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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 October, 2004, 17:26 GMT 18:26 UK
Analysis: Kosovo's landmark polls
By Gabriel Partos
BBC South-East Europe analyst

The people of Kosovo go to the polls on Saturday to elect assembly representatives for the second time since the United Nations took over administration of the province in 1999.

Ibrahim Rugova
Ibrahim Rugova says his party's aim will be independence
The elections come just a few months before the UN is due to review the progress made over the past few years in laying the foundations of democratic government - with a view to launching negotiations about Kosovo's long-term status.

For the past decade and a half - since the dissolution of the old Yugoslavia began - Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority have been clamouring for independence.

That dream came a step closer five years ago when Nato intervened in the Kosovo conflict, and its campaign of air strikes led to the withdrawal of Serb forces from the region.

Since then Kosovo has been run jointly by a UN administration, known as UNMIK, and by elected officials - although formally the entity belongs to Serbia and Montenegro.

Uncertain status

But Kosovo's temporary status is now set to come to an end - if the UN review, due in mid-2005, rules that the entity has made enough progress to warrant the start of talks on its long-term future.

So how is that prospect affecting these elections?

Denisa Kostovicova, a Balkan analyst at the London School of Economics, says these elections are "overshadowed by the question of the resolution of Kosovo's status".

"That's why you could even call them a single-issue election because these elections will redefine the political landscape in Kosovo," she said.

"After the elections, we will know who will be the Albanian representation in these talks that are expected to start next year."

New phase

The demand for independence has been a recurrent theme during the election campaign waged by Kosovo's Albanian parties - not least in the speeches of Kosovo's President Ibrahim Rugova. His party, the Democratic League of Kosovo, or LDK, has dominated the political scene, one way or another, for many years.

We really need to put in place all the mechanisms which will foster democracy in the country
Edita Tahiri,
Democratic Alternative of Kosovo
Mr Rugova says the LDK's main national goal will be recognition of Kosovo's independence.

Although the question of Kosovo's independence is at the back of most voters' minds, there are also other issues at stake.

Edita Tahiri was, until recently, one of Mr Rugova's long-standing senior associates.

She says these elections put Kosovo in a new phase - a phase when the process of the definition of final status begins.

"We really need to put in place all mechanisms which will foster democracy in the country," she said. "And opposition is one tool - a very efficient tool - to help strengthen democratic processes in the country."

Democratic Alternative

Ms Tahiri has been putting words into action.

Earlier this year she broke with the LDK to found a new political party, the Democratic Alternative of Kosovo. It challenges the three main Kosovar Albanian parties that have been governing Kosovo together with Serb and other minority representatives in a broad coalition since the first post-war elections three years ago.

Protest outside Serbia's President Boris Tadic's office in Belgrade
Some Serbs rejected Serbia's President Boris Tadic's call to vote
So what is her Democratic Alternative hoping to achieve?

"We had this coalition government, which was a rather dysfunctional government," she said.

"But we also saw growing corruption in the country and, of course, this was enough grounds to think of a third way of helping the situation, and this Alternative will try to help reforms."

The Democratic Alternative is one of several new parties that are trying to break the mould set shortly after the Kosovo war, when Mr Rugova's LDK was first challenged by the Democratic Party of Kosovo - the political successor to the wartime guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

These two dominant parties are now facing an electoral assault from several directions - including the Ora Citizens' List headed by the prominent publisher and editor, Veton Surroi.

But will the new parties make an impact? Kosovar Albanian journalist Daut Dauti is sceptical.

Serb divisions

"The... coming elections will not really change much - the political figures, the landscape if you like - so approximately you will still have the same results," he said.

"The biggest party might lose one or two seats, or the other parties might win one or two and the international community will be there pressing, pressurising to create a government which will be very similar to the previous one."

There's so much need still for Kfor troops there - which unfortunately will have to stay there because that is the only way to keep peace and security in the Balkans
Daut Dauti,
Kosovar Albanian journalist
That collective responsibility in government includes the Serb community who - like other minorities - have had a strong representation both in the outgoing parliament and the old government.

This time, though, the Serbs are less united.

Serbia's Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has called for a boycott - an appeal echoed by the Serb Orthodox Church - while Serbia's President Boris Tadic has argued in favour of Serbs casting their ballots.

Denisa Kostovicova believes that a low turnout will show that there are Serbs who accept the new realities in Kosovo.

"They will take away the argument of those radical Albanians who are claiming that basically Serbs do not want to co-operate, and that Serbs - by definition - obstruct any process of Kosovo's advance."

After the elections, attention will focus on two closely-related issues:

  • Decentralisation of powers and how that gives the Serb community a greater sense of security

  • Preparations for meeting the requirements of next year's UN review of Kosovo's democratic standards.

If the UN gives the go-ahead for talks, could it mean that these elections for a four-year term are to be the last where the international community is setting the terms?

Daut Dauti believes it is still too early.

French troops
Extra Nato troops are in the province for the election period
"I strongly believe that there will be one more mandate, there will be at least one more general or local election where the internationals will dictate the terms," he says.

"They might leave after that because they see that their job is really done, that democracy can walk, if you like, without help from outside.

"But that does not really mean that a complete international withdrawal will happen, because there's so much need still for Kfor troops there."

For now, though, attention will focus on the immediate tasks. With the emergence of new parties, Kosovo's political landscape is likely to become even more fragmented.

Once the election result becomes known, it may take a considerable time simply to strike a series of bargains to decide who will have what job in the new government.

And after that the new coalition will almost certainly renew its demand for the devolution of further powers to it from the UN administration.




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