- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 23, 2004

PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro — The beleaguered Serbian minority in Kosovo spurned a legislative election yesterday, heeding claims by hard-line nationalists in Belgrade that voting would further the cause of ethnic Albanians’ demanding independence from Serbia.

Many Serbs preferred to attend church services rather than cast ballots after Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica called for a boycott.

Some 80,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo, where 90 percent of the population of 1.9 million are ethnic Albanians.

As initial results began trickling in last night, there was no immediate confirmation of predictions that ethnic-Albanian parties demanding independence would win.

Election-monitoring agencies estimated that fewer than 1,000 Serbs voted.

The U.N. governor of Kosovo, a protectorate of the United Nations, acknowledged that intimidation of Serbs by nationalists threatening violence had marred the contest.

“Obviously, some decided not to vote, and that’s their democratic right,” said Gov. Soren Jessen-Petersen, a Dane. “Others obviously have had their democratic right to vote hijacked, who may have wanted to vote but were afraid.”

The Orthodox Church in Kosovo, which saw the second general election in the province in three years as a further loosening of its bonds to Serbia, also supported the boycott in spite of pro-Western Serbian President Boris Tadic’s urging Serbs to vote.

Mr. Kostunica says Serbia should never surrender sovereignty over Kosovo, where Serb forces were driven out by NATO in 1999 to end ethnic cleansing of ethnic-Albanian civilians by the Serbian-dominated regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

In the town of Gnjilane, near the boundary with Serbia proper, where U.S. peacekeepers from National Guard units patrol, a local Serbian leader who opposed the boycott said few Serbs had voted.

“People were threatened last night, some even with death. Not even Milosevic did this,” said Slavisa Petkovic.

In the central monastery town of Gracanica, home to 5,000 Serbs, only five persons had cast ballots by midday, officials said.

Serbian nationalist leaders say Albanian mob violence against them in March, when 19 persons were killed and hundreds of homes torched, proved that the West cannot guarantee a multicultural society.

Some 2,000 extra Western peacekeeping troops were drafted into the province to enhance security during the election.

Preliminary talks on the final status of the province are expected to begin next year after a U.N. midyear report on progress toward respect for democracy and human rights in Kosovo.

The U.N. administration that has run Kosovo since 1999 is known to want to end the expensive protectorate as soon as possible, even though most of the 200,000 Serbian refugees who fled revenge attacks by ethnic-Albanian extremists have yet to return to their homes.

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