PRISTINA, Yugoslavia Ethnic Albanians anxious to determine their futures mobbed polling stations yesterday to vote in the first province-wide elections since NATO and the United Nations broke former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic’s grip on Kosovo.
Lines snaked around schools and public buildings, but apart from some pushing and shoving, little serious trouble marred the vote to choose deputies for a new parliament that will run Kosovo together with the United Nations and the alliance.
“I thank God for giving me life to see this moment,” said Fatime Krasniqi, 61, who lost nine family members during the 1998-99 war. “I hope something better will happen to us now.”
Ethnic Albanians see the vote as nothing short of a step toward independence a concept that frightened many minority Serbs into staying home.
Serbs remained split over participating in an election many fear will even further dilute the influence of the central Yugoslav government in Belgrade on the province. Officials at polling places in Serbian enclaves said they saw more reporters than voters.
The vote was also seen as a kind of referendum on the efforts by the United Nations and NATO to establish a new political order in Kosovo while deferring the burning question of the province’s ultimate fate.
“These elections have been a success,” declared Hans Haekkerup, Kosovo’s U.N. governor.
A total of 63 percent of voters had cast ballots in Kosovo yesterday, said Daan Everts, chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission here.
The turnout among Serbs and other minorities within Kosovo was 46 percent by 3 p.m., Mr. Everts said, while 65 percent of registered ethnic Albanians had cast their ballots.
Polls opened with international and local police officers stationed at every polling station door. NATO peacekeepers patrolled the nearby areas, stopping cars leading to some stations and parking armored personnel carriers in front of others for extra impact.
Unofficial results were expected late last night, but the official results will not be released until tomorrow.
Voters were electing a 120-seat national assembly that in turn will choose a president and form a provincial administration to govern alongside the U.N. officials and NATO-led peacekeepers who drove Mr. Milosevic’s forces out of Kosovo in 1999.
The new assembly will have powers in areas ranging from the economy to health and transport, but the U.N. administration, which has run the province since the end of the Kosovo war, will retain ultimate power.
The United Nations said the new institutions will not have the power to change Kosovo’s status, which the West wants left in limbo for now. The province legally remains part of Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia but is currently a de facto Western protectorate.
Kosovo-Albanian political leaders made clear they regarded the election as a move toward independence.
“These elections are especially important because they are about the freedom and independence of Kosovo, its economic development and prosperity of all its citizens,” said Ibrahim Rugova, widely tipped to become Kosovo’s first president.
While Mr. Rugova’s Democratic League of Kosovo was widely expected to win the election, all the main ethnic Albanian political parties are strongly in favor of independence.
Serbs are guaranteed at least 10 seats in the future parliament, but can get 20 seats if their turnout is high. Serbian officials last night were expressing satisfaction that nearly half of their community went to the polls inside Kosovo itself, and said they expected to win far more than the minimum allotment.
International officials and Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica had tried hard to persuade Kosovo’s Serbs to take part. Some local Serbian factions were opposed to the ballot and some Serbian residents whispered of receiving threatening phone calls and letters urging a boycott.
In the ethnically divided city of Kosovska Mitrovica, only journalists wandered around streets made dark by one of Kosovo’s frequent power failures. Many people stayed home, fearful of incidents on election day despite stepped-up patrols by the peacekeepers.
One Serbian voter, Verica Stavric, 73, said she was not afraid.
“We’re only living for right now,” she said, just after casting her ballot in the enclave of Laplje Selo. “I hope, for God’s sake, it will be better.”
Dozens of Serbs have been killed by ethnic Albanians and tens of thousands have fled Kosovo since forces loyal to Mr. Milosevic were ousted after 78 days of NATO air strikes in 1999. The bombing campaign ended fighting that killed at least 10,000 people, mostly ethnic Albanians.