ROBERT H. REIDUN races to register Kosovars to vote
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (July 9, 2000) - The United Nations launched a major effort Sunday to register as many Kosovars as possible for the province's first internationally supervised election before the deadline next weekend.
Most of the province's estimated 100,000 Serbs, however, have refused to participate in the municipal elections, set for October. A boycott would cast doubt about whether the vote can be the legitimate foundation for democracy that the international community hopes will end more than a decade of political oppression and ethnic conflict.
Kosovo Serb leaders have refused to take part in the electoral process until the United Nations satisfies their demands for security against ethnic Albanian attacks and provides for the return of Serbs who fled the province when Yugoslav forces withdrew in June 1999 after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign.
Many Kosovo Serbs have never accepted Belgrade's effective loss of the province. NATO officials believe Yugoslav agents are operating in Serb communities and encouraging Serbs to refuse to take part in U.N.-sponsored political activity.
"That's very destructive," said the Kosovo head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Daan Everts. "It's directly against the interests of the Serb community."
Referring to the Milosevic government in Belgrade, Everts said "they don't want them to commit to the new Kosovo society, to the new Kosovo democracy. That's very sad, in fact, because they are holding their own people hostage. They should let them go and vote for themselves and register if they feel Kosovar, which they do, most of them."
The deadline for registration is next Saturday. To draw attention to the coming deadline, the U.N. administration is sponsoring a "Race to Register," a one-mile run Sunday down Pristina's main street with prizes for winners.
Kosovo's chief U.N. administrator, Bernard Kouchner, joined the race, which was sparsely attended. Ethnic Albanian men lounging at sidewalk cafes under warm, sunny skies stared curiously as dozens of runners -- many of them employees of international organizations -- chugged down the dusty street.
No date for the election has been set, and rules and procedures have yet to be finalized.
However, it is expected that voters in Kosovo's 30 municipalities will choose local councils, which in turn would select a municipal president. If all goes well, elections for Kosovo-wide positions are likely next year.
Although the powers of the local administrations will be limited, the election will be a key test of the U.N.'s capability of building democracy in Kosovo. It will also test the ethnic Albanian community's commitment to democracy and gauge the influence of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic over the dwindling Serb minority.
Previous elections in Kosovo were either considered invalid by Yugoslav authorities or were manipulated, first by the Communists and later by Milosevic's government.
As of Thursday, a total of 879,137 of the province's estimated 1.9 million people have registered, presenting themselves at 196 local centers where inspectors verify their right of residence and other qualifications.
Officials from the OSCE, which is supervising the election, said Serb participation has been low. For example, in four Serb municipalities -- Zubin Potok, Zvecan, Strpce and Novo Brdo -- no one had registered as of Thursday. In the largest Serb enclave of Kosovska Mitrovica, less than two hundred Serbs are believed to have registered.
On Friday, Everts met with representatives of all remaining Serb communities -- including hard-liners and moderates -- urging them to encourage registration so that Serbs could take part in the political life of the province.
However, the Serbs turned him down.
"We are refusing to register because we have no security, freedom of movement, legal security and what's the most important -- there's no return of Serbs," said Oliver Ivanovic, leader of the Kosovska Mitrovica Serbs.