YU poll divides Kosovo's embattled Serbs

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia, Sep 18, 2000 -- (AFP) The idea that voting in the Yugoslav presidential election could take place in Kosovo triggered a furious political battle and made a mockery of the slogan daubed on walls across the province: "Only unity will save the Serbs."

The political passions that are running so high in Belgrade are all the more intense in Kosovo's embattled Serbian enclaves, and the rivalries are all the more likely to trigger violence in the province's lawless post-war state.

The most spectacular example to date of the divisions the poll has exacerbated was the greeting accorded opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica in northern Kosovska Mitrovica, the largest Serbian community left in UN-run Kosovo.

While around half of the 2,000 strong crowd cheered his every declaration, many of the rest, screaming "Traitor!", subjected him to a 15-minute barrage of stones and rotting fruit as he struggled to give his stump speech.

For Kosovo's Serbs there is only one issue worth fighting for in these elections, the final status of their province. The territory and its majority ethnic Albanian population are a United Nations protectorate, apparently on the path towards independence.

It is a process the Serbs agree they want stopped. Where they disagree is on who is to blame for getting them into this position.

Kostunica is well placed to win the support of those who agree that Yugoslav President Milosevic's "catastrophic policy" caused the conflict that led to NATO intervention and Serbia's effective partition.

Milosevic, however, can count on the support of those who backed his crusade against ethnic Albanian "terrorists" and who believe the opposition is the lackey of the western powers that conducted a 78-day air war against Yugoslavia and are now preparing another election, the October 28 municipal poll viewed by ethnic Albanians as the next step in their march to independence.

This fierce debate, which mirrors the one going on in Serbia-proper, is being carried out without the intervention of the authorities -- Kosovo's UN administration and KFOR peacekeeping force are keeping the election at arms length.

Bernard Kouchner, Kosovo's de facto governor, did not want polling for the September 24 vote to be carried out on his patch, but under the terms of his UN Security Council mandate did not feel he could prevent it.

KFOR is tasked with providing security to all those living in Kosovo, including Serbs who decide to campaign and vote, risking violence at the hands of both Serbian opponents and ethnic Albanians opposed to any process that reminds the world of Belgrade's continuing claim on the province.

Kouchner has refused to take part in the organization of the election, branding it a provocation and a farce. KFOR troops stood by as Kostunica was pelted, ready to intervene if assassins attempted to follow through the logic of the crowd's anger, but unwilling to become associated with the election campaign.

The campaign has also been influenced by the maneuvering of local Serbian politicians, striving to gain and keep control over their communities, whatever the results in Belgrade.

Mitrovica's hardline Serbian leader, Oliver Ivanovic, has thrown his weight behind the Kostunica campaign and his self-defense militia, the Bridge Watchers, have been involved in street battles with Milosevic loyalists.

His decision to side with the opposition reversed his earlier vow to "ignore" the poll, and is perhaps a sign of his increased independence from Belgrade, according to diplomatic sources.

The seizure of the Zvecan lead smelter just north of Mitrovica by KFOR led to around 2,000 workers being taken out of Belgrade's orbit and put on the United Nations payroll. Factory manager Novak Bjelic, a Milosevic loyalist, has been banned from the province.

As Belgrade's influence fades, Ivanovic may be able to reposition himself, losing his hard-line image while retaining the loyalty of his supporters, according to the same sources.

But whether his good offices and the anger of Kosovo Serbs at their isolation can deliver the province to the opposition remains to be seen, especially as in the absence of proper electoral monitoring Milosevic supporters could easily manipulate the result.

"Milosevic won't let me win," Kostunica has warned.

Original article