A First Step
Kosovo's first parliamentary elections since NATO's bombing campaign are marked by enthusiasm among the region's ethnic Albanians, but many people still feel despondent about the future. by Martin Ehl 21 November 2001
DJAKOVICA, Kosovo--Dressed in their best suites and dresses, Kosovars have been queuing since early morning in front of polling stations in Djakovica (known in Albanian as Gjakova), an industrial city of 100,000 inhabitants, to vote in the province's first parliamentary elections since the NATO bombing campaign in 1999.
A woman casts her vote in Kosovo's parliamentary elections.
Photo by Lubomir Kotek. Courtesy of the OSCE.
"We're voting for independence," laugh two dark-haired girls in black dresses in front of the polling station at the Hajdar Dushi high school in the center of Djakovica. In the morning, there was a queue about 100 meters long; by afternoon interest had waned.
The streets are quiet. "Everything's going smoothly," international election monitors whisper into walkie-talkies. Only the more prominent than usual presence of red-and-black Albanian flags indicate that this is election day.
The Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which organized the elections, had insisted that all flags, except United Nations ones, be kept at least 100 meters away from polling stations. But there was some confusion, as local election committees apparently received instructions that flags could be displayed on the buildings, but not in the polling stations. In the end, international observers largely turned a blind eye, and many polling stations are decked out in the red-and-black flags.
The message of the flags is as stark and simple as the message communicated by Kosovar Albanian politicians during the relatively uneventful 45-day election campaign: independence, and as soon as possible.
THE FAVORITES WIN
As expected, the favorites--author and veteran politician Ibrahim Rugova and his Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK)--sailed easily to victory, although with less support than expected. The LDK relied on its traditionally high popularity in the province and did virtually no campaigning.
"I voted for Rugova, because he was the first," says an old lady in a brown fur coat in front of the high school building. Rugova, a former dissident, was the head of the parallel Kosovar Albanian political structures during the 1990s under the repressive regime of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. But his support has deteriorated over the past year, after his party won local elections in October 2000 and local politicians failed to deliver on their promises.
Other Kosovar Albanian parties, which share the same goal--independence--spent more money on canvassing materials, billboards, and rallies. The most active was the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, which is led by Ramush Haradinaj, a former guerilla field commander and a good organizer.
"His program is very good and clever," says Visar Lluka, the executive director of a small Djakovica-based company that produces firefighting equipment. But the party's liberal program, which some international observers have described as "realistic," gained only about 10 percent of the vote.
Independence is unlikely, however. On 19 November, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, rebuffed independence plans and said that the new parliament would have to respect a UN resolution that allows autonomy but not independence.
The parliament will give the province a greater degree of self-rule, and UN influence should wane. "From the beginning of next year we will be reducing our staff, and powers and responsibilities will be transferred to newly established institutions," says one high-ranking UN official who asked not to be named. Up until now, it has been easy for ethnic Albanian politicians to use the international administration as an excuse for stifled progress.
Once the new parliament convenes, that will change. Kosovar Albanians will have to create new institutions and start to govern themselves. "This is very historic day for Kosovo," says Avdullah Qafani, a surgeon and vice president of the municipality of Djakovica. "But there is a long road ahead."
But enthusiasm for independence is tempered by widespread despondency. "I will go to Canada," a porter at a bus station in the city of Pec (Peja in Albanian) says simply. "I do not expect anything new."
Meanwhile, for the province's Serbs, there remains little hope within Kosovo. There are still about 600 Serbs in Orahovac (Rahovac) in western Kosovo. Although the visible checkpoints and barriers were cleared about three weeks ago, the local Serbian community is under 24-hour watch by German KFOR soldiers.
Serbs complain that they do not have freedom of movement, they cannot work, and they are dependent on humanitarian aid. Many feel betrayed and lost and are leaving Kosovo, their property ransacked, damaged, abandoned, or sold off cheaply to ethnic Albanians.
The international community and government in Belgrade fought hard to persuade Kosovar Serbs to participate in the elections. About 170,000 Serbs boycotted the local elections last year; of them, only about half remain in Kosovo today. This year, just over half of Kosovar Serbs ignored the call from Belgrade to vote.
"We cannot go anywhere," complains one man from Orahovac. "It is as if we were in a concentration camp."
Most are afraid to leave their quarter, and if somebody needs complicated medical treatment, they must be escorted by KFOR troops to the nearest Serbian hospital, about 100 kilometers away.
"We have electricity just three hours a day," complains an older Serbian voter named Aleksandar in front of a stockpile of wood being prepared to heat the local polling station. "We have a space of just 500 meters. I voted for a better future."
Only eight old Serbian women remain in Djakovica. Near Pec there are some protected villages. Serbs are afraid of moving around without protection, and ethnic Albanians have made it clear that they are prepared for revenge, though they don't say so directly.
Arif, an ethnic Albanian from Pec, says he remembers how Serbian police officers beat him in the past, how his Serbian neighbor came at him with a Kalashnikov assault rifle and told his family to leave. "For me, it does not matter, they can come back," he says. Arif knows it is not politically correct to tell foreigners he wants revenge, but his face and eyes tell a different story.