- The Washington Times - Friday, October 27, 2000

Despite the ouster of Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade, all the leading ethnic Albanian parties in Kosovo contesting tomorrow's closely watched local elections still want the same thing out.

Seen by the United Nations and NATO as a major milestone on the road to democratic reform in Kosovo, the campaign for seats in 30 municipal assemblies around the province has only underscored the desire by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leader for a separate state regardless of what the international community thinks.

The democratic revolt in Serbia that brought Vojislav Kostunica to power earlier this month has complicated the Kosovo situation, but not changed any minds.

"I think that, whichever party you are talking about, it is very unlikely the Albanians in Kosovo will ever accept being a part of Yugoslavia," said Aleksa Djilas, a Belgrade sociologist and writer who is serving as public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.

"And it's very unlikely Kostunica will ever allow Kosovo to break free. So the problem definitely didn't end with Milosevic," he said.

A U.N. administration and a NATO-led peacekeeping force of 40,000 troops remain the effective authority in the province, which still is recognized internationally as a part of Yugoslavia.

U.N. administrators even tried to ban the display of the distinctive red Albanian flag with the eagle emblem at all election sites, but eased that restriction yesterday by forbidding the flags inside the polling stations.

About 900,000 Kosovo voters are expected to go to the polls tomorrow, choosing from a list of 19 parties. The vote is seen as a precursor to elections for a provincial parliament that could come as early as next spring, moving toward the "substantial autonomy" for Kosovo called for in U.N. Resolution 1244.

But only about 1,000 of Kosovo's remaining 100,000 ethnic Serbs have even registered to vote, threatening the legitimacy of the vote and U.S. hopes for a multiethnic Kosovo government.

More than half of the ethnic Serb population in Kosovo fled the province in the wake of NATO's successful 78-day air war last year, facing reprisals from Albanians for their role in Mr. Milosevic's ethnic cleansing campaign.

Bernard Kouchner, the Frenchman who runs the U.N. mission in Kosovo, said this week he would appoint Serbs to serve in the municipal assemblies after the vote.

The election itself provides the first public gauge of the support of the two main rival ethnic Albanian factions the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) under 56-year-old academic and pacifist Imbrahim Rugova and the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) of 31-year-old Hashem Thaci, who gained international notice as the voice and chief strategist of the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army.

Mr. Rugova, who led a decade-long nonviolent campaign against Mr. Milosevic, is considered the "moderate" in the race, but he and Mr. Thaci are united in their ultimate desire to break free of Yugoslavia.

"We have worked for 10 years for independence," Mr. Rugova told a rally of about 20,000 in the Kosovo capital of Pristina Wednesday.

"During this campaign you have shown that you are still for independence," he said to cheers from the crowd.

Mr. Thaci and his PDK held their own rally yesterday, the final day of campaigning before tomorrow's vote. He said Mr. Kostunica's election had not changed his party's separatist ambitions.

"We did not fight to make changes in Belgrade," Mr. Thaci said. "Kosovo has its own identity and will be independent."

While opinion polls in Kosovo are not the most reliable, many expect Mr. Rugova's party to attract the most votes. That has many worried about how the PDK and other more militant ethnic Albanian separatist groups will react.

Richard Holbrooke, ambassador to the United Nations, obtained pledges from five leading ethnic Albanian parties during a Kosovo visit Tuesday that they would respect the results of tomorrow's vote.

Even as the Kosovo campaign was concluding, Yugoslavia was formally welcomed yesterday into the Balkan Stability Pact, set up by the United States and its European Union allies to funnel billions of dollars in reconstruction aid to the region.

The prospect that the Kosovo elections will only fuel ethnic Albanian independence dreams has angered Mr. Kostunica and worried Kosovo's neighbors, many of whom fear their own borders would be called into question.

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