Serbs shun registration as deadline nears

LIPIJAN, Jul 14, 2000 -- (Reuters) Pisoth Ving's bosses call him Mr Zero Zero. Not because they don't value him as an employee but because he runs a registration center for Serbs in Kosovo - and not a single person has turned up.

Ving is far from alone. If Kosovo's UN administration sticks to its Saturday deadline, only a handful of Serbs will have registered for what officials are trumpeting as the province's first ever democratic elections, due in October.

While the response from Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority has been fairly good, international officials say, Serbs have overwhelmingly boycotted registration, leaving staff in centers up and down the province with nothing to do for weeks on end.

"I have to sit and wait for the applicants," said Ving, a Cambodian UN worker who has been hoping for someone to walk into his center in the town of Lipljan since May 18. "Even if there's no applicants, we have to wait."

Serbs say they cannot take part in registration or the municipal elections while they remain the targets of daily attacks and more than 150,000 of them have been forced out of their homes by fear of ethnic Albanian vengeance.

"In principle, we think registration and elections should take place," said Father Sava Janjic, an Orthodox priest who acts as the spokesman for one of the main Serb groups in Kosovo, the Serbian National Council.

"But conditions also need to be created to make it possible for the people to vote and register," he said this week.


The Serbs say they want to see progress on security and the return of displaced people before they will take part.

UN officials acknowledge the Serbs' concerns but have been trying to persuade them they have a better chance of achieving their goals if they opt into the political process.

Behind the boycott, officials also see a campaign from supporters of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, intent on making international authorities' mission in Kosovo a failure.

NATO's bombing campaign last year drove Milosevic's forces out of Kosovo, ending repression of the ethnic Albanians and paving the way for the establishment of the U.N.-led administration and the KFOR peacekeeping force.

But many international officials say Milosevic still wields great influence among the Serb community here.

When a television crew arrived at Ving's registration center in Lipljan, 20 km (12 miles) south of the provincial capital Pristina, all the local Serb staff refused to have their faces filmed.

They said if they were seen working with the United Nations, they could have problems from their government. The half dozen Serb staff at the center, a room in a white-walled public library building, have not even registered themselves.

"Registration is your right and duty," declares a poster in Serbian at the entrance to the center. The staff sit around nearby, reading newspapers and playing chess to pass the time.

The UN has organized public meetings to try to persuade the Serbs to register and has offered to extend Saturday's deadline a little if they have a change of heart.

"Don't wait for all your conditions to be met and then register - that's putting the horse behind the wagon," said Daan Everts, a Dutch deputy head of the administration, in a message to the Serbs at a news conference this week.

But that argument appears to have cut little ice. Of the more than 930,000 people to have registered so far, officials estimate no more than a couple of hundred are Serbs - out of an estimated Serb population in Kosovo of about 100,000.


A five-minute walk from the Serb registration center in Lipljan, another for Albanians in a post office is doing brisk business. It has registered more than 6,800 people since May.

"This week we have been registering much more than we normally do," said the center manager, Herath Herath of Sri Lanka. "Probably, this being the last week for registration, people are coming now to register in large numbers."

The sharp contrast between the communities has left the UN with a dilemma: can a mission charged with bringing democracy and human rights to Kosovo let one ethnic group govern the rest, just because the rest have refused to take part in the process?

The issue is particularly acute in the north of the province, where several municipalities have a majority Serb population. These districts in theory could be governed by a tiny minority of local Albanians.

To avoid this scenario, the UN has decided that the head of its administration, Frenchman Bernard Kouchner, will be able to appoint additional members to the municipal council.

"If they (the Serbs) take part in the election, they themselves decide. And if not, somebody else decides," summarized Tom Koenigs, another of Kouchner's deputies, before adding his own last-minute appeal for Serbs to register.

"You know, you have some cultures where somebody else decides who you are supposed to marry," the German told reporters with a smile. "It's better to decide yourself."

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