators foresaw problems forming a consensus between the Serbian and Albanian parties in the assembly. “Coalition for Return wants to form a coalition with those who support the idea of multiethnic Kosovo within Yugoslavia and Serbia. And there is no such party on the Albanian side,” Nenad Stefanovic concluded in Vreme (Nov. 22). All ethnic Albanian political leaders in Kosovo share the same goal—independence.

Serbs see Kosovo as the cradle of their national identity and vehemently oppose any suggestion of making it independent. With this in mind, Danas's editors continued, “It is quite clear that the Serbian and Albanian sides in the joint Kosovo parliament will have confrontational attitudes regarding the political status of Kosovo, which is why Kosovo is governed by an international protectorate in the first place… Therefore, the international community should strive to preserve Kosovo's current temporary status, preventing rash decisions to be made about the final status of Kosovo.”

And indeed the election results reflect Kosovar's reluctance to take any more rash decisions. Ethnic Albanians rejected the more strident Albanian parties in favor of Rugova and his moderate Democratic League of Kosovo. And roughly 50 percent of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo saw the elections as a positive way for them to influence the course of Kosovo's future even after its dissociation from Belgrade.

The position of the other 50 percent is more troubling. Under Milosevic's rule, Serbs occupied all the senior positions in the institutions that governed Kosovo, despite their minority status in the province. They rewarded Milosevic and his government with a loyalty more fervent than that seen in the rest of Serbia. One wonders if the 50 percent of Kosovo Serbs who did not vote abstained from the election because they have not yet reconciled themselves to the changed reality in the province, and, indeed, in Serbia.

Clearly, Kosovo has a long way to go before it enjoys the levels of tolerance and democratic participation necessary for Serbs and ethnic Albanians to live peacefully together without outside help. As the election results confirm, ethnic Albanians universally support the creation of an independent Kosovo. And Serbs in Kosovo still seem resolute in their determination to keep Kosovo part of Serbia. Eventually, perhaps, the entire Balkan region may be integrated into the European Union, rendering these disputes moot. But such an event, if it ever happens, is certainly not likely to happen any time soon.

Kosovo's new government and the international organizations with an interest in keeping the region stable face a daunting task: to mediate between stubbornly-held and contradictory ambitions while providing for the development of a province scarred by war and corruption. Security must be improved. Refugees driven from Kosovo after the war must be re-integrated into society. Houses destroyed need to be rebuilt. But the results of the Nov. 17 elections in Kosovo indicate that there is still hope. A majority of ethnic Albanians opted for a moderate government. And at least half of Kosovo Serbs have realized that only fight for their future in the province by working within the framework established by the United Nations. Kosovo is not yet out of the woods. But on Nov. 17, it demonstrated that it is getting there.