PRISTINA – A million Kosovars will go to the polls on Saturday to vote for a parliament which will elect a president and government of the Republic of Kosova. While the republic might already exist in their minds, it is not yet a state entity in the southern Balkans, recognized as such by the international community. A year and a half ago, Kosovars elected their mayors; now ethnic Albanians are acquiring an executive and legislative authority which will rule on all issues apart from foreign policy, security and defense, which remain under the jurisdiction of the UN civil administration. The institutions are being prepared, in other words, for the declaration of an independent state, a goal people and political leaders have been working feverishly toward ever since the day the Serbs were thrown out of Kosovo with the help of the West. First legal parliament The election, held by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), is for 120 deputies, 10 of whom must be Serbs and as many again from the other minorities – Turks, Roma, Bosnians and others – to constitute the first legal parliament of Kosovars. These will elect the president of the republic and the government, which will form nine ministries, two of which must be headed by Serbs, while the ministries of foreign policy, defense and security will be led by the UN civil administration, underlining the nature of the international protectorate imposed on post-war Kosovo. Barring the unexpected, Kosovo’s Serbs will be voting in Saturday’s election, monitored by OSCE observers not only in their enclaves but also in Serbia, where the vast majority of Kosovo’s Serbs have taken refuge. Common goal Opinion polls give Ibrahim Rugova a clear majority with over 50 percent of the vote, but that is of little importance for the average Kosovar. No matter which party wins, the top priority for all of them is Kosovo’s independence. This has been the main reason for the moderate climate that has prevailed during the campaign, unprecedented in the annals of Albanian politics. Party supporters attended rallies (that nearly always began with the Albanian national anthem) above all to hear the party leaders preach the goal of independence. Voters are less interested in measures to fight unemployment (at over 70 percent) or the organized crime that is rampant. The heady feeling of victory against one’s longstanding enemy is still prevalent in Kosovo, where people are not only surviving without working, but building homes, buying cars and filling pizza parlors and cafes, paying with money from smuggling, emigrant remittances and the wages of UNMIK, the local UN organization. What will happen afterward? The world will be closely watching the elections, not so much for the results that are expected to swing heavily in favor of Rugova, but as to what will follow. Last week, Ambassador Alexandros Malias commuted between Belgrade, Pristina and Skopje as a personal emissary of Foreign Minister George Papandreou and met with the leaders of Kosovo’s Albanians and Bishop Artemios of Kosovo. According to diplomatic sources, Malias made clear to the Albanian leaders the European Union’s commitment to the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1244, underlining that any infringements of that resolution could affect stability in Kosovo as well as in southern Serbia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), where there is an uneasy situation. Independence Ethnic Albanian politicians nevertheless declare that they are determined to promote independence as a top priority, viewing it as the only way to consolidate stability in the region. People have to understand that consolidating permanent peace, security and stability in the Balkans is linked to the independence of Kosovo. That is something everyone has to realize, Hashim Thaqi, the former political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), told Kathimerini. Rugova, meanwhile, has declared that as soon as he is elected president, his government will send diplomatic missions to all Western capitals. We are absolutely certain that the international community will satisfy our demand for independence. I cannot tell you if that will take five or 10 years, but it will happen. It is all Kosovars are working toward. The protectorate status is nothing more than a transitional stage, Kol Berisha, the vice president of Rugova’s Democratic League of Kosovo, told us. When we asked whether this would open the way for the dissolution of Bosnia or the secession of Montenegro, he disingenuously replied: Well, what’s wrong with that? Montenegro Observers in Pristina, Belgrade and in Brussels are monitoring the elections in Kosovo with one eye on Montenegro, which they see as a knotty problem in further developments that might have a negative effect on the fragile status quo in the western Balkans. They say that if the referendum scheduled for spring approves Montenegro’s secession – a strong possibility – then there will no longer be a Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, of which Kosovo is considered a part, according to Security Council Resolution 1244 approved at the end of the war in 1999. In that case, they claim that 1244 will be invalid, since it will refer to a federation that will no longer exist and therefore Kosovo will legitimately be able to consider itself an independent state. A leading Kosovar official questioned on this issue by Kathimerini, said on condition of anonymity that it would be an extremely interesting development that might just solve all our problems. But is the international community ready to accept an independent Kosovo and two co-joined Albanian states, with the risk of destabilizing FYROM, southern Serbia and Bosnia? ‘Velvet divorce’ Some analysts claim that independence in Kosovo is a matter of time and even predict that the divorce from Serbia – whose new leaders realize that Belgrade’s complete sovereignty over Kosovo is a thing of the past – will be a painless one, part of a general settlement of borders in the western Balkans, which is in any case unstable. There are even voices being raised in the international community in favor of a peaceful settlement of borders in the region, aimed at averting an even worse eventuality and to restore peace. The West is giving the impression that it does not know how to resolve the Kosovo issue in the long term. For the time being, it is trying to put off a final resolution, monotonously reiterating its commitment to Resolution 1244 on advanced autonomy within Yugoslavia and, meanwhile, facilitating conditions for independence under the pretense of helping the Kosovars govern themselves. This is what is being said in public. In private, officials say, Wait and See when asked for their predictions for Kosovo, given that everything points to the likelihood that the third Yugoslav federation will not last long, particularly as developments in Afghanistan have deflected the West’s attention away from the smoldering situation in the Balkans. The parties running for office Over 30 parties are taking part in the elections, of which three have hopes of getting the support of a large sector of the electorate. These are the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), headed by Ibrahim Rugova, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) led by Hashim Thaqi, which is promoting the popular poet Flora Brovina, who was imprisoned during the war with the Serbs, for president. The third party is the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) led by Ramush Haradinaj, one of the leading cadres in the KLA. The OSCE is responsible for holding the elections and has been training 2,000 observers in Pristina and Serbia. The election campaign, mainly consisting of party rallies and media debates, has not unduly disturbed social or economic life. There have been no reports of incidents or fanatical outbursts, apart from the murder of an associate of Ibrahim Rugova, although it is not yet clear whether the motive was political. The parties all have equal time on the one state and two private television channels and voters will not be marking candidate preferences. The ‘Gandhi of the Balkans’ expected to win major battle Election favorite Ibrahim Rugova is likely to be the first president of free Kosovo, whose leader will have to speed up the process of promoting his fellow-countrymen’s vision of independence. War heroes Hashim Thaqi, Ramush Haradinaj, Jakup Krasniqi and other KLA commandants do not appear to have made the transition to politics successfully in the eyes of their fellow Kosovars, even after leading the armed liberation struggle and coming down from the mountains wearing halos of glory. Two years later What has changed in the two years since the war to make the ethnic Albanians turn their backs on those who threw out the Serbs by taking what turned out to be the correct path of conflict, in contrast to Rugova’s policy of passive resistance? When we put the question to Thaqi, he hedged with the generalization that the people of Kosovo decide in a democratic fashion. Haradinaj hinted that a more experienced politician was able to deceive voters. The analyst and journalist Nehat Islami attributes Rugova’s success in the municipal elections and his predicted victory in the parliamentary election to the fact that the other parties, which are new, do not have the necessary campaign experience and made mistakes that were exploited by the more experienced Rugova. Yet this is not enough to explain the triumphant return of the Gandhi of the Balkans, who had been considered finished even by the West, during and after the end of the war. Perhaps rumors of the KLA officers’ post-victory behavior have something to do with it. In Albanian society, news travels fast. For example, in Pristina and in every village in Kosovo, it is common knowledge that a number of KLA officials have reaped the benefits of victory by dabbling in smuggling, which is financially supporting a large sector of the political leadership. Nor is it any secret that Thaqi’s brother was freed after being arrested when weapons and a few million Deutschemarks were found in his car. Then there are the godfathers who have been looting the stores of Pristina, as well as several prominent slave traders. The image of the hero cultivated by the KLA’s leaders has begun to wear thin and even though Thaqi has so far displayed considerable moderation and political maturity, the public’s confidence appears to lean toward Rugova as a safe and sure solution, despite the fact that, according to some critics, his political ingenuity is not equal to his passion for power. And the Serbs live in ghettos An unusual kind of commerce has recently been going on in the northern Kosovo town of Podujevo, on the border with Serbia. Albanian and Serb lawyers and notaries public have been furiously drawing up contracts for the sale of homes and fields. Serbs chased out of Kosovo into Serbia are selling their homes to Albanians at exorbitant prices. Those who are selling are saying goodbye forever to Kosovo, leaving behind about 120,000 of their fellow Serbs who have elected to stay in enclaves – little more than ghettos – rather than become refugees. Belgrade’s new leadership, although realizing that any real link with Serbia is no longer feasible, does not want to lose its national rights to the cradle of the nation, as they see Kosovo. So that it should not appear to have been abandoned by Serbia as a lost cause, they are encouraging Serbs to stay. In this troubled corner of the Balkans, things have come full circle several times. Why not once more? President Vojislav Kostunica has asked the Serbs remaining in Kosovo, as well as all of the approximately 180,000 who have fled to Yugoslavia, to vote in the elections, whether in the enclaves or at polling booths set up by the OSCE in Serbia. Most will probably do so. It will do less harm if we participate than if we stay away, said Bishop Artemios of Kosovo and president of the Serbs’ National Council. He accused the international community of continuing to tolerate violence by ethnic Albanians against his fellow Serbs. Indeed, despite the efforts of the international community, the Serbs remained trapped in five enclaves, protected by armed KFOR units. In order to leave the enclaves, they have to have an armed military guard and are even attacked within the ghettos. There are no channels of communication between the two sides. The Serbs say there is a terrorist plot under way, tolerated by KFOR and UNMIK, to completely rid Kosovo of its Serb population. On the other hand, ethnic Albanian politicians declare that they want to live with the Serbs in a multicultural Kosovo. We will do everything in our power to allow Serbs to circulate freely throughout the whole of Kosovo, Thaqi told Kathimerini. The vice president of Rugova’s party, Kol Berisha, was more optimistic. Soon Serbs will be living better in Kosovo than in Serbia, he said. The Albanians claim that only those who have committed crimes have anything to fear. But who is to decide what is the definition of a crime? Let us not forget that Kosovo is a very small place and we all know each other,commented Nehat Islami, a member of the institute for alternative journalism in Pristina. What crime could a 95-year-old man, a woman or a 12-year-old child have committed that you would want to kill them? asked Bishop Artemios. As Kosovo moves toward independence, the Serbs in their enclaves are perhaps the greatest obstacle for the ethnic Albanians. The truth is that when talking to people in the street, the general view is that Serbs would be better off going home so that we can be rid of them once and for all.