Kosovo caught between two polls, two ideas of the future

PRISTINA, Sep 6, 2000 -- (AFP) Elections for two very different systems of government could be held in Kosovo this autumn, symbolizing the contradiction at the heart of the United Nations' troubled quest to bring democracy to the wartorn province.

On September 24, security conditions permitting, Kosovo's voters will be able to vote in Yugoslavia's presidential and parliamentary polls, which have been condemned in advance by observers for a lack of accountability and openness.

On October 28, they will be able to head to the polls again, this time to vote in a municipal election which its organizer, the United Nations, is billing as Kosovo's first-ever free and fair democratic test.

Bernard Kouchner, the province's UN administrator, is clearly exasperated by Belgrade's threat to open polling booths in Kosovo, but admitted Monday that he had no legal means to stop them.

The contradiction stems from UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which gave Kouchner's UN mission the task of developing democracy in Kosovo and giving it "substantial autonomy," but states the territory remains part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Under the resolution, Kouchner has no right to prevent Belgrade organizing elections, and if he did so, diplomatic sources told AFP, he would risk being portrayed as the enemy of Yugoslav democracy.

But it was clear also that he could not help Belgrade organize the poll, even if he had the time to do so, and thereby give credibility to the voting process in President Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia.

"These so-called elections are certainly not very fair," Kouchner told reporters in Pristina Tuesday. "But to organize in 15 days or 20 days fair elections is not possible.

"What about the fact that one of the candidates is indicted as a war criminal? What about the fact that the voting list is not ready. This is not serious."

Milosevic has been indicted on suspicion of war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

Kouchner said that public buildings would not be used as polling stations for the Yugoslav poll, but that he was obliged by his mandate to provide security on election day.

"We will provide, as we're providing every day, security for persons," he said. "I am not organizing elections at all but I am still in charge of security and this is a difficult contradiction."

So in theory, Kosovo's voters could vote both for a Yugoslav presidential candidate and a candidate for a municipal council in their own UN-run province. But only in theory.

In practice, Serbian Kosovars have refused en masse to register for the UN poll, believing it will serve to encourage ethnic Albanians in their desire for full independence.

The province's ethnic Albanians have boycotted all federal elections since 1989, when Belgrade stripped Kosovo of its autonomous status and launched a campaign of repression.

And even the Serbs might stay away this time. Their leaders argue that even if they wanted to vote to show they still value their Yugoslav nationality, no democratic poll could be held in Kosovo, where many Serbs live in embattled enclaves, surrounded by KFOR peacekeeping troops.

So Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority will head for the polls on October 28, for their first election since the intervention of KFOR and the end of the civil war between Belgrade and separatist guerrillas.

Although there is no legal basis for their belief, many regard the election as a another step towards independence.

The rude eruption of the Yugoslav poll one month earlier is an unwelcome reminder for them that their struggle is not yet won, and Kouchner's difficult decision to let it go ahead has annoyed some.

According to an editorial in the daily Kosova Sot, he has "put oil on the fire."

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