- The Washington Times - Monday, October 25, 2004

PRISTINA, Serbia-Montenegro — Demands for early independence for Kosovo arose yesterday after elections in which a near-total boycott by Serbs left pacifist President Ibrahim Rugova — known as the “Gandhi of the Balkans” — an easy winner.

Addressing reporters at his imposing residence overlooking Pristina’s crowded slums, Mr. Rugova claimed victory after independent observers declared that his Democratic League of Kosovo had received 47 percent of the vote.

“I insist that Kosovo’s independence be recognized, and then standards will be easily fulfilled, as in every state in Europe,” Mr. Rugova said, reversing the United Nations’ long-touted “standards before status” mantra for the province.

Mr. Rugova’s main rival, the Democratic Party of Kosovo led by a former rebel commander, took 27 percent, said Ibrahim Makolli of the independent Center for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms. The rest of the vote was split among smaller parties.

Ethnic Serbian leaders in northern Kosovo were jubilant that only 0.3 percent of the Serbian minority of 80,000 had cast ballots, responding to appeals by the Serbian Orthodox Church and Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.

Serbs had argued that their participation would serve only to give legitimacy to the Kosovo assembly’s drive to achieve independence when talks on the final status of the U.N.-administered province begin in mid-2005.

“This is a triumph,” said Radmila Trajkovic, a member of Kosovo’s National Serb Council in the divided northern city of Kosovska Mitrovica.

“With this low turnout, the Serbian community has turned the election into a referendum to show that it rejects what the international community is doing, and that changes must be made to create a truly multicultural society.”

Under electoral rules, the Serbian community still will receive 10 seats in Kosovo’s 120-seat parliament. But the low turnout casts doubt on the legitimacy of those representatives.

Western diplomats say Mr. Kostunica is sure to argue that the boycott amounts to support for the Serbian government’s plan for the decentralization of Kosovo, which was drawn up after ethnic Albanian gangs rampaged through Serbian villages in March, leaving 19 persons dead and 4,000 people homeless.

NATO sent 2,000 extra troops from France, Germany and Italy to ensure security for the election.

The voting passed without major clashes, but Serbs complained that nationalist thugs used intimidation and death threats to keep them away from voting places.

Mr. Rugova yesterday dismissed the importance of the Serbian electoral boycott, saying it would make no difference to the drive for independence.

But the abstention has left Kosovo’s chief U.N. administrator, Soren Jessen-Petersen, with a dilemma over how to wind down the expensive U.N. protectorate and devolve power to the Kosovo assembly while protecting the Serbian minority.

Mr. Jessen-Petersen blamed intimidation for the boycott. “There would have been more Serbian voters if those who wanted to have a monopoly over the Kosovo Serbs had not appeared,” he said in a reference to the nationalist community leaders.

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