PRISTINA, YUGOSLAVIA, DEC. 9 -- The ethnic Albanians of Kosovo today were offered a chance to join the tens of millions of East Europeans who this year have cast ballots in the region's first round of multi-party elections since World War II.

Almost all of them, however, stayed home.

There was a resounding silence in polling stations across this province in the Yugoslav republic of Serbia, where today's election was seen by many as crucial in determining whether the country remains whole or breaks apart.

In Kosovo, nine out of 10 people are ethnic Albanians, but all of the policemen are Serbs. There were more policemen standing vigil in polling stations today than there were Albanians voting. Of the 700,000 Albanians who are registered to vote, Radio Belgrade reported that only "an extremely small number" bothered.

"We live in a police state," said Ibrahim Rugova, president of the Democratic League of Kosovo, which called the election boycott. "To participate in these elections would mean that we accept the conditions the Serbians have imposed upon us" during a police crackdown that has lasted 22 months.

Serbian authorities have abolished the Kosovo parliament and indicted 111 of its members for treason; shut down Albanian-language television and radio stations and the main daily newspaper; fired several thousand Albanian government workers, technicians and doctors; closed 2,000 Albanian private shops; detained hundreds of suspected dissidents; and killed at least 50 street demonstrators.

These actions, imposed during a lengthy police crackdown, have triggered protests from human rights organizations, the U.S. Congress and several West European governments.

"By calling this boycott, we are telling the Serbs to stop this repression. We are saying we want our autonomy back. We want to be equal partners in the future of Yugoslavia," said Rugova.

As democratic elections kill off communism and excite old ethnic tensions, the patchwork nation of Yugoslavia is bursting at the seams. The northern republics of Croatia and Slovenia are threatening to secede.

In the ethnically mixed republic of Bosnia, a free vote for parliament last month amounted to an ethnic census, with Serbs voting for Serbs, Croats voting for Croats and Moslems voting for Moslems.

Today's election in Serbia, the results of which are not expected to be known until late Monday or Tuesday, comes amid a fevered revival of Serbian nationalism. Some fear that a victory by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, a Communist, could encourage Slovenia and Croatia to carry out their threats to secede, causing the country to dissolve.

Elections were also held today in Montenegro, Yugoslavia's smallest republic, where 10 parties were challenging the ruling Communists.

It is Serbian nationalism, as it has come thundering down in this supposedly "autonomous province" of Kosovo, that led to today's blanket refusal by Albanians to exercise their franchise.

Kosovo is the poorest and, in many ways, the bleakest part of Yugoslavia. It is only one-tenth as wealthy as Slovenia, the country's richest republic, where the average annual income is about $6,000.

But in spite of its poverty and the fact that about 90 percent of its 1.8 million residents are Albanians, many of Yugoslavia's 8 million Serbs consider it their historic and sacred homeland.

In the past three years, Milosevic, who owes much of his political support to his unyielding stand on Kosovo, has stripped the province of the considerable autonomy it had under the late Marshal Tito.

Both of the major candidates in today's vote for the Serbian presidency -- the hard-line Communist Milosevic and the flamboyant anti-Communist Vuk Draskovic -- have made clear that they will never accede to Albanian demands that Kosovo be declared a separate republic inside the Yugoslav federation.

Candidates for the Serbian legislature are thought to have little chance of winning unless they loudly and repeatedly promise that Serbs will control Kosovo forever.

All of this leaves the Albanians in a powerless rage. Young people pour out into the cities and villages of Kosovo every few months to hurl stones at the police.

Thus far, despite frightening headlines in the Serbian press about "heavily armed terrorists," there have been few armed attacks against police. Two Serbian policemen have been killed since March 1989.

Instead of resorting to underground armed resistance, leaders of the Albanians here are trying to win international attention by writing human-rights reports, staging general strikes and boycotting today's election.

But leaders caution that they will not be able to hold back violence indefinitely.

Tentative moves toward a democratic opening in neighboring Albania, the self-isolated Communist nation which shares a border with Kosovo, have attracted passionate interest on this side of the border. Many Kosovo Albanians have relatives on the other side. Events in Albania have heightened a long-standing Serbian fear that the majority here might want to cut Kosovo out of Serbia and merge it into "Greater Albania."

Rugova, whose Democratic League has become Kosovo's preeminent political party, insists that Albanians here do not want to secede from Yugoslavia. He said they only want what the nation's other large ethnic groups already have, their own republic.

"If there is dialogue {with Serbian leaders who win today's election}, we could speak of a better future," said Rugova. "If not, we are going to have problems as a political party. I am afraid we cannot control the conflict."