Serb ballot boycott snags UN plans for KosovoPRISTINA, Kosovo International efforts to determine Kosovo's future suffered an apparent setback Sunday as the province's Serb minority largely boycotted parliamentary elections.
Preliminary results for the second general election held in the region since the United Nations took control five years ago showed that turnout was split sharply along ethnic lines. Polling stations in most Serb-inhabited areas failed to reach double digits. Final results were not expected until Monday.
Serb participation had been depicted by UN officials as essential ahead of possible negotiations on the future of the province next year.
At issue is whether Kosovo remains formally a part of Serbia or, as the majority Albanian population wants, becomes independent.
The head of the UN mission, Sorren Jessen-Petersen, said that while many Serbs had clearly decided they did not want to vote, others had been prevented from doing so.
"That is their right, their right not to vote that I absolutely accept," he said outside a polling station in north Mitrovica, a Serb-dominated neighborhood.
"Then there are others who have had their democratic right to vote hijacked, who may have wanted to go out to vote but who were afraid to go out and vote, because some of them may have felt intimidated," he said.
Officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which helped organize the election, said protesters had prevented a polling station from opening in the Serbian town of Jagodina, outside Kosovo, until 5 p.m. The town is home to several thousand refugees from the province.
Throughout most of Kosovo, however, there were few visible signs of intimidation, as most Serbs appeared to heed the calls not to vote from Serbia's prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, and the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Exit polls conducted by an independent monitoring group, the Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms, gave the party of the pacifist and former dissident Ibrahim Rugova a clear lead.
His Democratic League of Kosovo was expected to win 47 percent of the vote, while the party of the former Albanian guerrilla leader Hashim Thaci won an estimated 28 percent. The forecasts were based on the results of 17 polling stations and had a 0.5 percent margin of error.
The Democratic League was expected to seek coalition partners before attempting to form a government.
The new administration is expected to gain increasing power, since the UN intends to scale down its presence.
But the boycott by the Serb community has complicated those plans and could delay a political settlement that will enable Albanians and Serbs to govern the region by themselves. Preliminary talks on Kosovo's "final status" are expected to be held sometime next year.
International officials have administered the region ever since Serbian and Yugoslav security forces were forced to withdraw after widespread atrocities.
A force of more than 44,000 peacekeepers took control of the province in June 1999, but in spite of their presence - 19,300 troops remain in Kosovo today - they have been unable to protect Serbs and other minorities from revenge attacks by Albanians.
In March this year, more than 50,000 Albanians took part in two and half days of mob violence, during which 19 people were killed and more than 4,000 people were forced to flee their homes.
Although Serbs took part in Kosovo's last general election in 2000, Serb leaders suggested that taking part this time would bolster Albanian moves toward independence.
"This was a referendum," said Rada Trajkovic, an member of the previous Parliament and one of the leaders of the Serb National Council, a grouping of Kosovo Serb politicians. "This has strengthened our links with Belgrade."
Taking part would have "de-legitimized the Serbian state here," she said.
Trajkovic did not rule out, however, that Serbs could take part in future elections if there were an agreement with the Serbian government in Belgrade.
UN officials privately admit that the prospects of Serb participation in the election had been substantially damaged by the violence this year, much of which NATO troops, and the UN police, were unable to prevent.
While Kosovo's Albanian-dominated government, which has limited powers, has helped to rebuild many homes, some 2,000 people remain homeless.
"How can we want to vote. It's just not relevant," said Olgica Subotic, 54, who was forced to leave her home in Obelic, a town close to the regional capital, Pristina. She now lives with 34 other people in 14 adapted shipping containers in a parking lot in Gracanica, a Serbian enclave five kilometers, or three miles, south of Pristina.
Estimates for the total number of Serbs in Kosovo vary from 70,000 to 120,000, down from more than 250,000 in 1999.