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Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe slams 'hypocritical' Serb election boycott

STOCKHOLM, Sep 8, 2000 -- (Reuters) Europe's main security and human rights forum on Thursday slammed "hollow and hypocritical" Serb arguments for boycotting a UN-backed election in Kosovo and lashed out at "intimidation" from Belgrade.

"The Serbs have been given every opportunity to participate. It has been their own decision to abstain. It's a self-imposed isolation," Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe head of mission Daan Everts told a news conference on Thursday.

Fewer than 1,000 of the 100,000 Serbs living in the U.N.-run province have registered to vote in municipal elections set for October 28, prompting fears that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic will brand them unrepresentative.

"Unfortunately we have evidence that this is not a voluntary act but that this abstention is induced by Belgrade and hard-liners," Everts said in Stockholm.

Milosevic has called separate Yugoslav federal and presidential elections for September 24, which Everts dismissed as a "charade" with huge potential for fraud.

He rejected protests by Kosovo Serbs, most of whom live in heavily guarded enclaves and are subject to almost daily attacks by the ethnic Albanian majority, that they fear for their safety if they vote.

"The Serb accusation is hollow and hypocritical because they plan to hold elections in exactly the same areas," he said.

MILOSEVIC SEEN CHEATING VOTE

Many analysts see the presidential election as a matter of life or death for Milosovic, who has been indicted by a UN war crimes tribunal for alleged atrocities against ethnic Albanians.

UN Special Envoy for the Balkans Carl Bildt, a former Swedish Prime Minister, said he expected Milosevic to falsify several hundred thousand votes from Kosovo in his favor.

"They are not going to be free and fair elections - there's going to be massive fraud," he told the news conference after a seminar at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) on Balkan election organization.

But Bildt said even fraud might not be enough to beat Milosevic's main challenger, Vojislav Kostunica of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), who led a recent poll by 43 percent to 21 percent.

INTIMIDATION BY BELGRADE

Everts insisted the rival UN election, the first to be held in post-war Kosovo, would have a valid mandate.

"Most of the Serbs would have liked (to register to vote) and expressed a desire but did not do so mainly for fear of retribution by Serb hard-liners," said Everts, noting that many Serbs were also financially reliant on Belgrade.

"Ninety percent of the population of Kosovo is part of the process so it will be really far-fetched to say that as eight or nine percent abstain the election is not democratic," he added.

Lessons learned from previous Balkan elections included a compulsory code of conduct for candidates, proportional representation and simple, inclusive voting rules, he added.

Kosovo has been under de facto international control since Yugoslav forces withdrew in June 1999 after 78 days of NATO bombing to halt army and police repression of majority ethnic Albanians. It remains legally part of Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.



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