YU, Kosovo votes may kill off compromise

PRISTINA, Sep 17, 2000 -- (Reuters) Separate elections in Serbia and its restive Kosovo province could push Yugoslavia to the edge of a political cliff Western powers have tried desperately to avoid.

Results due over the next six weeks could seal the grip on power of hard-line Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic as Yugoslav president, but install his sworn enemies as undisputed leaders of a Kosovo firmly bent on independence.

Such an outcome would destroy the already doubtful prospect of stitching up even the loosest confederation to bind them in some "multi-ethnic" state, leaving no choice but separation buffered by a United Nations force.

The unwelcome, unpredictable process of re-drawing the frontiers of a historically unstable Balkan Peninsula along ethnic lines would take a leap forward. Serbia's uneasy sister republic, Montenegro, is next.

Evidence that events may be heading this way has accumulated this week, as campaigning went on for the Yugoslav presidential and federal assembly vote on September 24 and for local elections in predominantly ethnic Albanian Kosovo under United Nations supervision on October 28.


The latest opinion poll from Serbia on Friday showed Milosevic trailing badly behind his main challenger, Vojislav Kostunica, with 22 percent versus 40 percent support.

But U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said the campaign was flawed by intimidation and media manipulation, and scope for "gross and unchecked fraud" made a fair vote unlikely.

European Union governments pouring billions into schemes for stabilizing ex-Yugoslavia, and the United States which committed troops and prestige, have no direct influence.

They say Kostunica has a real chance of winning but Milosevic will, of course, prevent that by fraud.

"But he will have to steal at least a million votes, and that will make it so blatant to all Serbs just what has happened," said one EU diplomat, reaching for a silver lining.

In Kosovo, the protecting powers insist the October 28 ballot is strictly about choosing local government. Yet, like the proverbial horse to water, they can lead voters to municipal polls but they can't make them think in local terms only.

Hashim Thaci, the ex-guerrilla hero of many Kosovo Albanians, made it clear on the first day of campaigning that this will be a general election in all but name.

"A vote for the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) is a vote for certain independence," he told cheering supporters on Thursday in the divided city of Mitrovica.

As Thaci made his pledge on the mainly Albanian south bank of the Ibar River, Kostunica was being pelted with rubbish at his rally on the predominantly Serb north bank, by what he said were Milosevic's hired goons.


Thaci's PDK is by no means considered a sure winner. A recent EU analysis claims to foresee a possible shift in favor of the Kosovo Democratic League (LDK) of veteran Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, whose stand on independence is nuanced.

But Thaci, 31, was fast off the blocks as the campaign began, looking presidential with his sober-suited bodyguards at rallies primed with PDK party hats, T-shirts and cheerleaders.

Many see Thaci and former Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas who formed the PDK last year as the rightful heirs to a free Kosovo - a belief that instills fighting spirit not so far seen from the LDK and the chronically aloof Rugova.

Thaci has already dismissed Western notions that Kostunica would make a president with whom Kosovo Albanians could do business. "Kostunica is now more radical on Kosovo issues than Milosevic himself," he told Reuters in an interview.

The UN administrator in Mitrovica, former U.S. Army general William Nash, counters that "You couldn't be elected dog-catcher in Serbia on a pro-independent Kosovo plank."

But it suits Thaci to take Serbian nationalist rhetoric at face value, and some believe his PDK would even prefer to see Milosevic stay in control - of a deeply divided, isolated, impoverished Serbia with Europe's largest refugee population


Thaci denies such suspicions. Milosevic, an indicted war criminal, belongs in the dock at The Hague, he says.

But a re-entrenched Milosevic, with his opponents in disarray if not in jail, would reinforce the black-and-white view of the situation from Kosovo, where the wounds of the 1998-99 conflict are still fresh and Serbia is seen as the enemy of democracy.

No Kosovar leader has tried to help Kostunica by suggesting he could manage reconciliation. It is not a popular word here.

As for EU efforts to sway Yugoslav voters with the promise of new policies - i.e. aid and money - in return for ousting Milosevic, the Europeans are painfully aware that this ploy may backfire with proud Serbs refusing to be "bought off".

Promises of immediate aid to a democratized Serbia also set off alarms bells in revitalized Kosovo, a hive of reconstruction and small business ventures testifying to rising prosperity.

"If Milosevic loses," Nash told one Albanian leader this week with a smile, "that big sucking sound you hear will be all the aid agencies moving out north."

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