Elections in Kosovo

Albanians See Kosovo Elections as First Step Toward Independence

Ibrahim Rugova smiles after learning he will most likely be Kosovo's first President, Nov. 18, 2001 (Photo: AFP).
Tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo went to the polls on Nov. 17, 2001, to choose 120 representatives to serve in the first democratically elected parliament in the history of the U.N.-administered province.

On Nov. 19, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued the official results of the election. As expected, Ibrahim Rugova's moderate Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) won the most seats, winning 45.26 percent of the popular vote and 47 seats in the new assembly. Hashim Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo, a descendent of Albanian guerrilla group the Kosovo Liberation Army, proved to be the second-most popular choice, pulling in 25.7 percent of the vote and 26 seats.

A coalition representing Kosovo's Serbian minority finished third, with 10.96 percent of the vote and a total of 22 seats, including the 10 seats set aside for Kosovo's Serbs. Ramush Haradinaj's Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, another party with roots in the guerrilla campaign against Serbian rule, finished fourth.

The assembly will choose a president—almost certainly Ibrahim Rugova—and a seven-member presidency of the legislature. The president will name a prime minister, who will have a nine-member cabinet. As laid out in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244 in 1999, Kosovo's government will control the province's domestic affairs only. The resolution gives the government no mandate to decide Kosovo's defense or foreign affairs.

Kosovo—a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic—has been a de facto international protectorate since the war ended in June 1999. Once the groundwork has been laid for autonomous rule and Kosovo can effectively administer itself, the next step could be to resolve Kosovo's status. Rugova's party and most other ethnic Albanian political groups support the creation of an independent Kosovar state.

For Serbian reaction to the elections in Kosovo, please see World Press Review Belgrade correspondent Katarina Subasic's “Daunting Challenges Await Kosovo
On Nov. 18, Rugova told reporters that he would continue to work toward an independent Kosovo: “In fact we are independent, but what we ask is to be recognized officially by the United States, the European Union, and others. We will continue working to gain [international] recognition.”

Spokesmen for the current U.N. administration of Kosovo were quick to reassure Belgrade that Kosovo's independence was out of the question. Under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244, Kosovo formally remains part of Yugoslavia.

But commentators in the Albanian press have disputed the U.N. stance. A Nov. 18 opinion piece in Tirana's independent Gazeta Shqiptare, pointed to passages of the resolution calling for a referendum in Kosovo on the issue of independence. Others brushed aside the U.N. resolution in their excitement about the election. “The general elections in Kosovo open a new epoch for Kosovo and the Albanian nation because they represent a crucial step in establishing the state institutions that will lead Kosovo's Albanians on the way to national independence,” wrote Muje Bucpapaj in a Nov. 16 editorial entitled, “Today Begins the Journey towards Kosovo's Independence,” published in Rilindja Demokratike, the house organ of the Democratic Party, Albania's largest opposition party.

Tirana's right-wing daily Albania, in a Nov. 17 editorial titled “A New Epoch for Kosovo,” saw the election as the beginning of an important political future for Kosovo: “All political parties in Kosovo during the electoral campaign expressed their hope that Kosovo would become an independent state. The post-election period is crucial to the achievement of this ultimate goal. The elected politicians must prove that they are able to govern democratically, that they are able to build democratic institutions and a legal democratic state. Only in this way can the future of this nation be established. Only in this way can Albanians head for their final destination—independence.”

Western powers are urging ethnic Albanian leaders not to push the independence issue at this time, but to focus instead on building their new self-governing institutions. Kosovo depends on Western governments for political and economic support and on NATO peacekeepers for security.

Perhaps with this in mind, the Albanian government in Tirana hailed the elections in Kosovo, but only cautiously addressed the issue of independence for Kosovo. On Nov. 19, the Albanian Parliament unanimously endorsed a resolution praising the “free and democratic elections” as “a major milestone in the establishment of the rule of law, under which all Kosovo's citizens will be equal. The Albanian population and the minorities will live together and cooperate to build their European future in a multiethnic society in compliance with international standards.”

Albanian politicians from across the political spectrum echoed these sentiments. Albanian Prime Minister Ilir Meta, who leads a left-oriented coalition, regarded the Nov. 17 elections “as an historical event, not only for the Kosovar people, but also for the whole region of southeastern Europe,” the independent Albanian Daily News reported on Nov. 19. General elections in Kosovo “mark an important step towards further stabilization of security, peace, and integration processes,” Meta said.

Leaders of Albania's opposition parties took a less cautious tone and indicated their support for an independent Kosovo. In a Nov. 20 interview with the Albanian Daily News, Sali Berisha, chairman of the Albanian Democratic Party, praised the elections as free and fair and said that he believed the results suggest that Kosovo would become independent soon.

After praising the LDK and Rugova, Fatmir Meidiu, the chairman of the conservative Republican Party, expressing his confidence in the capability and maturity of Kosovo's politicians, who, he said, “will know to harmonize their interests for the best of Kosovo and its independence.”

To be sure, Rugova will face serious challenges as he attempts to construct an independent state from the war-torn province. First among them will be cleaning up the mess of crime, corruption, and violence that poison Kosovo today. Before discussing the issue of independence, Kosovo's new government will have to demonstrate that it is indeed capable of managing its own affairs.

Only once this is accomplished should the government begin considering the province's status, in conjunction with Serbia and the United Nations. There are many arguments in favor of an independent Kosovo. But in order for an independent state to succeed in Kosovo, international organizations such as the United Nations would need to take an active role in ensuring that the transition occurs peacefully. And occur it must—on Nov. 17, the Albanian majority in Kosovo voted overwhelmingly for independence. An unduly protracted U.N. administration would only create tensions between the United Nations and the newly elected pro-independence government of Kosovo.

But whether Kosovo gains formal independence or not, it is unlikely that the province will return to Belgrade's orbit. After years of devastating war, few—even in Belgrade—still advocate that. But Belgrade could suggest dividing Kosovo into an Albanian south and a Serbian north, as in the two ill-defined “entities” (one Serbian and one Muslim-Croatian) in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But even this seems unlikely. Ethnic Albanians in the south of Kosovo have always been steadfast in their claims to the mines and industrial facilities near Mitrovica in the north. With so many contentious issues at stake, perhaps only one thing is certain: Kosovo's new government, its neighbors, and the international organizations interested in seeing peace and security in the region must all proceed with great caution as they chart a course for the embattled province's future.