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Serbs Boycott Kosovo Elections

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 24, 2004; Page A22

PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro, Oct. 23 -- Members of Kosovo's Serb minority boycotted parliamentary elections in high numbers Saturday, striking a blow to international efforts to promote multiethnic cooperation in advance of talks designed to determine the status of the province.

About 107,000 Serbs were eligible to vote in this province of 1.4 million, which is still technically part of Serbia and Montenegro, the successor to Yugoslavia. But early figures indicated that the Serb vote was minuscule, and polling stations in Serb areas were mostly empty.

A staff member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reads at a near-empty polling place in Belgrade, the Serbian capital. (AP)

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Although a complete breakdown of the vote was unavailable, 88 of the 14,000 Serb voters turned out in the town of Leporavac, according to officials statistics. In Zvecan, 86 of about 7,000 voted.

"These are not our elections," said Milan Ivanovic, a Serbian nationalist who promoted the boycott. "They are not in our interest."

The U.N. special representative and chief authority in Kosovo, Soren Jessen-Petersen, blamed politicians in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, for dissuading Serbs from voting. Vojislav Kostunica, prime minister of Serbia, the dominant republic of Serbia and Montenegro, was among the top politicians who had urged a boycott.

"It is clear that the confusing signals, if I can be so kind, and strong signals dissuading people from voting had the biggest impact," Jessen-Petersen said. He added that he had received anecdotal reports of pressure on Serbs not to cast their ballots. "Others have had their democratic right to vote hijacked," he said.

Jessen-Petersen praised the organization of the election, which went off without violence, but said, "I had hoped that many more Kosovo Serbs would have decided to participate."

Pascal Fieschi, a representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, added: "We are disappointed."

The election was held to select a 120-member assembly that would in turn choose a president. Serbs were guaranteed 10 seats. A few small Serb parties took part after "getting the green light from Belgrade" a few days ago, Jessen-Petersen said. Next year, the new government is supposed to negotiate a final status for Kosovo with Serbia and Montenegro.

Serbs took part in assembly elections in 2001, but two leading Serbian parties elected then stayed out this time.

Ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of Kosovo's population, viewed the vote as a step toward independence from Serbia and Montenegro. Kosovo has been a U.N. protectorate since 1999, when U.S.-led NATO forces ended Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's army crackdown on independence-minded ethnic Albanians.

Ibrahim Rugova, Kosovo's president and head of the Democratic League of Kosovo, said: "This is a great and important day for the recognition of Kosovo's independence.

Serbs, backed by the Serbian government in Belgrade, vehemently oppose independence for Kosovo. The United States and its allies in pacifying Kosovo have also opposed independence for Kosovo, in part because officials fear that it would set a precedent for a breakup of neighboring Bosnia and Macedonia.

In all, 33 parties participated in the election. Turnout was 53 percent, officials said, and preliminary results are scheduled to be released Sunday.

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