Vote and volte-face

Print edition : December 08, 2001

A moderate ethnic Albanian party wins the elections in Kosovo and then talks tough on the issue of independence.

KOSOVO, theoretically still part of Serbia and the Yugoslav Federation, went to the polls on November 17 under the supervision of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The turnout was high despite boycott calls by some hardline groups. The United Nations and the pro-Western government in Belgrade seemed to have succeeded in convincing the minority Serb population to participate in the exercise.

Ibrahim Rugova, the leader of the moderate Democratic League of Kosovo, which has emerged as the leading force in the province.-VADIM GHIRDA/AP

On November 6, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the Yugoslav government signed an agreement on providing security and other guarantees to the Serbs in the province where ethnic Albanians are predominant. UNMIK had expressed its happiness "with the decision by the Serbian and Yugoslav governments to endorse Kosovo Serb participation".

The U.N. and Serbia also agreed that the status of the province would be discussed during the five-year term of the new Assembly. The Albanians saw this as an attempt to stall the declaration of formal independence. After the removal of Slobodan Milosevic and the Socialist Party from power in Belgrade, the West has been reluctant to talk about independence for Kosovo.

The large-scale Serbian participation in the elections seems to have tilted the balance in favour of the moderate Kosovar parties. The Democratic League of Kosovo, led by veteran leader Ibrahim Rugova, won about 45 per cent of the vote and emerged as the leading force. Rugova is seen as a moderate. Although he was the undisputed leader of Albanian Kosovars in their struggle against Belgrade since the 1980s, he was against the use of force. He was virtually sidelined by the West during the course of the war led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Some Albanian nationalists even accused Rugova of colluding with Belgrade.

Since the beginning of 2001, there were indications that the West was distancing itself from the extreme Albanian nationalist parties such as the Democratic Party of Kosovo, led by Hashim Thaci, who stood for the immediate secession of Kosovo. Thaci was one of the prominent figures in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which played a crucial role in fostering violence and terrorism in the Balkans. An offshoot of the KLA has also been busy in neighbouring Macedonia. The Democratic Party got around 26 per cent of the vote. The result is being interpreted as a significant setback for the extremists. A party led by Ramush Haradinaj, a former KLA commander, got 9 per cent of the votes. The Serbian Party got around 10 per cent of the vote and 20 per cent of the seats.

BY the bloody standards Kosovo had set in the 1990s, the elections were surprisingly peaceful. Kosovo was detached from Serbia after NATO forces went to war against Yugoslavia two years ago. Since then the Serb minority, which still constitutes around 10 per cent of the population of Kosovo, has been under siege. The extremists among Kosovo's Muslim population, who had laid the groundwork for the NATO intervention, were hell-bent on driving the remaining Serbs out of Kosovo so that they could realise their dream of establishing a greater Albania.

Hashim Thaci, the leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, an extremist outfit that suffered a setback in the elections.-NIKOLAS GIAKOUMIDIS/AP

The U.N., NATO and Belgrade now want a slower and a more cautious approach to the issue of independence. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244, which states that Kosovo is under Yugoslav sovereignty, is still in force. U.N. officials say that the core objective of the resolution is the establishment of "substantial autonomy and a functioning self-government in Kosovo". They claim that this goal has been achieved after the November elections.

The West is also trying to prop up the pro-western government in Serbia led by Prime Minister Goran Djindic. Djindic is getting increasingly unpopular. Recently the "Red Berets", the elite paratroopers of the Yugoslav Army, staged a public protest against the government in Belgrade. They returned to the barracks within a day, but the action effectively showed their dissatisfaction with Belgrade's decision to cooperate with the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. They fear that some of them could end up in The Hague to answer charges relating to the long-drawn-out internecine strife in the Balkans.

Rugova, who is going to be the new "President" of Kosovo, has surprised the international community with his pronouncements after the election results were announced. The West had expected him to tread softly on emotive issues, but he said that his first priority was to seek independence for the province. A day after the election results were out, he demanded that the "independence of Kosovo be recognised formally, as soon as possible". The peaceful election process, according to him, had proved to the world that the people of Kosovo deserved independence. "De facto we are independent. But we need the recognition of the U.S., the European Union, and then others will follow."

Rugova is to head a government that will take over from U.N. officials who were running the administration since the detachment of Kosovo in 1999. The U.N. and the NATO have let it be known that the primary task of the incoming administration is to solve the economic problems of the province before it can proceed on the road to independence. The new 120-member legislature is barred from debating the issue of independence. It is certain that the threat to cut off international funding will follow if Rugova persists in highlighting the issue of independence.

Rugova's radical stance may embolden the extremists further. KFOR, as the NATO troops operating in Kosovo are called, was supposed to disarm the KLA. Western officials admit that the guerillas have not been fully disarmed. Some of the KLA commanders are active in Macedonia and parts of Serbia that are still claimed by ethnic Albanians. Their long-term plan is to create a greater Albania with Kosovo as the springboard. A greater Albania, if it ever materialises, will dramatically change the geopolitics of the volatile region. Albanian extremists from Kosovo move between Serbia and Macedonia without much hindrance. Gun-running and trading in narcotics are their main activities. An Albanian mafia with roots in Kosovo and Tirana runs a lucrative sex trade across Europe.

The Macedonian government has blamed extremists from Kosovo for fomenting trouble in the region. The Albanian separatists in Macedonia have a strong grip on many parts of the country, including important cities such as Tetovo. As in Kosovo, the NATO forces have made a mockery of the peace process by failing to disarm the well-armed Albanian rebels. It is only owing to the presence of around 40,000 NATO troops in Kosovo and Macedonia that a tenuous peace prevails in the region.

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