AIM: start

SUN, 11 NOV 2001 01:09:55 GMT

Belgrade and the Kosovo Elections

How Many Serbs Will Follow the Advice of the Serbian Authorities?

Despite the assessment of Vojislav Kostunica, as well as of the Federal and Serbian Governments that going to the polls would be the lesser of the two evils, the participation of Serbs is just as uncertain now, two weeks before the general elections in Kosovo and Metohija, which the international community has scheduled for November 17, as it was three months ago. In the end, everyone will have to decide for himself.

AIM Beograd, November 5, 2001

As far as the elections in Kosovo and Metohija are concerned, this summer was marked by the registration of voters, a process initiated by UNMIK last year, which the Kosovo Serbs joined in after a long period of indecision and only after Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and Patriarch Pavle invited them to do so. It seems that the result was surprising for all interested parties: the response of almost 180 thousand Serbs of age was much below Belgrade's real political influence on "Kosovo affairs", but proportionately higher than the number UNMIK and the international community assumed would "represent a multi-ethnic sample" of voters. Naturally, neither side spoke openly about its expectations.

While "encouraging" Serbs to register, Belgrade persistently repeated that the registration did not represent either a census, or an obligation of participating in the "Albanian elections". On the other hand, as November 17 drew closer, the pressure of the international community on Belgrade to make Kosovo Serbs take part in the elections increased. Until early October, the DOS officials (more or less in unison) repeated that conditions for the participation in the elections had not been created because the international community and civil administration, supported by some 40 thousand soldiers, failed to ensure security and freedom of movement, did nothing for the return of refugees and finding of 1,300 missing persons, while at the same time denied the Yugoslav and Serbian authorities the right to do anything in Kosovo and Metohija.

The "reserve position" in fundamentally justified refusal of the Yugoslav/Serbian authorities to unreservedly "encourage" participation in the November 17 elections, was disclosed with the registration of a mysterious coalition "Return" (Povratak). A confused explanation of the registration of this coalition (which mostly leaders of smaller DOS-member parties gave either in agreement or on their own) boiled down to claims that by deciding at the last moment to run in the elections, the Serbs could not allow themselves the luxury of doing that with several different lists and thus more than halve the theoretically possible number of deputies (38 out of 120) to the Parliament of Kosovo and Metohija.

It would be no exaggeration to call this explanation "confused", since the Serbs who have remained in Kosovo (in several smaller enclaves, in the northern part of Kosovska Mitrovica and further up to the North of Kosovo and Metohija) are mostly in favour of participating in the elections. More precisely, the local Serbian leaders disagree on this issue on various grounds: some mention fear for bare survival and safety of life; others argue that Serbs would be forced to cooperate with "occupiers" one way or the other for a long time to come; while still others have ideas on establishing parallel authorities, same as those which the Kosovo Albanians so successfully developed in the last two decades. Consequently, the latest most important task of Nebojsa Covic, chief of Federal-Serbian Coordinating Centre for Kosovo and Metohija, was to bring under control the radicalism of the local Serbian leaders, including Momcilo Trajkovic, his colleague from the Federal Committee for Kosovo and Metohija. Their "reconciliation" was filmed by TV cameras, but that did not make it any more convincing.

Having secured with great difficulty some agreement between the Kosovo Serbs and the Belgrade "headquarters", Nebojsa Covic also had to face the increasingly intensified pressure of the international community, i.e. its representative personified in Hans Haekkerup with whom, as it seems, he was unable to establish rapport from the very beginning. Just like all other international institutions and organisations in Kosovo and Metohija, Haekkerup is faced with poor or no results in two-year reconstruction and development of "multi-ethnic Kosovo". The fact that the status of Serbs and not of other non-Albanian communities has moved to the forefront can be equally attributed to Belgrade and the international factor. However, for the time being Belgrade's arguments in listing all omissions of the international community are more convincing than the "excuses" its representatives in Pristina have been able to offer so far. It thus happened that as November 17 drew closer and after several Covic-Haekkerup meetings (in which the latter imposed the problem of "parallel (Serbian) authorities" in the northern part of Kosovska Mitrovica as the main subject) the question of Serbian participation in the elections became a pressing problem. In other words, both sides are aware that a significant turn-out of Serbian voters (after the registration of 180 thousand voters the proportions of this "significance" have considerably increased) would give the elections the legitimacy that could be proclaimed one of the rare achievements of the international community in Kosovo and Metohija.

On October 23, three weeks before the elections, after analysing the results of 28 months of UNMIK's operations, including the fact that out of 226 thousand exiled persons from Kosovo and Metohija only 126 Serbs have returned, Governments of Serbia ad Yugoslavia adopted a declaration requesting UNMIK to ensure the security, freedom of movement and resolution of 1,300 cases of kidnapped and missing Serbs. In reply, Hans Haekkerup said that the declaration would be taken into consideration only after Belgrade started to implement UN SC Resolution 1244 (?), recognised Provisional Constitutional Framework, the authority of UNMIK and KFOR and accepted the work of provisional authorities in Kosovo. Two days later, Haekkerup's meeting with Vojislav Kostunica and representatives of the Federal and Serbian Governments did not produce an agreement. According to Nebojsa Covic's statement given after the meeting, one of controversial issues was the interpretation of Resolution 1244 which, according to him, "is clear regarding territorial sovereignty and integrity" of Yugoslavia and Serbia; Haekkerup assessed the talks as extremely hard, adding that he did not agree with representatives of Yugoslav and Serbian authorities regarding the "description of the situation" in Kosovo. Federal Minister of National and Ethnic Communities Rasim Ljajic called Haekkerup's offer for the cooperation of international community with the Yugoslav authorities as "too general" to represent a basis on which Serbs could be invited to turn out for the elections. Some time later, in one of her statements the spokesperson for UNMIK, Susan Manuel, mentioned the undoubtedly most sensitive issue of elections by saying that "interested states" would be deciding on the future status of Kosovo and Metohija, whatever that may mean.

At several subsequent meetings in Belgrade and Pristina no results were achieved nor moves made that either of the sides could, at least out of courtesy, call progress. Just before the "last" Belgrade continuation of negotiations on a joint document on November 2, pressure on the Yugoslav side increased in the form of two separate, although almost identical letters that the American and French Presidents, as well as the British Prime Minister addressed to Vojislav Kostunica. All three of them insisted on the participation of the Kosovo Serbs in the elections. They would not and did not support the violation of Resolution 1244 in any form. Addressing the public in early morning hours of November 3, Vojislav Kostunica also mentioned other similar letters received from European capitals, as well as his phone conversation with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan earlier that evening as guarantees of the international community that the newly-elected Parliament of Kosovo and Metohija would have no authority to change the Province's state-legal status.

Several-hours long negotiations of UNMIK expert teams and Vojislav Kostunica's talks with Hans Haekkerup finally resulted in an agreement on a number of issues, but not on the most controversial problem of the security of Serbs, local police and the judicial system. Since the joint document was not signed the negotiations would be continued. At a joint session held late at night between November 2 and 3, Governments of Serbia and Yugoslavia agreed that despite everything it would be better for Serbs to participate in the November 17 elections. This was obviously no call for participation, nor "encouragement" of voters which the international community insisted on. It seems that Belgrade will not make a bigger gesture before the signing of a joint document of the Yugoslav authorities.

In the evening of November 3, Vojislav Kostunica revealed some details from his long meetings held the previous day. According to him, Hans Haekkerup was responsible for the interruption of talks on the remaining controversial issues: command police responsibility and composition of the local police and judicial authorities in the Serbian enclaves in Kosovo and Metohija. He confirmed having had second conversation with UN Secretary General, i.e. having obtained Kofi Annan's promise that negotiations on disputable issues would be continued irrespective of the fact that Belgrade had "encouraged" Kosovo Serbs to turn out for the elections and thus legitimised them irrespective of the turn-out. Pointing out that in their affairs, KFOR and UNMIK were guided by fear from Albanian extremists and terrorists more than by provisions of the UN Security Council Resolution 1244, Kostunica assessed that the positive balance of talks held so far represented the ruling out of a possibility for the newly-elected Parliament to decide on the state status of Kosovo, which was also a clear message sent to extremists among the Macedonian Albanians. Also, the Agreement was the first act in which UNMIK and the international community would explicitly accept Belgrade as its negotiating partner and collaborator in the implementation of Resolution 1244; a joint commission which would follow the Agreement's implementation should make this interpretation more convincing.

No one really knows what will happen on November 17. A wave of relief, satisfaction and congratulations from abroad because of the decision of Yugoslav and Serbian Governments to recommend to Kosovo Serbs to participate in the elections was also followed by no less influential wave of local rejection of this recommendation. First opinion polls of exiled Kosovo Serbs showed equal degree of unwillingness to vote for "Shqipetars" and ignorance of the basic technical details of the procedure. It seems that the remaining Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija are mostly against participating in the elections.

In that sense, no one, including Hans Haekkerup (who already made a slip by trying to "comfort" relatives of some 1,300 missing persons by saying that they were dead anyway) can disregard the fact that during 28 months of KFOR's and UNMIK's control over Kosovo the number of killed Serbs is several times higher than the number of returnees. Nevertheless, the fact that as of November 3, Belgrade has "recognised" the coming elections represents a strong argument in the hands of the international community: even in developed democracies low turnout of the electorate does not call into question this fundamental democratic institution. The elections will neither be jeopardised by the assessment of the Belgrade Centre for Free and Democratic Elections (CeSID) - which has 800 accredited observers in Kosovo and Metohija - that OSCE preparations have not made the control of voting lists and the procedure of determining the electoral results transparent to the extent required by Europe.

Basically expected, but nevertheless somewhat extorted Belgrade's decision to "encourage" the Kosovo Serbs to go to the polls on November 17 - irrespective of Kostunica's statement that it "was not made under the pressure of the international community, but under the pressure of reality" - will, in the coming months, enable the Yugoslav authorities to dedicate themselves to some other, equally important issues, with less strain and greater understanding of the international community. Among others, those are: problems with debt rescheduling, survival of the federal state and of ruling coalitions. Many more elections, referenda and "pressures of the reality" are ahead of Yugoslavia, Montenegro, Serbia and, for the time being, Vojvodina too. But, that's quite another story.

Aleksandar Ciric