Friday, November 16, 2001

OSOJANE, Yugoslavia Kosovo’s fragile ethnic balance will be tested tomorrow when voting starts in the first general election since NATO air attacks ended Serbian rule in the province.

In this western village, attitudes toward the election vary according to ethnic identity: Serbs are decidedly downbeat while ethnic Albanians are hopeful the result will hasten full independence.

“Serbs aren’t going to get anything in these elections,” said Milos Panic, the village doctor. “I don’t want to participate in making a state that has no place for Serbs.”

The discontent among Serbs was a reflection of their uncertain lives 21/2 years after NATO bombers drove Yugoslav troops out of the province. Kosovo is nominally still part of Serbia but is temporarily administered by the United Nations.

Eighty Serbs here are living in a valley surrounded by 800 Spanish peacekeepers who protect them from potentially vengeful Albanian neighbors.

Visitors to the town must give 48-hour notice before their arrivals. Residents heading for a larger Serbian enclave must travel as part of a heavily guarded NATO convoy that departs once a week.

Kosovo’s Serbs did not participate in last fall’s municipal elections, but much has changed in Serbia since then. Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is out of power and now faces international war-crimes charges in The Hague for systematic abuse against Kosovo Albanians.

Vojislav Kostunica, Yugoslavia’s new president, has started to engage with the U.N. administrators in Kosovo. His special envoy to the province, deputy prime minister Nebojsa Covic, is in close contact with officials in the capital, Pristina, while some of the 170,000 Serbs who fled Kosovo after the 1999 war have started to return.

The most visible return was to Osojane, where all 400 Serbian-owned houses were abandoned after the start of international rule. Albanians looted and burned the houses, but 80 of the former residents came back in August and began rebuilding.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a major supporter of the Serbian return effort, has encouraged the former refugees to take part in tomorrow’s elections.

“It’s crucial that the Serbs participate,” said U.N. spokeswoman Susan Manual.

After heavy lobbying from the UNHCR and the international community, Mr. Kostunica gave his endorsement to tomorrow’s election and encouraged Kosovo Serbs to take part. But his public statements came only two weeks ago perhaps too late to excite many Kosovo Serbian voters.

“[Serbian politicians] made a confused situation,” said Father Nektarije, a Serbian monk and director of Radio KiM, based in the tiny Serbian enclave of Caglavica. “They weren’t clear on whether Serbs should register. They were even less certain that they [should participate] in elections. After all that, it’s difficult to convince people that they need to vote.”

Serbian parties have organized under a Return coalition while, among Albanian parties, there is a battle to be seen as the most effective voice for Kosovo independence, even while U.N. officials say such prospects are distant.

The expected election winner is the relatively centrist Democratic Alliance of Kosovo (LDK), led by former dissident Ibrahim Rugova. Two more hard-line parties, led by former top Kosovo Liberation Army commanders, are trailing.

Rada Trajkovic, a candidate from the Return coalition who lives in the enclave of Gracanica, said the attention paid to Serbian participation in the election already has helped her cause.

“The question of participation in the elections has internationalized the problems of Serbs in Kosovo,” she said.

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